how small is too small? – a message to architects

image courtesy of

image courtesy of

Recently I wrote a post speaking to clients about “small projects”. In the writing of that post I realized that it’s not just clients that need to be educated, but architects as well. I see, and have been part of, many conversations floating around various forums and other blogs about how the profession is being pushed out by contractors and engineers and “designers” (read: unlicensed architects) and how the built environment is suffering, blah blah blah. The reality is not that architects are being pushed out, but rather are pushing themselves out.

“But how can this be!?” you ask?

Simple. Many architects TURN DOWN work that is “too small”. And so clients who recognize the need for help in design and detailing are left to seek out anyone else willing and able to help them. Enter willing contractors and “designers” who will reinforce the client’s opinion that “you don’t need an architect” because they (the contractor/designer) can just “get it done”.

We, the architects, need to put off some of our pride and take chances on smaller projects for smaller clients if we are ever going to truly change the built environment and the quality of the work being built in it. And I know all the arguments:

“Architects can’t work for free.”
“It’s not worth the time and liability to take on such a small project for such a small fee that will just suck time out of my life.”
“The fee that a client would pay me would be better spent on improving the project itself.”
-Insert your own random whiny argument here-

And I say bollocks. These arguments are uttered in the same breath with complaints about contractors and engineers taking on the role of the architect in the very projects that actual architects are turning down. See the conundrum here? I believe behavioral psychologists call this a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. We are enabling and encouraging the very situations we are arguing against.

So, “architects can’t work for free”. This is true. But then we don’t have to charge a full fee for all projects either. Do we deserve to get paid for our time? Yes. Is our time worth the same amount on every project, say a kitchen remodel versus a master suite addition or a new residence? No. We can adjust and tailor our fee structures to accommodate these smaller projects to make them enticing to potential clients.

“It’s not worth the time and liability.” Again, bollocks. It’s worth our time because it is worth having an impact on a project that will improve someone’s life. That sounds very utopian and naive. But the truth is we all felt and thought that way not so long ago. The idealism of our youth while in college should not be lost or tossed aside for practice. The truth is liability is negligible (i.e. all those untrained, unlicensed “professionals” practicing architecture successfully). The time is always an issue whether the project is 100 square feet or 100,000 square feet. Work smarter, not harder.

“The fee that a client would pay me (the architect) would be better spent improving the project.” Bollocks. Bollocks and more Bollocks. The services of a architect on a project adds value whether it’s a bathroom renovations, garage addition or roof replacement, even if it’s just a consultation fee.

The bottom line is you don’t want to be bothered with some small fee from a small client for a small project. Instead you want the big fee from a big client for the big project. In the meantime potential clients are passing you by left and right. 10 small projects worth $10,000 each are much more valuable than 1 project worth $100,000. Think about it. And get back to work!

11 thoughts on “how small is too small? – a message to architects

  1. Excellent point of view! I keep talking about this issue at the office (currently in Puerto Rico) and it is the same bollocks all over again. I don’t get it. Totally agree with you.

  2. “Is our time worth the same amount on every project, say a kitchen remodel versus a master suite addition or a new residence? No.”

    I would say that “yes” our time is worth the same regardless of the project just that all projects will not require the same amount of time, energy, creativity, etc. and thus the same amount of money to execute. that is why we establish a fee structure for each project.

  3. “We are enabling and encouraging the very situations we are arguing against.” You make a great overall point. It’s not a simple for the small firm where energy goes into each project regardless of size. One more client, one more this, one more that. You know the arguments. I’ve wrestled with this for eleven years and I’m coming up with more questions than answers. I don’t have a definitive position yet, but having this conversation is crucial and critical to finding any answers. Maintaining mental energy for all of these projects take more effort than the physical energy. My rambling demonstrates my search for an answer, yet perhaps that’s really unimportant.

  4. I posted this on Google+ in response to another’s comment.

    A year ago I would have wholeheartedly agreed with the premise of this post. After this past year with doing some of these “smaller” projects, a few things arose that make me 1) gun shy 2) disinterested and 3) unsure how to do them without losing. Therefore, my questions remain.

    Will architecture continue if we pass on these projects?

    I suppose we’ll find out. And just for the record, these projects exist in the commercial world too. It seems they get overlooked or since a professional’s stamp is required (almost always), these get picked up more than the small residential addition.

    I still believe it’s a good conversation to have.

    • “Will architecture continue?” Certainly it will. But then, so will the builder and the developer and the speculator and the homeowner.
      As I’ve just finished commenting on Bob’s recent comment, this is a systemic problem in the profession. For decades we’ve pulled ourselves back from these small projects and left a void. That void is being filled by others willing to do the work. Sometimes they get it right, but a lot of the time they don’t.
      A perfect case is a pool house I just finished drawings for. Total effort on my part is about 50+ hours. Small fee, small time commitment (relative). The client came to us after being in their home for a few years. They pulled the plan from a stock set, made some “minor” modifications and had it built by a local builder. After a few years in the house they realized just how much they got wrong by not having an architect to help them make decisions because the builder simply followed instructions. The builder had no way of offering advice either during planning or construction to help them. So, when they wanted to build this pool house for their family they immediately sought out help and found us (thank God). And thanks to the time I’ve spent working with them (again not much) they see the value in that service, in that expense, and will tell others and come back in the future. Win Win.

  5. Okay, We all seem to know one another and you know I think highly of you (I actually try and refer work to you so … so please keep that in mind as you read my comment)

    I don’t buy the premise of your argument – that architects are damaging themselves by being selective about the projects they take on. As someone who now owns their own business, I am particularly sensitive about the projects I take on in the office. I have a fiscal responsibility for the financial well-being of my employees and their families and I can’t just donate my fees to some small project because if I don’t someone else is going to do it for less and they won’t do as good a job as I would. This is a terrible business model – what other professional services provider would do this? We charge hourly on all our residential projects so the total size doesn’t really matter to us, there is no “big kill” waiting for us because it’s a big project with a big fee – the hourly rate fee model is the great regulator. The truth is, there are bare minimum drawings that would be required to document what is needed to construct one of our projects and the time it takes to create those drawings is disproportionate to the total construction price of some addition projects.

    I don’t like that we are pricing ourselves out of the market but these small projects are not the issue. If you’re picking this fight, why not bring it to the speculation builder market? That’s the question I would be spending my time on – not the kitchen/bath remodels and the garage additions. I admire the fight in you, but I think you’re picking the wrong fight.

    • Bob, thank you for your comments and your point of view. I think you also know that I respect you incredibly as an architect and a professional who is genuinely concerned with your clients needs as well as producing quality architecture for the future.
      But, with all due respect, I’m taking this fight exactly where it needs to be and you’re comments only reinforce my point. You bring up several good points, and I won’t be able to address them nearly as completely as I’d like to here, but two things you refer to are worth pointing out:
      1) You mention “our work” and “our employees” and this is important. You, and your firm, are not the kind of architect that an average home owner could afford. Your work is too specialized, too custom, and more than likely too expensive. So, you’ve priced yourself out of a huge market. Nothing wrong with that. That’s your business and you’ve got to lead it the way you see most fit. But, it still makes you part of the problem, from my point of view.
      Now, one thing I’d like to say in reference to “our employees” is another problem that is rampant in the profession and that is experience for interns. Those interns you have need a vast amount of experience for IDP and just for their own general growth in practice. What better way to give them the priceless professional education they need than by taking on special small projects that they would be responsible for? Low liability, low fee, performed with minimal oversight. Just a thought.
      2) You mention the builder speculator. And this is an incredibly important point to bring up. I have talked about it before here (don’t ask me to find the link….it’s there….somewhere). But again, here, you reinforce my point. Builder Speculators are filling a void that is missing and not being provided by our profession. But, this is part of a much larger and more wide reaching problem. One of which is the complete ignorance of the general public.
      When I was involved with my local YAF chapter in Florida, we partnered with Habitat for Humanity to create a design competition to design homes based on their project costs to be built in a new neighborhood they were developing for low income families. As part of this they invited us to sit in on a focus group meeting, which they hold regularly for their builds to get a sense of where trends are in the middle class market. I know you can imagine how “eye opening” this was (read: I wanted to jump through the two-way glass and strangle them all). These participants were average people, working class Joe’s, exactly the sector that needs architects the most. But they make decisions of material, style, scale, etc based on nostalgia, or magazines or Architectural Digest (I just threw up a little bit). In other words they make decisions based on what is around them. And what is around them? Go outside. Look around. Have another look at your “Shudders” post. THAT is the housing stock that is out there. THAT is the built environment that shapes and determines 97% of the housing stock out there. And it’s being filled by the builder speculator or by developers. Where are the architects stepping up and stepping out to try and push themselves back in to this market? How did we get pushed out in the first place? It’s been a generational problem going back longer than any of us have been alive. It’s not one easy fix. It’s not one problem to point a finger at. But the only single solution is US.
      Hide behind whatever excuse you want. At the end of the day your practice will never be as successful as it can be if you’re not constantly trying to win new clients who have never had a reason to hire you who will pass on to other new clients what an amazing and educational experience they’ve had. How do I know this? Because in the last 18 months I’ve worked with multiple client’s who’ve never worked with an architect and never had a reason. But now they have a reason and they’ll come back because we took the time to show them the value in our services and how that impacts their daily life.

  6. What you are really arguing is should we (or must we) as architects take on all sizes of projects?

    To me that answer has to be maintained as a private choice on behalf of the architect.

    I don’t have a policy that states I cannot take on these types of projects. However, I have found that from a business standpoint (call me selfish), a select few of my past choices, in the spirit of your plea, have actually hurt me in the sense of time, fee and frustration. In my case I can only take on so much work at a time.

    The issue of our value should be taken out of the argument with this audience because it is self-evident. We can’t be considered super-heroes with a duty (like Superman) to come and rescue every construction project merely because we’ll do a better job.

    I love this passion in you and I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t continue with it. But I’m siding more with Bob on this one and that is ONLY after running my firm for 11 years and doing many of those projects that you are referencing. I’ve done all types all sizes for many wonderful people.

    But if I get to choose between projects (because of my firm size), then I have to choose what is the best fit for me under the circumstances at the time.

    I’d love to hear what others are thinking. This is a good conversation to have.

    • I fully understand yours and Bob’s opinion. And from a purely business stand I agree completely. It is incredibly frustrating to deal with smaller projects like middle class residential additions, renovations. Even more so in the historic preservation field, which I participate a lot in due to a lack of skilled craftsmen and contractor’s with any historical knowledge whatsoever.
      And, perhaps, I’m still an idealist. Perhaps I’m foolish for thinking the way that I do (I seem to be in an extreme minority), and that’s ok. It’s also ok to choose your clients and projects based on the best fit for your firm. That is as it should be. But there are architects out there with the patience and the temperament to take on these very types of projects that I’ve been referring to, to work with the client, educate the client and then work with the contractors/builders to make sure that things are done right.
      Architecture, for me, is still a 24/7 passion. I take the long scenic route home every day because it takes me past one of our residential projects. There was no fee for CA, so the contractor is on his own. Which in this case is ok, because we trust the contractor. But I still drive by every day because I want to see the progress and make myself available should an issue arise. This is not billable time. This is my personal time.
      I’m not saying that architects like you and Bob are wrong. But I am pointing out the disconnect between architects and a huge sector of work that is out there for the taking. We simply don’t go after it. Of course there are reasons. There’s always a reason.

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