Usually, we devote our editorial pages to the work of established residential architects. Our cover stories and design features focus on practitioners who've amassed a substantial portfolio. Their architecture is polished, mature, or exemplary in some way. In our observation, it takes a good 10 years at the helm of a firm to build a body of work that really shows what you can do. The first years are a struggle to land small commissions, collect and pay bills, and raise the firm's profile among the media. Each successful remodel that grabs some attention means a bigger, more challenging project next time. Maybe toward the end of those 10 years, you've done some new custom homes that more closely reflect your sensibility. You've won a few design awards; your work has appeared in residential architect; you're on your way.

In this issue, we look at five fresh firms still very much absorbed in finding their way. They are talented; many have pretty portfolios built at other firms; all suffer acutely from growing pains. We decided to examine these start-ups, from years one through five, as a direct response to a request we received from a reader. "I love your magazine. It's full of great articles, and I always clip at least one to keep for future reference," wrote Clare Montechio of Red Maple Workshop Architecture in Petaluma, Calif., in a letter to the editor. "However, I have a bone to pick with you. As much as I love residential architect, I want to see more articles on people starting firms. My partner and I have been in business for almost four years and we're not sure if the trouble and tribulation we're going through is typical or abnormal."

Well, Clare (fine name you have, by the way), this issue's for you. And I highly suspect that after reading it, you'll discover your experiences are perfectly normal. Interestingly, the strongest lesson we learned from fledgling firms is that their problems are not unique to start-ups. Firms of all vintages grapple with getting paid promptly and in full. They constantly weigh the lucrative job against the artistically fulfilling one. They bog down in the day-to-day administration of a small business and bemoan the lack of time to draw. After all, that's why they started the firm in the first place, so they could design, stamp their name on the plans, and see the solid traces of their hand in the outcome. Architects have many doubts and fears, but they seldom question their ability to design something beautiful.

S. Claire Conroy - editorPhoto: Mark Robert Halper

Clare Montechio asked us to focus on firms where the principals hadn't worked for a "name firm" or taught on the side to balance the budget. Hmm. We haven't entirely complied with that request. Because, Clare, nearly everyone we talked to for the story said that those routes were the best ways to go. Making your mistakes and learning the ropes on someone else's dime is invaluable. But be strategic and ask to do some of the grunt administration work, too, such as client billing. Teaching on the side enables you to feed yourself and turn down the projects you shouldn't take. Architects who follow those routes find they're on the fast track to better clients, better work, and a better paycheck in the bank.

Questions or comments? Call me: 202.736.3312; write me: S. Claire Conroy, residential architect, One Thomas Circle, N.W., Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20005; or e-mail me: cconroy@hanleywood.com.