Beth Reader, AIA, and Chuck Swartz, AIA, LEED AP, co-principals of Reader & Swartz Architects, often fill that role in Winchester, Va., near the Blue Ridge Mountains. Like country doctors they are generalists, so as not to compete with larger, specialized firms in Washington, D.C., a hour and a half away. While half their work is for design-savvy city folks building a vacation home or moving to the country, when local people hire them, it's usually because they have a nut to crack: they need help making sense of an old house or a difficult site.
Life is simply easier in a small town, the married couple say. Their commute is almost nonexistent. Their kids go to the same school Swartz attended as a child and get dropped off at the office after school. With a smaller bureaucracy, building officials are more accessible and accommodating. “You're not so tempted to play hardball in a small place,” Swartz explains. “A contractor who does a poor job will see the client or the client's friends for the rest of his life at school functions or in the grocery store. There tends to be less tension than there could be.”
Likewise, marketing is super-local. Design awards are announced on the company website and in the local paper. Says Swartz: “We eat lunch out almost every day, because people run into us that way.”
One thing most young architects in major cities can't do is build their own house to use as a calling card. When Christian Brown moved to Jericho, Vt., four years ago (his wife took a job there), he designed and built a house on land with woods and a stream, near skiing and hiking trails. Still, it took awhile to establish a reputation. Architecture is a word-of-mouth business, especially in a small town, and that works against people just starting out. “This time a year ago I was thinking of leaving the state, but now I feel like I've turned the corner and it would be crazy for me to leave,” he says. “I'm suddenly getting called about work.”
What helped: joining local groups such as the home builder and remodelers associations. At the suggestion of a builder friend, this year Brown also joined Business Network International (BNI), which exposes him to a cross section of local professionals—lawyers, Realtors, bankers—who are good sources for referrals. Some clients also find him through the furniture he designs. But education remains a constant struggle. He's careful to spell out what architects and designers do in an information packet for prospective clients. And his fee proposal explains each work phase and its costs.
The story is similar in Beaufort, S.C., a coastal town of about 13,000 residents. “In small towns, people don't think about hiring an architect for small renovations as often as they do in a big city,” says Jane Frederick, AIA, LEED AP, Frederick + Frederick Architects, who moved there several years ago from the Washington, D.C., suburbs. To remind them, she writes a monthly column for a local newspaper on topics ranging from aging in place to designing a house for a hot, humid climate. Another challenge is attracting young interns, who tend to gravitate to big cities. And perhaps a tougher issue these days: Will she have a continuing pool of work to justify moving someone there from out of town?
The upside? “All of our custom projects are nice ones, because people have bought this beautiful piece of property and want to tie it to the land,” Frederick says. “People are moving here for the same reason we did—because it's beautiful. We're getting busier—not close to where we were two years ago, but it's picking up. I'm encouraged.”architecture is personal
Not so in Livingston, Mont., where the recession has shuttered many firms that catered to middle- and upper-middle-class clients, according to Lori Ryker, studioryker. Unlike large university towns, rural areas have fewer options for out-of-work architects, and the question becomes whether to try to eke out a living or move on. Fortunately for Ryker, out-of-state projects and work at the Artemis Institute she founded are taking up the slack. Before the recession, she says, architecture fees were comparable to those in cities, because much of her client base came from places such as California and Connecticut.
“What it comes down to is being clear about the advantages of where you're working, and turning the disadvantages into positive things,” Ryker says. Chief among those advantages in Montana, besides the sweeping natural landscape, is the abundance of enthusiastic craftspeople. Maybe they're not using CNC machines or sophisticated metals or resins, but they're creative with wood and steel and are interested in trying new things.
They also have a more realistic sense of cost. “I find they don't come at projects with an attitude of, How much will I charge? but of, How much time will it take?” says Ryker, who also has worked in New York City. “Certainly people everywhere can inflate a price, but there's more of a can-do attitude in small rural towns and a sense of let's-be-fair-and-reasonable. An agreement can occur on a handshake and over the phone.”