That casual business ethic can be a mixed blessing, however. Out-of-towners seeking rural pleasures enjoy the personal relationships they have with builders, but it can be difficult pinning down builders on price and getting documentation on change orders, says Bruce Norelius, AIA, a former partner at Elliot Elliot Norelius Architecture, who recently moved from Maine to Los Angeles to establish Bruce Norelius Studio. In his experience, even work on sophisticated houses is routinely invoiced with nothing more than a slip of paper with a sum written on it each month. Maine's boat-building tradition yields an enviable supply of expert craftsmen, but tough winters and a laid-back culture mean projects progress at a slower pace. “It's rare you'd see a project under construction without gaps where people are on site,” Norelius says. “That can be hard on the owners; in cities there's an economic pressure for things to happen.”
In that way, a country practice can be an appealing counterpoint to a city office. Many developing rural areas operate on a slow burn, and thus have avoided the real-estate roller coaster that consumed highly populated regions. And the problems rural areas face, such as emerging land use codes and lack of infrastructure, are different from in cities. “You have a small village without a sewer system. They want to develop economically but don't want a strip mall,” says Dennis Wedlick, AIA, who oversees offices in Manhattan and Columbia County, N.Y. “Clients don't have in-house capabilities to deal with it, and we can bring our experiences with larger developers to the countryside. It's very satisfying.”
Wedlick's rural projects range from a 400-acre agriculture community to single-family homes, and he tells potential clients that no project is too small. This isn't Manhattan, however, and to accommodate limited budgets without lowering his fees, he asks clients to do more of the legwork themselves, such as researching setbacks and neighboring parcels, showing them how to structure their tasks so the information he gets is clear and actionable.
“The other benefit of working in rural areas is that you can form strong relationships with people who really care about building, because they've been community members for a long time,” Wedlick says. “They see each other at the farmers' market and at church and have a personal commitment to the project.”
As it turns out, that quality isn't just sentimental; it can foster real change. A small community might be judged as a backwater, but innovative planning ideas can be implemented more easily because the community is a manageable size. And people with a progressive vision can get things done without so much NIMBY pushback because they're known in the community. An example is Ross Chapin's Third Street Cottages, a landmark project that doubled Langley's allowable density and paved the way for new zoning codes. “Other cities around the region looked at it and said, ‘Maybe we could try this,'” Chapin says. “We were able to do it because it's a small town, engaged in creating policies with a group of people who know each other.” (For more on Chapin, click here.)
In Langley, the number of transplants and old-timers is evenly split, Chapin says. Like most residents, he's made his living there, building a practice from the ground up by cheerfully engaging the community. He accepted odd design jobs—a stairway to the beach, help with the community theater. He volunteered with a local nonprofit, sat on the library board, and helped found Langley's first Design Review Board. On large projects, he'd be the local specialist, teaming up with Seattle architects to provide the right fit.
Thirty years later, Chapin's career has taken him well beyond Whidbey Island, yet he's as committed to it as ever. “When you engage in the community, you meet the people, and they get to know you and see your interests, skills, and integrity, and then you're asked to design something,” he says. “In many ways, we're here to serve the community, not to have monuments made to us. It's not the place for big egos, but the place to be helpful.”