Yet a recent remodeling fiasco reflects the pressure architects feel to land work these days. When a neighborhood friend asked deFreitas to draw and permit a 200-square-foot master bedroom addition and kitchen redo at a bargain-basement price, deFreitas agreed. The project soured, though, when the client kept changing the design, a sub framed it incorrectly, and the inspector wouldn’t sign off. That meant redrawing the roof line and repermitting the plans for free. The client also chose a contractor who bid the job at $65,000. When costs swelled to $90,000—the price deFreitas had estimated—the clients were miffed. “They didn’t get much care from me and got screwed by the contractor,” he says. “It goes against my marketing ethic, which is to service the heck out of all my projects. There are bread-and-butter projects you take to keep going, but when the client is unhappy, it goes against what you’re trying to create as a brand.”

DeFreitas also laments the loss of time to reflect that larger fees offer. “I feel off-balance, because these tiny projects take my mind in different directions, and they all need love and attention,” he says. “Because budgets are modest, there’s room for only one big move, and the rest is the technical aspects of pulling it together. Although I’m extraordinarily busy, I wish I had bigger projects to sink my teeth into.”

Mark Larsen, AIA, knows the feeling. Rehkamp Larsen Architects in Minneapolis has always been comfortable sliding up and down the project scale, he says. But now the architects are working faster at the lower end, and the fee goes quickly. “There’s a speed to the work that I’m getting used to,” he says. “I sometimes worry about it a bit; we can be efficient but maybe there’s less invention. The contemplative process is not happening as much now.”

But one benefit of small jobs, Larsen says, is that they’re a nice size for the office’s younger architects, whose growing experience results in a more nimble team. He also welcomes the opportunity to shake up the firm’s portfolio, including pro bono work for a restaurant startup currently on the boards. “I’m not one to say, ‘Oh, this isn’t the way it used to be,’” Larsen says. “We’re excited about trying to figure out what the opportunities are, to do design where it’s needed.”

into the melting pot

In a clammy economy, firms are going a little farther down the road to stay busy. They’re inventing ways to stretch their skills and the project scope. To wring more fees from modest jobs, San Antonio–based Poteet Architects often negotiates design/build contracts. Several employees have construction and welding skills, experience that came in handy recently when the firm retrofitted a 320-square-foot shipping container for use as a guest house. (For more on this project, see Shelter Lab, page 81, in residential architect’s September/October 2010 issue.)

“We usually contribute something to whatever we design, such as a custom door handle that’s hard to source, so it’s not that unusual to expand that,” says principal Jim Poteet, AIA. “We’re very selective about design/build projects. Usually they’re done with repeat clients who know how we work. We’re stretching ourselves, but doing it in areas where we feel very comfortable.”

Design/build or not, Poteet scrutinizes small jobs to determine their value beyond the bottom line. Is it a good starter project, free of pitfalls so younger staff can get experience? Is it an intriguing puzzle? On a recent job, for example, Poteet had fun experimenting with the details of a new connector between a historic house and an adjacent modern house. One way to protect profits on low-fee jobs, he says, is to choose sophisticated clients who need less management, if possible, which often means avoiding those hiring an architect for the first time.