While some firms view withered budgets as a step back, Poteet reframes it as a founding value. “We want to base our marketing on providing really good service,” he says. “In some cases that means well-designed but not flashy, when the house itself is a star and the family just needs additional kitchen or closet space. I trace that back to my internship at KieranTimberlake, where it was always about a smart solution to a problem, not necessarily the showiest solution. We don’t mind being invisible sometimes, as long as the client is supremely satisfied.” And, he adds, “One of the nice things about small projects is that they move quickly; there’s satisfaction in the closure you get when it’s finished.”
Of course, small is relative. To E.J. Meade, AIA, principal at Arch11 in Boulder, Colo., a small house is 2,500 square feet, downsized from the 7,500-square-foot residences he’d been designing. Meade says that although his clients aren’t spending less per square foot, they want less square footage, carefully put together. “Designing a large house is like trying to carry a big water balloon,” Meade says. “There’s always some part of it falling out of your arms. Smaller plans are more architecturally precise, concept-driven, and clear throughout—that’s the upside.”
“Everyone has a different definition of a small project,” agrees Dallas architect Dan Shipley, FAIA, citing as evidence the architects of 150,000-square-foot schools who are now standing in line for 15,000-square-foot schools (a Shipley Architects sub-specialty). But he knows small, whether it’s a closet remodel for the daughter of a former client, or the staircase remodel currently on the boards. When low-fee fatigue sets in, Shipley reminds himself that the closet design, done 15 years ago, led to several additions to the clients’ primary home, plus award-winning work on their country house, some of which was published. “There were other projects like that, too,” he says. “You sign on for modest things because you sense they’re a good client who will be around for awhile.”
The firm’s construction arm also sustains it these days. Shipley just finished building a $100,000 front façade on a house for which he’d previously designed other additions. Combining the design and management fees can save clients money, too. “An old saying goes that when things are slow, you spend time sharpening your tools. An architect’s primary tool is his brain, and small projects give us an opportunity to be lean and efficient,” he says. “When the next house commission comes along, we think we’ll be better than ever.”
For many veteran architects, today’s commissions carry a distinct sense of déjà vu. Joseph Tanney, AIA, built his New York City–based practice on projects such as cabinetry, kitchens, and baths, and says they’re still in his blood. So while his firm, Resolution: 4 Architecture (Res: 4), continues to design some big-ticket items such as modular homes and commercial space, it hit the ground running when the market tanked. Tanney says the office has returned to an earlier way of working, in which one person manages all phases of multiple smaller projects.
“Each person here is pretty agile and multidimensional,” he says of the seven-member firm, including himself and partner Robert Luntz, AIA. They’ve parlayed that collective creativity into web design, signage, and curating art for the 100,000-square-foot San Francisco office building Res: 4 is now finishing. “We reframed some of their art pieces and decided where they should go, and created a website for the company’s in-house use,” Tanney says. “We suggested it would be a good idea to create an interactive website with floor plans you can mouse-over, so employees could become familiar with their new space prior to moving.”
The broader their skills, the more quickly firms are able to adapt in a crisis, Tanney points out. “I recommend that all young architects develop a wide range of skills, so that when times get tough, they can go from working drawings and putting together a building permit set, to 3D modeling, photography, branding, website development, and organizing samples,” he says. “It allows people to retain value.”
That’s not to say Res: 4 isn’t hoping for a return to its familiar rhythms. “Things are slow, and we’ve restructured to operate accordingly,” Tanney says. “We are still eternally optimistic.”