Reader & Swartz Architects was founded during a recession. “Beth got laid off and I had the brilliant idea of quitting and starting our own firm,” says Chuck Swartz, AIA, LEED AP. The couple began in 1990 with no money or projects and have grown the firm cautiously. Such wariness helped them make smart decisions last year: they didn't fill an open position or update their CAD system, and they refinanced their office building to consolidate debt and lower payments. “We've been expecting a downturn—not for Western civilization's entire financial system to dissolve—but we've expected a slowdown for a couple of years,” Swartz says.
“Our builders are looking for jobs, so we're preparing for it to hit us next,” Reader, AIA, adds. For now, new-client interviews are up. The couple credit their rural location for steady business: Swartz likens their role in Winchester, Va., to that of a small-town doctor who does a little of everything. Residential work accounts for about 70 percent of the firm's portfolio, with banks, a bandstand, historic restorations, and more making up the rest.
This conservative business model, plus a liberal approach to taking any project they find interesting, is keeping Reader and Swartz solvent for now. And a healthy sense of humor may lead to future income—the office joke being that they can design snarky T-shirts to see them through.
More seriously, the co-principals think the downturn will be good for housing in the long run. They see heightened interest in renewable energy and nontoxic materials, as well as more clients who want to renovate rather than tear down. “If there's a silver lining, it's that our profession is getting back to doing the right thing—making buildings and the environment better,” Reader says.
age of firm: 18 years
firm specialty: Single-family residential and small-scale commercial
staff: 7 (2005); 7 (2008); 7 (2009, projected)
total revenue: $712,000 (2005); $875,000 to $900,000 (2008); $700,000 (2009, projected)
completed projects: 9 (2005); 9 (2008); 8 (2009, projected)