Big or Small? What’s the right sized firm for you

Bob Borson —  May 15, 2013 — 19 Comments

For young architects and recent architectural graduates, trying to determine what the right size architectural firm for you means that there are a few things that you should consider. This is one of the questions that I get asked the most often so I finally decided to write a post on the subject. Despite the fact that I have already determined that small architectural firms suit my skill set better, I have worked at larger firms before.

I have had a lot of architectural jobs in my young career and the project types AND firms size have run the gamut. There were clear and obvious benefits to be found at firms both large and small and determining which size firm is right for you is not as easy – or apparent – as you might think. It also might require that you actually work in both types of offices just to experience the differences for yourself.

.

Go Big

The largest firm I ever worked for had around 120 people in the Dallas office and I think round 800 people across all offices. There were all sorts of resources that were available at this firm that smaller firms simply couldn’t provide. During my time at this firm I received dozens, if not hundreds, of hours of in-house training. There were courses in project management, construction specifications … even sketching techniques. There was also as many “Lunch and Learns” as I cared to attend, a full-time materials librarian, in-house study materials for licensure, and an army of similarly aged young architects as a source of constant drinking companions. Did I mention that ever other week that the firm brought in 3 masseuse to provide 15 minute chair massages to all the employees? It was awesome … if that’s the sort of stuff you go in for.

As a young architect (i.e. one who doesn’t know what their skill set is yet) the big firm is a great place to start. The opportunity for personal growth and additional education is fantastic. The size of the projects are such that the deadlines don’t happen as frequently so the stress level is generally lower. If you have questions, there are specialists laying about all over the place that can help provide you with an answer. In a big firm you have the chance to experience all sorts of different roles; designer, project architect, project manager, construction manager, specifications writer, business development … just about anything you want. There are plenty of people around who are generally just like you and making friends with like-minded individuals happens frequently. There are more instances of two people making a connection in a large firm that later turns into a new partnership than you can shake a t-square at. Big firms offer big opportunities. (and healthcare, retirement plans)

My role in that big firm was pretty good – I was on the design side of the practice and I spent almost all my time designing. In the beginning I had originally gone to this firm to gain experience as a project architect – but after working on construction drawings for a few months, they started to pull me more and more frequently into design meetings. Next thing you know, all I was doing was sketching up stuff all day and handing it off to other people to turn into construction drawings. As great as this sounds (what architect comes out of school NOT wanting to design all day long?) I got bored doing the same thing over and over, all day long, day after day. After a year of doing this I’d decided that I’d had enough.

Stupid right? Not so fast…

.

Go Small

Most of the firms I have worked for have been 10 people or less so for the purposes of this conversation I am going to consider this a small firm. Small firms typically don’t have any of the things I listed up above … they certainly don’t have masseuse coming in every other week. What small firms offer is the chance for you to screw up in a spectacular manner – and for people like me, that certainly keeps things from getting boring. Since smaller firms don’t have the resources of larger firms, most people have to do the duties of several people, there are no specialists in a small firm.  The financial benefits in a small firm can also be [ahem] small. It isn’t uncommon that small firms do not provide healthcare or retirements plans, there frequently aren’t large bonuses to be doled about at the end of the year, and you might be subject to being laid of more readily because there’s really only one person in charge of business development (and that person’s name is generally on the door).

Why would anybody want to work in a small firm??

Small firms are great to work in because you get to do a bit of everything; design, construction drawings, construction observation, client meetings – EVERYTHING. Another major consideration is ownership of the work you create – and THAT is a very big deal. Because the person whose name is on the door can’t be all things to all people at all times, younger people are frequently called upon to take on challenges that they have not been formally prepared. If you are not quite ready to try to solve problems you’ve never tried to solve before, small firms are not for you. Most small firms have a sink or swim mentality out of necessity and the constant deadlines and pressure to perform at a high level with no safety net is hard on everyone, but for some people it is exhilarating. Each person in a small firm has a spotlight on them and as a result, a certain amount of confidence (even if it is not justified) is warranted.

So, What’s It Going To Be?

You can be that small firm mentality person and find great success in a large firm – this isn’t a case of one or the other. This is really about determining where your interests lie and how you go about finding satisfaction in the work you prepare. I was never motivated by the idea of being really good at one thing. There are people I know at large firms that are capable of doing all the sorts of things I do but they find their reward in being considered the best at doing a certain type of thing. I have great respect for those people because it takes drive to have a well-defined role and work endlessly at improving your skills in performing that role. For most young architects at the beginning of their career, I have always recommended that they try working in both a large and a small office to get a feel for how they are different. I don’t know if this means anything but small firm architects are always more passionate about how much they enjoy working in a small firm. Is it because they are in the majority? Maybe they have more spare time on their hands …

What has been your experience? What size firm would you recommend to someone coming out of school?

Cheers,

Bob signature

.

.

  • Corbin

    Bob,
    Do you know a resource for finding smaller firms? More specifically, design build firms? Internet searches uncover design build firms that rank high in profit or the like. I’d like to find a list that includes jersey devil.

  • http://www.flickr.com/gottliebdesigns/sets Daniel Gottlieb

    Bob,

    I am having this same internal struggle right now myself and not sure what the best answer is. I know what the right answer is for me personally, but now I have a wife, home and 3 kids to think about. And the wife hates, hates, hates change – so the thought of a slow down in workload at the smaller firm and potential furlough or being laid off are really scary to her. Additionally, the benefits offered by the larger office are a big expense in today’s environment and would have to be absorbed somehow in my wife’s eyes in hopefully salary increase or profit sharing at the smaller firm.

    Work-wise, I have the potential for a position in a larger office as part of a design team that works on a single project for 2-5 years. I am also potentially being offered a position in a larger firm, that has a high design standard and interesting mix of retail, mixed-use, and restaurants as a design architect that is part of a bigger team. I have also been offered your exact position in a small office (3 people) that my classmate started 3+ years ago and is really starting to take off – 20,000 mixed-use development out of containers, 30 room boutique hotel, 8,000 sf residence, 15,000 sf residence, and 30,000 sf night club for well connected individual among the sports elite in town, etc. He is finding that all of the time devoted to business development necessitates him hiring someone to run the office from the inside. Additionally, I am in strong contact with one of my old clients at my last job whose development is high profile and would lead to more work too. I could do that job myself or take it with me to one of these firms. It obviously would have a bigger impact on the smaller office. My wife hears about the potential but is afraid of what happens when those jobs don’t come through or lead to new work like planned for.

    In the grand scheme of things in today’s development environment, can the larger office really offer any more job security than the smaller one? Being a Pisces, is the benefit from the day having 4 or 5 different things a day compared to the more focused work at the larger office that much greater?

    My wife doesn’t understand why I am struggling so much over this decision. I am tired of switching jobs too so I am trying to make the perfect pick. Argh!

  • Pingback: Surviving Architecture School | Life of an Architect()

  • krzystoff

    I have worked in all sizes of firms (from 2 to over 7000) — I consider mid-size anywhere from 10>30 design staff, and I have had a share of those as well. typically, in a small firm you will feel like you are ‘somebody’ and learn a lot but get paid like you’re ‘nobody’. in a large firm you will feel like ‘nobody’ but get paid comparatively very well and training and resources are outstanding and incomparable.
    a mid-sized firm gives very few advantages but therein is a strong teamwork / family bond between staff and you are most likely to develop long-term partnerships. you also have a range of people to bounce ideas and questions off, when the need arises, (commonly not the case in a small firm).

    firm sizes typically match their resources and skills to the work scale, so small firms == small projects, (predominantly housing), mid-size firms == mid-sized projects (a broad mix of commercial/warehouses/schools/interiors/aged care/multi-residential projects), large firms == large-scale projects (eg. government/manufacturing/infrastructure/transport/high-rise/hotels). you may want to work on a range of different project types, so different sized firms will afford you that opportunity; also the economy and available work may force you to jump from one to the other — the three project sizes work in disparate economies and one will be booming while the others are bust, and vice versa. small and large firms depends on their specific project scale being available to thrive and retain staff, but mi-sized firms are ultimately the most flexible with the ability to tweak their resources to work on a range of project scales.

  • John

    This is a facinating question because the answer seems to be a moving target for almost everyone, depending on where they are in their career and what the market looks like at a particular time. We can only perform at something if there’s an opportunity, so many decisions are made for us. From my perspective near the end of a career with 40 odd years in small, medium and large firms, a person should concentrate on his own personal development and not be afraid to take a risk to try something new. I had 19 years with one of the largest firms and much of it was great, but eventually the urge to do something new got the better of me and I quit and moved on. Big firms offer the opportunity to work on landmark projects and the momentum of them can cover for a lot of mistakes. Small firms can offer the opportunity to do many different things on some pretty insignificant work. I guess the point to remember is that a person will be selected to do what he has done well on before and boss or client is always going to be asking, “What have you done for me lately?”…avoid the pidgeon hole is my advice.

  • Rosalind Alexander

    I’m currently a student and haven’t yet had my first year out to work, but I am veering more towards working somewhere big. I think it would be a good start off point at least and as you say, would be good for making friends, benefits etc.
    I do think I’d like to find someone to then partner with when the time is right, but I like the idea of everyone working together towards the same vision, doing what they do best and therefore doing the most considered and efficient etc job possible. Though of course I can see how working in a smaller place could bring more satisfaction and skills to each individual.
    I know it might be a bit idealistic but I suppose I shall see what happens and I imagine that like you, I will work in several places of various sizes in my future!

  • Paul Scharnett

    …Or perhaps not even a firm at all!

    I currently am the sole “designer” at a corporate chain (fresh out of grad school, mind you), and I have more hats to wear than a sporting goods store! I don’t get any IDP hours and everything has to go through our outside firm(s), but the good news is that I get to interface with contractors, permitting offices, officials, businessmen/women, decision-makers, etc., etc.

    There is no shortage of work, and I get plenty of experience on the client side, as well as the drafting and architectural side. And like you said, it’s a great place to have a chance to screw up in a spectacular manner (or succeed in one!).

    -Paul

  • Mark Mc Swain

    The metrics in US architecture can drive this–70% of the firms are under 20-25 total employees (and they are cranking out 70-80% of all the wet-stamped work in the US, too).

    I’ve worked for larger firms and for smaller ones. I found the smaller ones far more instructional, in that you _had_ to learn more than how to detail stairwells or parking structures. A larger firm will let a person grow into their strengths better; but a small firm teaches more about how to be in business as an architect.

    Now, if only I could find somebody who needs all my midlevel skills . . .

  • Newton Architect

    Got my feet wet at a medium sized firm 25-30 for a couple years, then moved up to a large firm 130-150 for 10 years where I worked in many different roles and on different project types and got great work experience.

    Most recently I’ve had my own 1 person firm for the last 8 years and I do everything that’s required and that’s a lot. Business Development, Accounting, Social Media, Design, Production, account management, project management, and the list goes on and on. I wouldn’t have it any other way and I wouldn’t be where I am and as successful without all of those past experiences.

    Someday I’ll feel comfortable enough to had off some of my responsibilities and hire someone.

  • http://twitter.com/ESTMENEGAZ Estêvão Menegaz

    I definitively don’t recommend working on a medium size firm. It’s the worst of two worlds!

    By the way, great article!

    Sincerely,
    Estêvão Menegaz

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks for chiming in with your opinion – but what’s medium sized mean to you? Total number of people, just architects …?

      • http://twitter.com/ESTMENEGAZ Estêvão Menegaz

        I was thinking about a firm that can’t assume between a big firm or small firm posture. I’m talking about a firm that already has projects, clients and responsibilities of a big firm, but still think itself as a small firm. This way, the employee works even harder without having an appropriate infrastructure and benefits for this.

  • http://twitter.com/EdwardRowseArch Edward Rowse Arch

    Bob,

    This article was a great read. We run a smaller office of 14 and we definitely agree with you about small firms. Every one of our project managers is basically a one man army that works with clients, writes specs, and even drafts. We also have a few draftsmen, one is a new graduate from Wentworth Institute of Technology, and they support our larger projects.

    Our suggestion to students/graduates is to try to find a smaller firm with many projects going on. We think this is the best way to get your IDP hours the fastest because there is always something to be done in any phase of a project.

    Keep these articles coming Bob. We really enjoy reading them.

    ERA

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks Edward! I didn’t even mention IDP hours in the post but you are right about the width and breadth of the possible experience you can get at a small firm.

      Cheers

  • wavewriter

    At a reunion at my university last week, the graduating class impressed me with their training, originality and enthusiasm, but where are the jobs for them? It was tough for my class of 22 to find jobs, what about this class of over 200? I think you and I were the lucky ones.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I am definitely grateful for my circumstances but when I graduated in 1992, the economy was almost as bad as it was in 2009. Out of my graduating class of 27, there were people who couldn’t find work for a while and those of us who did took whatever we could get. I remember one guy working in a design office for $15k a year – this was 1992 not 1972!

      Things are picking up – at least that’s what we are experiencing. We are even looking to hire some folks.

      • Mark Mc Swain

        I graduated out of sequence–in December, rather than May, so, my group was smaller, only about 150. Also scary was that I was the only onw who had a job waiting–1983 was a year much like this one in that way.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rick.nelson.731 Rick Nelson

    Bob –

    Great article!

    I, too, have been in different sized firms (from 3 to 120), & couldn’t agree more with what you’ve stated.

    I am currnetly in a 22-person ‘medium-sized’ firm consisting of architects, interior designers & landscape architects, and couldn’t be happier (well, that’s debatable…).

    My suggestion to students/graduates goes like this: try to find a smal firm – you will get the most exposure of everything that an architect must do to.

    Please keep up the great work.

    Rick Nelson

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks Rick – sound advice. You don’t really know what you’ll respond to most favorably until you give it a shot.