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 has 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.
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 every other week that the firm brought in 3 masseuses 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 is 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…
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 off 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?