1. Personal relationships with clients
Working on residential projects allows for a personal connection that simply doesn’t exist on commercial or civic projects. The distinction might be based purely on the fact that residential projects are not developed for profit. When I work with a developer, the bottom line is really the client because that’s what driving the decision-making process. Residential work is motivated by the individual who is paying for the work – it’s their money and the level of emotional/ personal involvement is proportional to that end. I have written other posts that explore this concept in greater lengths, one is title ‘Clients and Online Dating’ (here) if you are interested in reading more.
2. Involvement of the client in the process
I also have another post that discusses the traits that make a great client (here). Most of the traits are more readily available with residential projects because of the personal and emotional involvement clients demonstrate when it is for their own benefit. We do quite a bit of commercial work for individuals who originally came to us as residential clients – they liked the experience of working with us, enjoyed the methods at which we problem solved (which for the record are not intrinsic to residential vs. commercial) and asked us to take on a project type that was not in our typical base of expertise. Interestingly enough, my experience with these clients is dramatically different with them in the role of homeowner than when they are in the role of developer.
3. My role in the process
I learned a long time ago that I enjoy working on projects where I am involved in the entire process. Starting with initial programming meetings, through design development, construction drawings and construction administration, I enjoy them all. The size of most residential projects lends themselves to this level of involvement. While this might be more the result a the size of firm rather than project type, my experience has shown me that residential firms need individuals that can wear several hats at once far more often than large firms (regardless of project type of size).
4. Length of projects
This is one item that I debated leaving off the lists as a positive. A very high percentage of our residential projects have a higher cost per square foot construction cost than our commercial projects (the biggest separator being land costs). The general timeline in our office for starting a project and getting through programming, schematic design and design development is around 3 months. Once the project enters the construction documents phase (unless we have a client who constantly makes changes – which all are guilty of to some degree) we can typically get a high quality competitive bid set of drawings issued in 2 to 4 months. Construction generally runs around 9 to 14 months on our projects but here is a good rule of thumb:
- A really top-level contractor, on a project with high-end level finishes, can only average about $25,000 a week (slightly lower end might be around $18k – $20k). Take your budget and divide by the approximate level of your finish out and you will get a pretty good approximation of how long your period of construction will take. I learned this rule from a great contractor years ago and have been amazed at how often it works out.
All told, most residential project take around 18 months to two years from start to finish and the amount of time required from my level of involvement seem to be just the perfect amount to keep me motivated and focused on the project. Some commercial projects are in the works for years before they break ground. They stop and start, get put on hold, pull them back out of the drawer where you have to review them for code changes from when you put them in the drawer, etc., shift directions due to constantly changing external factors. It can be an exasperating experience and I’d just as much try to avoid that nonsense as much as possible.
5. Opportunity to Teach
This can mean several things; for some, it’s a balance between their professional working lives and teaching at an institution of higher learning. For others, like me, I have the ability to work with younger architectural interns at my office and help guide them along their process of becoming an architect with quality skills (at least I hope). Since residential practices often require each individual to wear several hats, interns are given responsibility early and are frequently asked to demonstrate proficiency at a faster rate than they might be at a larger office. This puts me in a position to try to help the interns who work with me understand what they are being asked to do, rather than simply sketching it out and telling them to put it into cad. I enjoy this aspect of my job probably as much as any other and I have found out that I’m pretty good at it. The opportunity to teach people has helped me stay on my toes knowing that anyone could walk into my office and ask me “why?” and I’d better have an answer.
6. Opportunity to Learn
The ability to work on projects that have a relatively short life span in our office means that we can experiment more frequently. I wouldn’t want to come right out and say we get things wrong, but I will say that we can get things better. Personal evolution is a strong reason to work on smaller projects – at least those whose start to finish is measured in months (like 18). I’d like to say that I am not terribly influenced by trends but I know better. I have been able to track my own predilections over the last several years as I have come to know what’s important to me in the architecture I create but there are constantly evolving technologies along with the availability to new materials, I am always looking for the opportunity to marry the appropriate material with the appropriate project.
7. Flexible Hours
Let’s get this one out-of-the-way up front; you work a lot of hours as an architect, 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration right? Except who among us ever has ever stopped at 10% of the hours in a work week? With a practice that’s focused on residential work, most of our clients have jobs that are not associated with the designing and construction of their building. As a result, we frequently meet on a schedule that meets their needs, which includes a lot of night and weekend meetings. A positive spin on that is the ability to be flexible with my time during most regular business hours. I have been able to attend all the school programs for my daughter and I work in the school cafeteria serving food once a month. I know all the kids in her class and they all know me and that’s the way I like it to be. I have a friend who is a partner at HKS and he just reached 2 million miles on American Airlines at 37 years old. While I know his paycheck is far greater than my own and I am happy for his success, I feel that I am better compensated.
To be direct, residential practices tend to be driven by the talents and personality of a small few, typically the person whose name is on the door. The “Sole Practitioner” category represents the highest percentage of licensed architects in this country and I have been searching for some statistic that tells me what market sector these practices focus on. What I do know would suggest that they are residential practices and I know that of the times I have thought through starting my own practice, the focus would be on residential work. The reason I went to the firm I am currently at 8 years ago was to get quality experience in this building type so that when I did go out on my own I would be prepared (turns out I like the people I work with and they like me).
9. Part of a Community
This is also an area that could have several different meanings. A majority of our projects are concentrated in a geographically small area, something in the neighborhood of 10 miles squared. That community knows who we are and we have taken lengths to get to know who they are. At my office, we use a credit card that has a rewards program for business purchases and at the end of every year; we turn all the points into cash reward cards and donate them to the local elementary school to buy things that the local independent school district can’t provide. I am very proud to say we do this but it’s really to two partners in the firm – it’s their points. These rewards could easily be turned into several nice vacations for their families but as a part of that community, they don’t spend any appreciable time thinking about what how those rewards will benefit others in more need.
10. Good for my Ego
I feel constant gratification for the work I do and the time I spend on projects for others. These people are paying me for my time but they know that I am just as invested in the success of the project as they are – and as a result, I feel appreciated. I speak with far too many people who either don’t like what they do or work for a paycheck to take this appreciation for granted. When I have visitors come in from out-of-town, I generally arrange for them to take a tour of some of my projects and the homeowners are always excited to show people their house. This goes on for years after the project has been completed. The homeowners always go on about how great their house is, how much everyone likes it, how important I was to the process – it’s a great feeling and seems to be fairly unique to our profession and more specifically to residential architects. I am friends with everyone one of my clients. Eventually, they aren’t my clients anymore, they are simply my friends.
To say I could elaborate on this list of reasons is an understatement. I hope you will leave a comment to contribute to the discussion. If you are already an architect who is thinking about getting into this market sector, check out this book by my friend Michael Malone titled “The Architect’s Guide to Residential Design“.