Small Firms Take Expansive Measures

Event: SUPERMODELS: MINI: 1-20: SMALL FIRMS
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.06.07
Speakers: Oliver Freundlich & Brian Papa — Partners, MADE; Mark Tsurumaki, AIA — Principal, Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis Architects; Fernaz Mansuri, Assoc. AIA — Lead Designer, De-Spec
Moderator: Anne Guiney — New York Editor, The Architect’s Newspaper
Organizer: AIANY New Practice Committee
Sponsors: Exhibition Underwriters: Associated Fabrication, Häfele, SKYY90; Patrons: 3Form, ABC Imaging; Sponsors: Severud Associates, Thornton Tomasetti, OS Fabrication & Design, The Conran Shop, Perkins Eastman; Supporters: Arup, bartcoLighting, Fountainhead Construction, FXFowle Architects, MG & Company, Microsol Resources, Structural Enterprises; Friends: Barefoot Wines, Cosentini Associates, DEGW, Delta Faucet Company, Perkins Eastman

While principals of small architecture firms often maintain meticulous control of their projects from design through construction, many of the not-so-glamorous issues related to running small businesses weigh equally on their minds. Fernaz Mansuri, Assoc. AIA, lead designer at De-Spec, is as proud of the sophisticated accounting system she has refined over the past few years as she is of the firm’s design projects. For Oliver Freundlich and Brian Papa, partners at MADE, one of the biggest challenges has been reining in the paperwork associated with tracking a design studio, fabrication shop, and contracting team under one roof (not to mention the added caveat that design/build is illegal in NY).

Lacking the financial resources of larger firms, small firms have to be creative when it comes to revenue sources. For this reason, Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis (LTL) Architects and MADE build many of the projects they design. In the case of LTL Architects, getting into fabrication in their early restaurant work was a necessity due to the complexity of their designs, inflated cost estimates from inexperienced contractors, and tight budgets. Offering more than one service is a key survival method for small practices, since it helps insulate them from market fluctuations. Another motivation for LTL Architects and MADE is the extra level of quality control that comes with building their own work.

While De-Spec does not offer general contracting or fabrication services, it, too, thinks outside the box regarding revenue. “If we spec it, we buy it,” says Mansuri. “This way we avoid the contractor’s mark-up and we avoid attempts to substitute inferior products.” This practice provides more wiggle room in the budget, usually paying for additional design work that often goes uncompensated.

The biggest challenge for small firms is making the jump in scale from furniture design and loft renovations to larger ground-up construction projects. All three firms agreed that seizing every opportunity to promote, publish, and even pursue more public work (installations, restaurants, and retail) is essential. It is also important to be strategic about amplifying a small opportunity. For LTL Architects, Bornhuetter Hall at the College of Wooster in Ohio represented this jump in scale, but the project was not simply handed to them by the college. It was the result of a relationship built from an initial contract to study an existing residence hall. As more single-task contracts proved successful, the commission for the residence hall’s design became inevitable. Based on the scale of recent projects on LTL Architects’ website, it seems this approach has paid off.