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Small Firm, Big Team: Collaboration for Sole Practitioners and Small Architecture Firms

Leave competition aside and plug into the expertise of your colleagues

From a firm-centric model that developed in the 19th century and reached its apotheosis during the gray flannel–suited Corporate Modernist era, the traditional practice of architecture is being ripped apart by the eradication of distance and the wholesale ubiquity of information. The Internet, cloud-based computing, and video teleconferencing mean that “the studio” has been functionally reduced (or liberated?) to a laptop with a wireless card, freeing people to telecommute from homes miles away from the office, or to collaborate with partners stationed on the other side of the planet. This diffusion of design human resources, abetted by technology, was probably accelerated by the dawn of the Great Recession and its hobbling effects on the design and construction industry in general, and the ability of architects, especially in small firms, to afford office space in particular. But even as the tools architects use allow them to drift away from each other spatially, there is an increased need for small firm practitioners to find new ways to team up and collaborate.

Just as the recession pummeled the architecture profession, restricting credit and scaring away clients, it also leveled the playing field for small firms by instilling an entrepreneurial imperative in the new economy—one where everyone is essentially self-employed and self-branded, and work is found by reaching out through networks of collaborative partnerships. This isn’t so new for sole practitioners and small firms, who are well-accustomed to reaching back to their hat rack for expertise in design, business development, and construction management, all within the course of a day, or an hour.

But often owning lots of hats isn’t enough, and small firms need to reach out and partner with other architects. That’s the topic of the 2012 AIA Virtual Convention session Emerging Small-Firm Business Models: Staying Lean While Working Large. Sometimes an effective small firm collaboration is as simple as two firms that might otherwise be competitors working together to get a larger project than they could handle separately. Tim Clites, AIA, and Bill Turnure, sole practitioners in Middleburg, Va., worked together to get the commission for a library addition, beating other larger firms that had similar project experience. The two designers, who had known each other from serving on various local planning and historic preservation committees, could offer the library client local architects with deep roots in the community.

Sometimes, collaborations are borne out of a specific location. In the case of Alan Ford Architects, that location was the Taxi community building in Denver. Built at the site of a former taxi depot, this mixed-use complex of residences and creative industry businesses now contains six buildings where 500 people work each day. Alan Ford, AIA, located his firm’s Denver-based offices (which he designed himself) there, and tapped into his workspace neighbors when he began working on an adaptive reuse feasibility study. A historic elementary school property in Boulder, Colo., was to become the Mapleton Early Childhood Center, and Ford’s Taxi community office neighbors (a developer of early childhood centers, a structural engineer, and a historic preservation architect) gave him a readily accessible team that allowed him to eventually get the $4.2 million commission to transform the old elementary school—all as a sole practitioner.

Another way Ford has collaborated with other firms is by “outsourcing” various parts of the design process to other specialized architects. Occasionally known as “ghost architects” because they are invisible to the client, outsourcing is a way to bring help and extra labor aboard without hiring more full-time staff. Ford often works with Aakar Architects, another Denver small firm that contracts out for CAD, BIM, rendering work, and other architectural support services.

One common refrain from firms that have collaborated with other architects: Make sure each architect either has expertise in the building type in question or the client; and be sure that everyone at the table trusts each other, leaving competition for those small firms that haven’t yet seen the necessity of facing this new practice landscape with collaboration.


Alan Ford Architect’s design for the Mapleton Early Childhood Center in Boulder, Colo. Image courtesy of Alan Ford Architects P.C.

Historic photograph of the elementary school that will become the Mapleton Early Childhood Center. Image courtesy of Boulder Historical Society Collection of the Carnegie Branch Library.

The Alan Ford Architects office at the Taxi community building in Denver. Image courtesy of Frank Ooms.



Sign up for the AIA Virtual Convention session Emerging Small-Firm Business Models: Staying Lean While Working Large.

See what else the AIA Virtual Convention has to offer.

Visit the AIA Small Firm Roundtable website.

Visit the AIA Small Project Practitioners Knowledge Community website on AIA KnowledgeNet.


Back to AIArchitect August 24, 2012

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