Featured Member - Mel Price, AIA

Running a small firm isn't easy, especially when you're implementing outside-the-box policies, but Mel Price has never wavered in her commitment to a unique and valuable practice.

As the 2017 chair for AIA's Small Firm Exchange, Mel Price, AIA, is the voice for small firms around the country. Luckily, she's never been afraid to speak her mind or take a bold stance on the issues impacting her firm or the profession. A principal at Work Program Architects (WPA) in Norfolk, Virginia, she believes that unique tactics are required when running an intimate small business. Whether it's satisfying clients or giving her employees detailed insight into firm operations, one of her tenets is to build a firm that other architects will emulate.

I always knew a small firm was for me. I started at a small firm in San Diego—one so well-organized that it ran like a medium-sized firm—and then worked for another small firm once I moved back to Norfolk. I realized how quickly you learn and how much responsibility you get to take on, which does so much to advance your career. In 2010, my partner Thom White, AIA, and I started WPA; we began with some very, very specific goals in mind. Such as, the maximum size we ever wanted to be was 15 to 16 employees.

We had some out-of-the-box ideas for running our firm. We have a fully open office plan, and we're financially transparent. One of our goals is to teach the business side of architecture as we learned it: salaries, what's in the checking account, the ebbs and flows of a small business. We want our employees to feel connected to the work they're doing, and to understand how we aim to be profitable; we set our financial goals together.

We believe that benefits that contribute to quality of life and the profession are really important. Besides the typical benefits, we pay all AIA member dues and events tickets; we pay everyone's cell phone bill and gym membership; we have three company cars to ensure that all staff can bike to work while still being able to visit any projects in construction. We also send everyone to a conference of their choice every year. Salary is not the most important thing for many young architects. They want to feel connected to the company they're working for. They want to know, that the company cares, and that they're being given opportunities to connect to their community. It was important to us to offer those types of things.

For more on leading a firm, large or small, visit our Firm Management topic page.

If you're buying or inheriting a firm, it's incredibly hard to change culture. It's so much easier if you're starting from scratch. When we began, we wrote down a dozen core values that we were unwilling to budge on; for example, the open office, the transparent office. On all the other things, there's room for anyone who joins us to have influence. When we interview potential staff, we say, "You are signing up to work in a fully transparent workplace. It's not a great fit for everyone, and that's fine. It can be hard, and requires more communication, but long term it is going to pay off."

I think a lot has changed in the profession over the last several years that works in favor of small firms. We've seen a shift: owners are starting to value having local and smaller firms in the lead on projects. It's not like a decade ago, where you teamed with a huge firm and the local firm handled the contract administration. Today, it's a true partnership from beginning to end.

One of the driving factors in this shift is that small firms are nimble. They can respond quickly; they can get right to the site. That nimbleness is valued by owners. Owners also like having a close relationship with the architect, and they like supporting their local workforce. Those factors come together in favor of what we do. You're also starting to see large firms paying consultants to come in and rework company culture to be unique and authentic. This is something small firms naturally do well.

Relationship building has led to some exciting work. Early on, we established ourselves as advocates for our host community, because it was important to us. We have helped spearhead small interventions, such as a park on a busy downtown vacant lot called The Plot, now relocated to a new arts district with the opening of a conference hotel on the former site. That relationship with Norfolk led to a contract for other urban design projects, and we were just part of a team that helped the city win a $115 million HUD grant to study how to combat coastal flooding and sea-level rise.

Our office building sits on an old creek. On days when it rains a lot, cars push waves up against our storefront. So, we’re at ground zero in regards to local flooding. We are also working closely with the Chrysler Museum on a master plan and design schemes for their expanded glass studio; the museum faces flooding issues as well. We look forward to sharing what we learn about flood mitigation with other small firms working in coastal communities. —As told to Steve Cimino

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Image credits

Mel Price, AIA

Mel Price

The Plot, a WPA project


Keverline Residence, a WPA project