How small of an office/department is too small?

How does one cope / thrive in a very small office or architecture department? What are the good and or bad things about a very small office or department.

Small is, for this discussion, is about 2-5 people.

Thanks in advance for your insightful comments.

Peter N

Jun 22, 20 2:18 pm

The biggest drawback for me would be the potential lack of diversity in the architectural style and process.

From a functional side a firm that small would realistically have poor benefits - healthcare, retirement, PTO.  

Jun 22, 20 2:24 pm  · 
atelier nobody

My first office had 6. I loved the close working relationships with everyone, but all it took was one anticipated project not coming in for me to be laid off. Nowadays I like the (relative) job security of working for a large company.

Jun 22, 20 3:00 pm  · 

I had a small firm; normally around 5, but got up to 17 and down to 3 before I closed the doors.  So, assuming you are approaching it from a employee perspective… The biggest pro is you are a big fish in a small pond.  That means you’ll do more stuff, have a voice with the boss, and help establish firm direction.  It also means great exposure to clients; and impact on the design. Small firms also do a variety of projects; so you’ll learn steel, wood, and concrete structures instead of just big boy Type 1 buildings.

The biggest con side is project variety / budgets.  It is doubtful you’ll be working on some major publicly recognizable project.  No highrise. Most projects won’t even have budgets to do much fun design.  Another con is the firm income; they can’t absorb big hits.  So, there’s double edged sword… if your project tanks, your head is on that platter. 

I should also mention I paid salaries lower than regional averages.  Part of that is so I could float across lulls in work.  I made up for that with a generous bonus if we were busy and the work is profitable. As for benefits, at least for me, they were better than most firms… But that was me being selfish; I had to live under the same employee rules, and with 3 kids, I damn well didn’t want to pay for 3 sets of braces myself, so I get bare bones insurance, and offer full reimbursement of everything including co-pays after 3 years. 

How to thrive varies.  The small firm will sort of adopt the principles of the owner, and those massively vary.  Unlike large firms who become a Borg collective, a small firm will be as varied as normal people; some are dicks, others touchy-feely, and others laid-back or uptight.

Jun 22, 20 3:59 pm  · 
2  · 

Why did you close up shop?


You usually get to see and be aware of everything that goes on during every job, but on the flipside, you should understand that there is usually no room for goofing off or passing the buck in a tiny firm.  The workflow can also be disjointed, you may have 4 jobs in CA at once or none at all.  A generalist type person who maybe wants to run their own place someday is the best fit, people that just want a steady paycheck for a so-so daily effort need to stick to big firms.

Jun 22, 20 8:47 pm  · 

For a brief period, I worked for a small office of 2-4. I will preface this by saying we essentially were a satellite office for the firm so we received the salary, healthcare, and 401k benefits that the main office employees receive, but staffing, hiring, and otherwise, we were on our own.

The project "teams" were just 1 employee and the principal or 1 person handling all of it.  I really felt ownership over my projects because I did every drawing, spec, meeting, phone call, RFI, submittal and punch.  I got face time with the client, the contractor, site super, basically everyone. However, if/when any problems arose, it was my fault.  I was very young at the time, and in hindsight, dealing with every facet of a project from beginning to end made me a better all-around architect.

Some time everyday is taken up by office tasks instead of tending to your projects.  We didn't have an office manager so we all had to deal with ordering office supplies, changing toner, retrieving prints from the printer, and supervising the building maintenance.

Socially, it was great.  We were an office of all women, and got to know each other (including our families) very well.  The principal of the firm had a young child whom she periodically brought to the office when daycare was closed, and no one minded.  We often got lunches out.  I was just starting my career at the time so it was great to hear from women who had been doing this for 15-20 years and how they had been able to balance it all.  I now work in a firm of about 20, some of us are close, but nothing like I experienced at the small office.

Jun 23, 20 10:18 am  · 
1  · 

I've been out of school (B.Arch) for just over 2 years now. My first job out of school, I worked for a firm of four total (myself and two other employees, and the boss). It was in NYC and we frequently took on one-off apartment renovations as well as multi-unit remodels (whole building, renovating 20 or so self-similar units at a time). Our boss (the only R.A. in the firm) was heading up design for all projects, and the three of us employees were effectively production staff. We all learned a lot about the realities of putting together (albeit often small) CD sets.

The firm I work for now is slightly bigger (about 9 in total; a few of us are designers, most are production staff working on their M.Arch 1's; two principals are R.A.'s, two of us take on P.M. roles). The firm's split effectively into two studios, and the team I'm often in does mostly custom residential. I've been here a year, and because it's such a small firm, I've been able to pick up metric tonnes of knowledge about code and practical design skills, permitting, client interface, managing bid processes, working through IPD projects, and CA knowledge. Working in a small firm means that you often end up switching from project to project throughout the week, and so I often manage a couple of our staff on about four different projects at a time. I will say that, bias taken into account, I really value working in a small firm, because I have a lot of autonomy and control in what my projects look like on a day-to-day basis that I might not otherwise get at a larger firm at my age.

Jun 24, 20 10:13 am  · 
1  · 

Thanks for the insights. The main problem I have with a very small office or department within an engineering firm is you often are flying solo and it can be hard to verify that you are on the right track or if the details or design you are working on is not missing some key thing.  Having peers to ask questions and to help you see the whole picture or point out errors that you missed because you were focused on one detail or drawing and not looking at other things is something I experienced as a negative for very small offices.

Jul 2, 20 10:08 am  · 

Yes, I find that is is really good for every junior or mid-level person to have at least one other employee in the office at the same skill level so that they can learn from and help each other.


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