Here’s the thing about starting a business in a downturn: Although it may seem rash, entrepreneurs actually have more time on their hands and less to lose, financially, than they would in a busy cycle. Shaunt Yemenjian, a principal of the months-old practice Spacio | Design, knows this from experience. Last year, while working at an A/E firm in Fresno, Calif., he watched his workload evaporate—and decided it was time to act, right around the time he got laid off.

“When things are healthy, you don’t have time to think about … learn[ing] new techniques. A down economy is an opportunity to recalibrate, to define what your values are and what you want to accomplish,” Yemenjian says. There is some make-or-break pressure, too, which Yemenjian cops to: “The bottom line is, success is the only option.”

  • Sons of Fresno: Kiel Famellos-Schmidt (above left) and ¨Shaunt Yemenjian of Spacio | Design.

    Credit: William Anthony

    Sons of Fresno: Kiel Famellos-Schmidt (above left) and Shaunt Yemenjian of Spacio | Design.
Spacio | Design (pronounced SPAH-cio, inspired by the Italian word for space, spazio) was officially established last September by Yemenjian and his co-principal, Kiel Famellos-Schmidt, a fellow casualty of the same recession-bitten firm. But its genesis dates back further, to 2005, when Yemenjian was working in Los Angeles and doing side projects with a colleague—Dario DiMauro—under the name Spacio.

Yemenjian moved back to Fresno, where he grew up, and DiMauro took a job in New York, but the name persisted, in a modified form. Yemenjian says it sums up the mission now as well as it did then. “Our chief interest is space. We don’t concern ourselves so much with, ‘Do we do hospitals, commercial [projects], schools?’ We are interested in anything that has the opportunity for creativity.”

So far, that has meant the conversion of a Starbucks store into a Fatburger franchise; the design of a single-family home in Hawaii; an 80,000-square-foot shopping center; a master plan for a “technopark” in Armenia, for an invited competition; and the adaptive reuse of a storage building into a banquet hall. Spacio | Design has offices in Fresno and Los Angeles, where Yemenjian attended graduate school at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. Mike Lancy is the partner in L.A., and is licensed; Famellos-Schmidt and Yemenjian aren’t—yet. Also involved in the firm on a more flexible basis is DiMauro, Yemenjian’s collaborator from earlier days, who is now back in L.A. and the firm’s director of design. The foursome uses Skype to keep in touch, but they also manage face-to-face meetings on a regular basis; Famellos-Schmidt or Yemenjian will drive to L.A. unless Lancy, an amateur pilot, flies to Fresno.

Famellos-Schmidt—a Fresno native, like Yemenjian—graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, before completing a one-year fellowship at the San Francisco nonprofit Public Architecture and then working on projects in Nicaragua and Sri Lanka. As he spent more time in developing countries, he says, “I felt drawn back [to Fresno], to use the skills I learned in school and abroad [and to] focus that attention on improving my city.”

So he moved back in 2006 and threw himself into community activism. He became involved in a city effort to create a 10-year plan to end homelessness and sat on the board of the group Creative Fresno. After one too many local newspaper articles that revealed, he felt, a lack of architectural awareness, he and colleagues from the office—including Yemenjian—proposed Archop (pronounced “ark hop”), an event program modeled on Fresno’s existing Arthop, which lets community members mingle and talk with artists at gallery open houses downtown.

With the support of the AIA San Joaquin chapter, Archop launched in October 2007 and has run eight exhibits, four lectures, and three installations so far. From those events, Famellos-Schmidt spun off archop.org, a website that features local design and construction news, critical reviews of buildings, and interviews with design professionals. The aim of both the website and the events is “to build up the knowledge base” among Fresnans regarding the built environment.

In a supposedly flat world, Spacio’s early successes testify to the importance of local networks. The Fatburger franchise and Hawaii project arose from Yemenjian’s and Lancy’s contacts in L.A. Likewise, Famellos-Schmidt is finding that the network he built in Fresno for altruistic reasons is “feeding directly into the business.” When he announced the new venture on Twitter, a friend offered him a free desk in his coworking suite; the firm pays only for Yemenjian’s desk there, which keeps rent overhead down to a manageable $125 per month. People in Fresno see Famellos-Schmidt as a voice of the architectural profession, so when someone he knows has a potential project, “Even if they don’t think of me to design it, they’re coming to me for a recommendation.”

Yemenjian says it’s not yet clear whether this surge of goodwill—and of leads—will translate into billings, but he hopes so. He’s optimistic about the future of Fresno, which is located right in the middle of the state. “I see in Fresno a real opportunity over the next 10 or 15 years to become a powerhouse in California”—due, he says, to its location, its affordable housing stock, a forward-thinking mayor, and the promise of high-speed rail, which will connect to L.A.—255 miles away—in about 90 minutes.

Famellos-Schmidt is frank about leveraging his community involvement for the sake of Spacio | Design, but he adds that you have to have the right motives. “It’s not an instant payback,” he notes. “You have to be committed to the cause. Getting into it won’t work if you don’t have passion.”