Mel Price, AIA
Photography: Carl Bower

As the 2017 chair of AIA's Small Firm Exchange, Mel Price, AIA, is the voice for small firms around the country. Lucky for them, she’s never been afraid to take a bold stance on the issues impacting her firm or the profession. A principal at Work Program Architects (WPA) in Norfolk, Va., she believes that unique tactics are required when running a small business. Whether it is satisfying clients or giving her employees detailed insight into firm operations, one of her tenets is to build a firm that other architects would want to 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, and we began with some very, very specific goals in mind, such as that the maximum size we ever wanted to be was 15 to 16 employees.

We had some outside-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, and the 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.

Besides the typical benefits, we pay all AIA member dues and events tickets. We pay everyone’s cellphone 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 under 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.

If you’re buying or inheriting a firm, it’s incredibly hard to change the culture; it’s 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.” —As told to Steve Cimino