For firms of any size, residential work can be extremely rewarding. Yet a portfolio that leans heavily on new houses and remodels bears the risk of being judged—fairly or unfairly—as one dimensional and could limit a firm's opportunities for growth. Architects focused on speculative projects, research, and exhibitions can be similarly pigeon-holed as specialists. Here, architects from several small firms share their advice for expanding their range of work.
Leverage Existing Connections
Fauzia Khanani, Assoc. AIA, is founder of the New York–based Studio Fо̄r, an eight-person design team that has recently found its way into the workplace sector with multiple local and international projects. Her big break came in 2014 when her past repeat clients, Rico and Susan Viray, for whom she had designed a weekend getaway house in Saugerties, N.Y., as well as a Manhattan loft renovation, invited her to look at potential office sites for their health and wellness creative agency, the Bloc. At first, they “just wanted someone who knew about space and could see potential in possible sites,” she says. “It snowballed from there, and they asked, ‘Do you want to be our designer?’ "
Though Khanani had never designed a commercial office space—a fact she openly told the Virays—her relative inexperience did not discourage Rico and Susan from hiring her. Six months of workplace observations and interviews inside the firm’s existing office ultimately resulted in an award-winning open concept for the new space located on the East River. “It was a huge learning curve, but I think what appealed to the client was the process of our firm," Khanani says.
For Khanani, the project has led to subsequent commercial workplace projects for the practice. After Joseph Gagliardi, global head of corporate and workplace services at financial analysis provider MSCI, had his team tour the new Bloc offices, MSCI signed a contract with Khanani to update and rebrand the interiors of its offices around the world. Over the next two and a half years, Studio Fо̄r will implement the interior office package, including rooms, furnishings, and a newly designed logo and wood-slatted feature wall, into offices in Geneva, Monterey, Mexico, Berkeley, Calif., Toronto, and Sydney.
Collaborate with a Larger Partner
Another way for a smaller niche practice to secure new project types is by partnering with a larger firm on a project that plays to the strengths of each. To win a joint retainer from the Public Building Commission of Chicago for work that included a 42,000-square-foot annex to Nathan Hale Elementary School—a late 1940s-era Art Moderne Chicago Public Schools building—local 10-person firm Searl Lamaster Howe Architects (SLHA) teamed with Eckenhoff Saunders, another local but larger practice of nearly 50 architects and interior designers. “During the recession, we were looking for opportunities," says SLHA principal Greg Howe, AIA. "Partnering was one thing we identified as a way to reach into new work.”
Combining Eckenhauf Saunders’ larger staff size and familiarity with public building regulations with the firm’s hands-on, personalized approach helped secure the deal and move the project forward, Howe says. SLHA's experience with designing private residences also translated well to the school setting, where interior details matter. Moreover, as someone accustomed to a lot of face time with clients, Howe was able to serve as a reliable first point of contact for school administrators—an important asset in a lengthy project involving many trade contractors. “We were able to come in and imbue a sense of ownership to the design,” Howe says.
Connect with the Community
For Edward Ogosta, AIA, founder of his eponymous Culver City, Calif., practice, civic engagement has been key to growing his emerging three-person practice. As acting chair of the Culver City Planning Commission, Ogosta reviews major design proposals for the city; recent projects include a Gensler-designed expansion of Culver Studios, where Amazon plans to house its production arm, and a four-story building that will be a home for Apple’s Worldwide Video group. Through his back-end review of pending projects and public presentations, he has earned a reputation as “something of an expert on approvals of commercial development in the city,” Ogosta says. “It’s volunteer time, but it’s time well spent. As a result of this, I’ve been approached by a commercial developer for a project renovation in the city.”
While the three-story office and workshop in question is still undergoing feasibility studies and is yet to be publicly announced, Ogosta says the potential to apply his knowledge of zoning laws to “bring the [1980s concrete-block building] into the 21st century” exemplifies the kind of opportunity that can grow from community involvement.
Prepare for Growing Pains
Almost without exception, expansion into new markets comes with its challenges. When the six-person Houston-based firm Schaum/Shieh founded by Troy Schaum and Rosalyne Shieh, AIA, began to attract the attention of the cultural beau monde following the firm's completion of White Oak Music Hall and ongoing cultural preservation work for the Judd Foundation in Marfa, Texas, developers like local Radom Capital took notice. Ultimately, the two companies teamed up on multiple core-and-shell retail projects from Dallas to Miami.
But with design-to-construction schedules of seven to eight months (as compared to several years for some of the firm’s other projects), retail projects have stretched the firm to capacity. “The flip side of developer work, for good and bad, is that it happens very quickly," Schaum says. "When things happen, you and your staff are overworked. We’re also not big enough to make new hires. But the more we can understand and communicate the framework for the deliverables, the easier it is to predict deadlines and manage expectations.”
And yet with a much broader portfolio of built work—including what Schaum describes as two to three carefully curated projects that “you’re really proud of, stand out, and exemplify kind of work that [you] would like to do”—comes the opportunity for growth. “For us, one of the big transitions is moving from a mode of mostly referral or reputational connections to work where we actually go after RFPs and RFQs and are actively competing in open calls for submissions or awards," Schaum says. "We’re able to use just a few projects as a basis for qualifications ... because we’ve taken [them] seriously enough to stand in as qualifications for the work we want to do.”
This article has been updated since its original publication.