Which is better Small, Medium, or Big Architecture Firms?
A common debate amongst architects is what size of a firm is best. Many friends debate the benefits and disadvantages of working in different sized firms. The debate will probably rage on well into the future. The goal of this article is to answer some common questions about the differences between firms. Where will my design skills be valued? Architecture firms culture varies, what type is it? Will I be stuck doing stair and bathroom details? These are just a couple of common questions. Let’s start with some of the more high-level thoughts.
Leadership at architecture firms
All architecture firms have their own culture. The culture at each firm usually isn’t stagnant. Cultures constantly change and evolve over time as staff progress through their careers. The business of each firm is always changing as well, different projects, clients and staffing needs. One of the most important influences on firm culture is leadership. What do the leaders of the architecture firm value?
Markets and business types
The differences and similarities between cultures at firms of varying sizes start at the top. If architecture firm leaders value employee growth and wellbeing the firm will probably be a better place to work for employees. Well, how do you know how the leadership runs their firm? There are a couple of ways to evaluate leadership styles. One, make sure to understand what market sectors the firm serves. Each type of market has its own type of culture based on client needs and wants. For example, a hospital project is going to take longer to design than a retail project. The retail project may be on tighter deadlines and smaller budgets which may be reflected in the firm culture.
Get as much info in the interview as you can
Another important way to evaluate leadership styles is by asking about it in your interview with a firm. There are some example questions in the following blog post HERE. Also, if you know someone who works in the firm already, make sure to ask them what it is like to work there. It is common for leadership at smaller firms to have more varied responsibilities because there aren’t people at the firm who can specialize in certain tasks. A small firm owner may be trying to win work, design projects and be hiring more employees. At medium firms, the leaders may be focused on tasks like winning new work or budgeting. In the big firms, the leaders may focus on the overall company strategy.
Just as big a factor as firm leadership is the employees who work at the firm. It is important to network outside of your own job or academic setting to meet people working around the industry. When asking people, you meet about a firm make sure to ask in-depth questions to get a good picture of what it is like to work there. Deep questions are critical because sometimes people are motivated to recruit people to get referral bonuses.
Working long hours at architecture firms
So, if you don’t know the person well it is good to make sure you know their intent. Ask questions about day-to-day life at the firm etc. Get a feel for how much people work at the firm. Many firms have employees burning the midnight oil working very long hours. Also, see if you can get a feel for general compensation. Be respectfully asking about compensation. A good question may be, “does the firm pay above or below industry average?”, or “are the bonuses worth getting excited about?”. Ask about how the employees interact with each other. Are people friends outside of work? Are there design reviews in the office for people to participate in?
Studios vs. generalists
Typically, most architecture firms are organized in either studios or more of a general arrangement. If a studio system is in place it means specific teams will most likely focus on a particular building type. A really good example is healthcare projects, usually, these teams are organized in a set team or studio.
Some firms do not have particular studios arranged which means people probably jump between different project types. Sometimes firms don’t have enough employees to form specific studios. Its something to think about when considering working at different firms because studios vs. generalists have a big impact on who you will work with at a firm. You may end up working in a specific studio for multiple years.
Big architecture firm studio teams
Since big firms tend to have studio teams set up for efficiency and to foster more expertise in a particular market it is good to have a gameplan for your career path. If you are a person who prefers to work on different types of project types then you need to have a conversation with your prospective firm/current firm leadership. Ask if it is possible to jump between project types. Some firms like to have people in the office with enough expertise and versatility to jump between project types.
If you are at a point in your career where you want to focus on a particular market and building type then a studio setup will be perfect for you. One of the benefits of working in a studio team is you can really spend the time to increase your expertise or become a “thought leader” in a particular market.
Studio leaders at medium-sized firms
In a medium-sized firm, there may be a stage in the firm’s growth where studio teams haven’t quite developed yet but are imminent. This stage is a great opportunity to become a studio leader. A studio leader is someone with expertise in a given market. The studio leader typically tries to win more work for the studio and may also guide the designs etc.
Policies and benefits matter
The benefits and policies of architecture firms vary significantly. Many times the size of the firm plays into what benefits are offered. Unfortunately, most small firms can’t offer the same level of benefits the bigger firms offer. Since bigger firms have more revenue and bigger budgets they can afford to provide enhanced benefits. Learn about what different firms offer and weight the benefits of each. A good resource to get started is GLASSDOOR.
PTO and time off
Since many firms require long hours the paid time off or vacation time is very important to recuperate. Make sure to understand what is offered and how your time off is accrued. Also, some firms offer summer hours like Fridays off or leaving work early on Fridays. These types of policies can really help boost the morale of an architecture firm. Also, having the time during the week to get things done in your personal life can make a big difference. An architecture firms culture is heavily influenced by how happy the employees are, vacations keep people happy.
Resources technology and expertise
Technology and expertise are always evolving in the architecture profession. Part of staying relevant is keeping up with the latest technology. Understanding changing building types and client needs is a major factor. Different firm sizes address these issues in different ways. Sometimes larger firms have the ability to purchase the latest software or even develop their own software to stay competitive. On the other hand, small firms can change their standards and processes rapidly. Ask yourself how these different variables relate to your own career and what is important to you.
Summary of architecture firms culture – sizes and career advice
- Architecture firm cultures vary widely. There are many factors more than just the size of the firm. Take into account some other factors listed in this article.
- Leadership styles play a huge role, probably more than size.
- What type of work environment do you really want to work in?
- What salary and benefits matter to you and your lifestyle?
- Take into account what career path you are interested in. Where do you want to be in 5-10 years? What firm is going to help you get there?
- What technology and delivery methods do you want to be used for design, construction drawings or management.
- Is the work you are going to be doing contributing to a better world?
- At the end of the day, which firm will create the most amount of happiness and fulfillment for you?