How To Choose An Architectural Employer (part 3)

Following up on my last post, here are a few more thoughts on choosing an architectural firm to work for.

Small Firm, Medium Firm, Or Large Firm?

Firms basically come in three sizes.  I would describe small firms as 20 people or less, medium firms as having 21-75 employees, and large firms as having more than 75 employees.  

The first firm I worked at after I graduated college had 35 employees. When I left that firm six years later, it had 120 employees. It outgrew it's original office and had to lease additional offices within the building. Eventually, it took over the entire first floor of the original building and remodeled it into a single large office. Then it started to lease additional suites on the second floor. It continued to grow after I left and eventually had more than 300 employees and basically took over the building it was in. It was a firm that started life as a small firm in a residential house, grew to a medium size firm, and is now a large firm with a satellite office in Seattle. The last I heard, it was building a new building for itself.

There are a number benefits to that kind of success. In a previous post, I mentioned the transition from a 401k retirement plan to an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). That happened with this firm and it was a good thing - especially as the firm's success grew. Another perk came when the office was remodeled and everyone had new desks work at and new conference rooms to meet in. Other benefits of the large firm were the increased size and type of projects we could comfortably accept. We still took on remodels and tenant improvements, but they were a smaller percentage than they were before. Being a large firm meant that we had more resources at our disposal as well. More printers, more plotters, more copiers, - more of everything really.

Unfortunately, there were also some drawbacks. The biggest one being inter-office politics. Once the firm grew to over 80 people, the principals decided to establish system of promotion.  The titles of "associate" and "senior associate" were created and a number of employees were promoted to those titles. Several others were promoted to the level of principal. Everything became more competitive within the office. Egos were bruised, feelings were hurt, and a number of talented employees left because of it. Not being licensed at that time, I didn't feel entitled to those promotions. However, I was frustrated that I wasn't given opportunities in areas of architecture other than drafting. I was also annoyed that I was having a difficult time being seen as anything other the office "runner" that I was initially hired as. So eventually I was compelled to move on as well.

My next firm was a small firm of 10 employees. Instantly, I had a larger salary and more responsibilities. The people were no less talented than at the large firm, but I came to find that office moral was just as bad. The two principals didn't see eye to eye on a number of levels and the single associate was overly ambitious to the point that he alienated the rest of the staff. In a little more than a year, most of us (including myself) were laid off due to lack of work. The ambitious associate left later to become an owner in another firm. Some time after that the two principals parted ways.

For my next firm, I ended up fulfilling a dream of moving to central Oregon. This time, the firm I was hired by was even smaller: a single principal and four employees (including myself). I worked there for a little more than two years before lack of work forced me to find another firm. During that time, I learned everything I had failed to learn from the large firm in Portland. It was extremely beneficial in that regard, even though it didn't come close to matching the benefits, resources, or employment stability of the large firm.

The other architectural firms I've worked at in central Oregon would also be categorized as small. In fact all of the architecture firms in this area - including those that are branch offices of larger firms - would be categorized as small (20 people or less). Most actually became smaller during the recent recession as work became scarce and layoffs became plentiful. A side effect of that, was the creation of a number of new firms (including my own).  Many of these are single-person entities. Some are actual sole-proprietors (in the legal sense) while others (Iike mine) have been formed under different legal hats (l.l.c., p.c., inc., etc.). But that's a topic for another post.

The main takeaway from this post is that firms come in varying sizes and there are advantages and disadvantages to both. In general, the larger firm might offer more in the way of compensation and benefits, but the smaller firm may offer more in terms of actual experience in the various facets of architecture. Again, the use of "may" and "might" should tell you that your actual experience will likely vary somewhat from mine.