I enjoy being a small practitioner. I live in a small town.

There is nothing small about what I do or who I am. Perhaps we need a new adjective, yet don’t offend easily and I don’t care to be politically correct. We can keep the term.

What is it like to be a solo-practitioner working on small projects? Several months ago a friend whispered in my ear to share a glimpse into the development of small projects. The first topic is time.


For this topic, I’ll use a current project. For my business minded friends, I’ll admit I missed the mark on time management. The work was more important, but that’s another topic, another day.

I’ve shared recently about a small, 350 square foot bedroom/bath addition to an old house. Let me interject, this is even a small project for my office. Perhaps this makes the story more relevant.

My client is astute enough to hire an architect; they wanted something more than more space. They needed a first floor bedroom to have in place for when they might really need it, but also wanted something special that they (and I) could be proud of at the end. I gave that to them and to quote a good friend of mine, I gave them a “machine in a garden” too.

How did we get there?

Small projects require quickly developed concepts. The fees only permit a few hours to conceive of an idea and present it for approval. It takes real skill (and a bit of luck) to present an idea that gains approval without multiple iterations and revisions. I believe in iterations, but in practice (as opposed to school), time is money.

In other words, there is no time for relentless studies, multiple study models, or endless formal manipulations. Being adept at efficient concept development comes with time, practice, a keen listening skill and confidence in one’s ability. On the other hand, what most people need to understand is every project requires certain drawings and documentation to explain it to a client and explain it to a contractor. Small projects still take time.

There is no way to do it any quicker and yield a result of any value. I wish more people understood this.

To illustrate how few hours are allocated for each phase, let me share a bit of personal information. For this project, I budgeted about 20 hours for Schematic Design. Within that time (less than three full days of work), we had to meet the client, field measure critical dimensions, analyze the site and program, develop ideas, document and present them.

To be honest, we went over this a bit, but what we had to do in less than three days, several weeks are given to students in architecture school to get this far. That doesn’t happen in practice. To be honest, we actually spent 33 hours, but since that included time to coordinate and interview three different contractors, we were permitted to bill for the additional time.

I mentioned one must be adept at developing solutions. Again, I believe in an iterative process, but with experience, one can become proficient at testing multiple ideas and in a small practice, each idea isn’t developed with a full set of drawings and a model. Quick sketches will do. If we’ve listened well in the early programming meeting, asked the right questions and have confidence in our proposal, we can put forth a strong concept, gain client approval and survive as a business.

Just to complete the story, we allocated about 65 hours to get through Design Development and Construction Documents. I’ll be honest, I really missed the mark here – but that’s mostly my fault (or obsessive personality) and due to additional time meeting with the contractor for budget reviews. Based on that, we were permitted to bill a few additional hours. However, to stay within our own budget, that gave us less than three weeks (yes, three weeks) to develop the project in detail and produce very detailed documents (17 sheets) that are currently being used for construction. I’ll admit a banal addition stuck on the back of a house could be done quicker, but I don’t believe it fair to compare that type of project to this.

Now that it’s under construction, I have to be really careful with how much time I bill for contract administration. Yes, the client permitted additional billings earlier, but they’re also concerned about the total fee. It’s about clear communication.

Small projects…not for the faint at heart. We do it every day and aim to elevate them above the norm.

Perhaps others could have done an addition in less time, but I doubt one as complex as this with a tight budget and this many details could be done in less time – and done well. Perhaps that’s just me. To me, it’s all about the work.

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