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How to decide if you should be working with a Small, Medium or Large office?
April 21, 2021 at 4:30 PM
by Sagar Oke
architecture office.jpg

Does the scale of an office really matter? This question came up in a recent online interaction I had with Architecture students and fresh graduates. Some expressed their strong belief that the scale of the office has a lot to do with what they learn on the job while some others who did not agree argued that what you learn on the job is completely up to you, irrespective of how big or small your office is. We ended up debating the topic in detail and a few interesting points sprung out of it, which are worth sharing and pondering over.

Here are some of them.

  1. How do we categorize Architecture firms into S/M/L
  2. As an aspiring practitioner, shouldn’t you be working with a small Architecture office?
  3. Are medium scale offices best for young Architects?
  4. What factors regarding an Architecture office matter other than the scale?

1. How do we categorize Architecture firms into S/M/L

Image by curbed

Based on consensus from the debate, we considered an office with less than 10 employees including designers and non-designers as a small office, one with 10-50 as a medium scale office and one with 50+ employees to be a large scale office. Based on offices you’re considering applying to, categorize them in small, medium and large. The number of employees are secondary compared to the shared characteristics of similar scale of offices such as organization and hierarchy.

It is true that most offices start small, so one may consider a small office to be a new setup. However, remember that a lot of offices deliberately do not scale up for years. Large scale offices tend to do large scale of work, which is generally true. But again, there are many medium and small scale offices that take up large scale projects such as urban plans, multi-functional complexes etc. Medium scale of offices are of interest to me personally because offices that are gradually scaling up from small set ups also fall in this category. Practices in such a transition phase have to consciously and selectively adapt to the newer demands of staff and resources as they go, creating more opportunities for architects to learn and grow.

2. As an aspiring practitioner, shouldn’t you be working with a small Architecture office?

Work experience matters more than what it is credited for. The experience you gain from engaging with teams, colleagues, consultants, clients, contractors helps you in practice when you set up. By that logic, the more varied experience you gain, the better for you as a practitioner.

Typically smaller offices tend to be the preferred option among architects who wish to eventually establish their own practice. This is a common myth; less people in the office, hence more roles I get to play, which leads to more learning. Having established my practice after working in a small office myself I developed a contrarian view of the ‘less people = more learning’ argument. Architecture is as much a service industry as a design profession. Which implies it has a lot to do with people and networks. In a small office, while juggling multiple roles, you grow as an independent designer, but might pay less attention to team-work, delegation, people management etc. which are of significant importance when you set up your own practice.

If you work at a larger office, you'll be assigned specific roles which may seem mundane as compared to the rigorous training you'll receive in a small office. That is because a hierarchical system is more efficient at a larger scale. However, the functioning of a larger office helps you closely observe the organization and interdependence of the systems within practice more clearly. For someone aspiring to set up their own practice, understanding the organization of hierarchy and systems, and scaling them down to suit the capacity of a smaller office is not difficult.

3. Are medium scale offices best for young Architects?

Image by Junya Ishigami Office

Medium scale offices are definitely great to work at. Even though there may be a hierarchical organization, the teams are smaller and there's enough exposure for Architects in terms of learning. If you think that a small office may be too demanding and a large scale office may be too restrictive, medium scale offices are the best option for you. As mentioned above, offices that are scaling up also mostly fall in this category. Such offices selectively expand their resources trying to cope with growing demands of new projects or addition of new verticals to an existing set up. In such cases there is more potential for growth as newer roles may be assigned to existing employees.

However, if resources aren’t prioritized and planned well, the practices in transition tend to be inefficient. It is generally difficult for the principals and senior architects to adjust to the working of a larger set up. For instance, even after hiring more architects and interns, the senior architects end up doing most of the design and coordination work instead of delegating it to respective teams. In such cases the office is at a loss of time and resources. But, if it is managed well, a mid-sized office may offer you ample opportunities for learning and growth as a young architect.

4. What factors regarding an Architecture office matter other than the scale?

If scale is not of much importance to you during application and you still want to make the most of your work experience, you may wish to consider other factors that would help narrow down your decision. First and foremost assess whether the type of work that the office produces matches your interests. Secondly, the location of the office matters for Architects who may wish to broaden their social and professional network. Most architects seem to prefer urban, metropolitan locations compared to offices in smaller towns or remote areas.

Another very important factor you may wish to consider is diversity. Diversity and inclusion matters tremendously in a design office. Not only does the work culture become more vibrant, but sharing knowledge and culture goes a long way in one's growth as a designer. One more factor you may consider before applying to an office is the average number of years employees work with the firm. A good average to consider is 4-5 years. A healthy mix of senior and junior designers makes for balanced teams. If scale of office isn’t a factor, this becomes a measure of whether or not there is enough scope for growth in the office.