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Size is not important: small practices have an important role

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One of the most important initiatives of Marco Goldschmied's presidency has been the establishment of a vice president for small practices, and who better than Elspeth Clements, who took up this post at the beginning of Goldschmied's second year in office? True to character, Clements has kicked off with a bang by setting up a conference earlier this week dedicated to the issues and concerns of this important part of the profession. It attracted some 200 delegates to Portland Place from across the country, and Clements intends to use the event to inform her committee's policies for the coming year's work.

Hopefully, the post of vice president for small practices will be a permanent one: offices with two or three people make up some 65 per cent of the UK architectural profession, and those with fewer than 10 people apparently account for a further 15 per cent of RIBAmembers.

But it is all too easy to presume that sole practitioners in particular exist through force of circumstance. Nothing could be further from the truth: many architects prefer to control their own jobs, working within the traditional procurement routes that are still generally prevalent in this field, and enjoying the close relationships with clients and the flexibility that goes with smaller practice life, to say nothing of the pleasure of being involved at all stages of the architectural service.

Another myth is that small offices only do small jobs. Many, such as Simon Foxhall or sole practitioner Tim Drewitt, undertake very sizeable projects. Drewitt's current workload includes a £2.5 million new-build housing association scheme.

Yet another misconception is that 'homebased' firms cannot be taken seriously - what kind of nonsense is that in this age of sophisticated computer and communication facilities that enable ever more flexible and sustainable working arrangements hitherto impossible? But attitudes within the construction and development industry all too frequently mitigate against smaller offices, and there is, in too many quarters, a growing opinion that small practices may not have a role in the modern world.

With grim regularity, new selection procedures and appointment terms exclude smaller offices, ideally suited for a project, on the spurious grounds of size or turnover.

Presumptions against appointments where similar work has not been undertaken before also deny opportunities unfairly, while the crippling bureaucracy and expensive tendering procedures bedevilling so many state projects effectively discourage many smaller firms at the outset.

But all of this denies the huge success of small practitioners over the years and the tremendous resource they offer. For example, small offices provide high levels of experience which many clients come to both enjoy and rely on - committed and responsive principal/ client contact at all stages of the service.

It is ludicrous to imagine that the marketplace would be better off if smaller offices and sole practitioners were to be squeezed out of business. In this respect it is essential that Goldschmied's initiative for a vice president for small practices should succeed.

A concerted effort is required to improve the wider public perception of small practices, especially their suitability for larger state-funded projects. Efforts are also needed to improve RIBA core services at region and branch level in support of small offices (as set out in this column AJ 30.10.97) and, of course, pressure is required to persuade clients, where appropriate, to accept the principles of associations between small firms.

Finally, there should not be a presumption for expansion. Many firms find equilibrium at four or five people and this should be acknowledged favourably, not criticised as an indication of failure to grow.

But above all, sole practitioners will always need to share experience and problems and this is where the local RIBA branch and regional activities are so important - encouraging dialogue, exhibitions, ongoing CPD and mutual support in the interests of both architects and their clients.

Hopefully, this week's conference will have seen the beginning of renewed respect and support for what is, in the eyes of many, the very backbone of the profession.

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