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In praise of small projects

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In tightened times, tend to the bread and butter of architectural practice, says Christine Murray

With muted celebrations, the Year of the Ox was ushered in on Monday, a year that in Chinese astrology stands for prosperity through hard work. On that day, 76,000 jobs were axed around the world, many in the construction industries, including jobs at steelmaker Corus and Caterpillar, the world's largest manufacturer of construction vehicles. The bad news keeps on coming - at the AJ100 Breakfast Club last Friday, founding director of Countryside Properties Alan Cherry predicted no sign of recovery in the residential market until 2012 (AJ online 28.01.09).

It's easy to panic, but if ever there was a time to adopt the wartime mantra of 'keep calm and carry on', this is it. After heeding the dreary headlines, reducing overheads and battening down the hatches, there isn't much architects can do but roll up their sleeves, put their heads down and, ox-like, get back to work - if not building castles in Dubai, then entering competitions and pursuing projects of a more humble variety.

The AJ Small Projects exhibition opens next week, and runs from 5-26 February at New London Architecture, London WC1, featuring models, drawings and images from the 24 shortlisted projects, which were selected from over 200 entries and appeared in our last two issues.

There is something comforting about this year's shortlist, and not only because of its extraordinarily high quality. These housing extensions, garden sheds and bike stores are the bread and butter of architectural practice. In recent years, the humble and the small (constructed for a contract value of less than £250,000, in this case) have perhaps been overlooked in favour of iconic towers, lavishly funded public projects and hedge-fund homes.

If the Small Projects exhibition can inspire anything, it's a feeling that good architecture doesn't need to be backed by billionaire developers or Russian oligarchs. From extensions to nurseries to artists' studios, these projects could realistically be built during a recession. They are also prime examples of how investing in an architect can add value to a home or business - be it an extra bedroom, a dining annex or an extended retail space.

As an antidote to all the doom and gloom, I urge you visit this year's exhibition. It will make you feel good about being an architect.


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