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Small Projects can be a stepping stone for bigger opportunities

Landells Road by Alma-nac
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Small projects are very often the stepping stones to bigger opportunities, yet it is important not to overlook their inherent value, says Alma-nac founder Chris Bryant

With more practices setting up soon after university smaller scale work is becoming increasingly important as a way of getting a foot in the door. However, these projects can also have a place throughout a practice’s life. Alma-nac has been practicing for six years, and small projects still feature in the practice workload; a situation we can’t see changing soon. Just by looking at the entries for the AJ small project award it is easy to tell that we are in good company in believing in their importance to practice.

Generate ideas/add to a wider conversation

Alongside the wholesale changes, cities can be seen to grow from what happens between the big landmarks. It is the fine grain of a place made up of many small interventions and ideas that evolve a city. Each small project is part of that narrative.

All projects form part of a wider conversation. They affect their context physically while simultaneously impacting on the profession. This is particularly important to recognise in small projects, often the territory of exploration for new spatial ideas, new modes of craft and new typologies. These projects ask the upmost of the architect’s ability due to the often difficult sites, tight budgets and rapid programmes, and it is often through reactive ingenuity that new ideas can arise. We saw this at first hand when a client commissioned us to design a 42 apartment building after seeing our Slim House project. The ideas born out of a 2.3m wide infill site allowed us to convince the client that slim proportioned flats could be made to feel light and spacious, with the resulting affect that each and every apartment gained a south or west facing living space.

Doing more for less

The total combined construction cost of the 154 AJ small project entries is about £19 million. Comparison of this cost relative to say the Walkie Talkie (£200 million +) belies the wealth of ideas and creativity that lies behind this collection of projects. From this breadth of work, a huge wealth of knowledge and ideas will have been generated and critically, tested in the real world. We are firm believers in testing through doing, and small projects enable this in a way that the larger projects often can’t. Moreover, this expanse of architectural exploration will have (hopefully) brought joy and quality of life to many and helped in the continued training of the next generation of bigger thinking architects, especially.

Introduce new staff/autonomy

We try as often as we can (it is not always possible) to give a new member of staff a small project of their own soon after joining the practice. This allows them to experience the method in which we work from concept to completion in a relatively short space of time. It also allows them to take greater responsibility, and therefore autonomy, which we think is vitally important for all members of the architectural profession. Most of our new employees are Part 2s and often missing experience in certain stages of work, but they are full of confidence, good ideas and interest. They also bring a healthy dose of naivety which allows the testing of ideas that may otherwise be rejected outright. We are constantly surprised by the ideas they produce and this keeps the whole practice thinking fresh and reconsidering each problem anew.

Business case

Small projects often have a low financial return and swamping the practice with them can often lead to the feeling of working incredibly hard for little financial reward. It’s important that each project has a clearly defined purpose for the practice (client, portfolio, research etc) and that the time is controlled. Learning the ways in which the time spent on projects can spiral out of control within the relative safety of a lower resource hungry project can be critical to ensuring the longevity of a practice. 

Managed carefully small projects can be a key element to any practice

Once a practice has completed a few small projects it should be fairly easy to estimate the resources required and calculate the fee accordingly. Once we had completed a few small residential projects we noticed that three key stages of small project work - concept/planning, detail design/tender and construction tended to take a similar amount of time.

Concept and planning 150 hours

Detailed design and tender 180 hours

Construction 100 hours

Interestingly the deviation between at £125,000 project and £250,000 project was relatively minimal. As such we can now confidently fix the fee and scope on small projects based on an accurate expectation of practice resources. It is only through fast paced project turnover that this has been possible, and it is only through the projects being small in scale that we have managed to turn them over quickly.

Managed carefully, small projects can be a key element to any practice. They bring joy, fun, and great opportunities to develop individuals in the practice as well as the practice as whole. More importantly they form a critical part of the ongoing conversation, from the housing crisis to the future of cities.

Chris Bryant is director at Alma-nac. The practice’s Landells Road scheme is a finalist in the 2016 AJ Small Projects Awards

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