A Firm’s Sound Advice

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Because this 2012 survey reports almost a quarter of architecture firms nationally are sole practitioners, and more than 60% have fewer than five employees on their payrolls; and because 91 percent of architecture firms are considered small businesses by the federal government, the AIACC thought it appropriate to lend a website stage to the successful and thriving small firms.

A small firm by definition is 25 or fewer employees, and because of the abovementioned facts, must conduct their business differently than a larger firm.

Quite simply, large firms employ large staff able to produce large marketing campaigns. These firms have multiple offices, and hundreds of staffers. Often, the proprietor of a small firm is owner, operator, draftsperson, writer, artist, advertiser, marketer, designer, strategist, office manager, accountant. It’s just plain fact that a smaller firm will have to live by a different set of philosophies and rules by which one composes a successful portfolio of work. Any emerging professional new to the business and interested in starting their own firm, read on—this new feature speaks specifically to you. These are words from smaller successful groups, who have been around for decades, and are experts in building a solid reputation and clientele within limited budgets and constraints.

To set the stage and start things off right is the award-winning Sacramento-based firm, Dreyfuss & Blackford. They are the recipient of the 2013 Firm Award, and the answers below reflect why.

What do the best firms do to be successful?

Successful firms balance client expectations, design excellence, and profitability. Our firm’s best work is the result of meaningful relationships with clients who trust our ability to execute imaginative solutions to meet their needs. Design excellence is sustained by cultivating talented people. We share an unwavering commitment to discovering insightful, smart ideas that positively impact our client’s bottom line. We approach financial management conservatively knowing the economy is increasingly volatile. A well-managed, profitable business enables us to deliver our best service to clients, retain our talent and create places that are enjoyable for people to experience.

How do the best firms create a model for others?

Inspirational practices elevate the quality, integrity and value of our profession. Every project demands that we manage scope, schedule and budget. The best firms are able to produce beautiful, responsive designs while handling these inherent challenges. To build great ideas, we establish strong, collaborative partnerships with our clients, consultants and builders. Our work on very complex projects requires everyone on our team to contribute ideas that will make the outcome a success.

What defines a great practice?

Over the last sixty years, our profession has undergone significant changes. A great practice embraces opportunities to expand their creative services when new business sectors, technology and delivery methods emerge. Practices that demonstrate creative leadership are highly valued. They are able to effectively communicate their ideas in a clear, succinct manner that also generates excitement and appreciation for architecture. We are proud of our reputation for being excellent listeners. We ask intuitive, strategic questions and provide thought-provoking feedback during the design process.

The core of a great practice is a team of talented staff. Firms that are committed to mentoring younger generations of architects maintain the design quality, innovative thinking and leadership development needed for the future. Our office encourages involvement in the AIA and affiliated organizations. These activities help bridge the generation gap between promising leaders and seasoned practitioners. Our profession needs young people who are inspired, versatile and confident.

Reaching beyond the needs of our clients, we take responsibility for creating places that are good for people. Great practices integrate sustainability and resource conservation into their design culture. They engage in community and public-interest projects—projects that elevate quality of life and raise public perception about the value architecture brings to places people work, live, and play.

What is the history of Dreyfuss & Blackford?

After finishing his tour of duty as a WWII ensign on submarines, Albert “Al” Dreyfuss pursued an architectural degree and began working for the State of California. He met Len Blackford, another talented architect and designer, who soon became a great friend and neighbor. They both shared a passion for the clean, contemporary lines of the International style that was emerging from a booming post-war economy. Long conversations on the front porch inspired Al to start his own office in 1950 and explore the opportunities of bringing a modern design expression to the city of Sacramento.

What do you think is the single biggest issue impacting the profession in the future?

The Department of Labor has projected that there will be a 24% growth rate for our profession from 2010-2020. If this happens, many firms will not have enough architects to accommodate this work. Scott Timberg recently wrote a disturbing article for Salon magazine called “The Architecture Meltdown.” It echoes how the U.S. recession has decimated employment in our profession. Many architects have abandoned their practices and thus, changed careers. Students are deciding not to pursue an architectural degree when a quarter of current graduates cannot find work. We are optimistic the economy will recover—albeit slowly. When it does, there will be a smaller pool of skilled professionals to choose from and senior architects will need to step up their mentoring skills to keep the talent we already have.

Representatives from Dreyfuss & Blackford are slotted to give a presentation to students from 4 -5 p.m., Thursday in UC Berkely’s Wurster Hall. Anyone attending the 2013 Design Awards Celebration should feel welcome to stop in and listen to what this firm has to say about the Value of Design.


Shannon Calder

Shannon Calder, a Sacramento-based writer, joined the AIACC in 2013. She is the author of, “Jack and Abigail Make a Compass,” a novel about people, birds, and orchids. She spends her days both on and off hours, looking for connection, which is a good hobby to have when linking the value of design to public perception.

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  1. avatar
    Jack Andersen, AIA

    Sorry but I disagree with your claim that about the coming shortage of architects. We are moving to a new paradigm and there will be the need for less of us. Please see the below links:




    There will be no shortage of architects in the near or distant future. In fact, the AIA needs to accept, do more promoting and take more serious the notion of non-traditional practices and practitioners in the architectural profession. Not every (in fact very few) lawyers argue cases in court; the same is now true for doctors and practicing medicine. Most lawyers never see the inside of a courtroom just as not every architect designs buildings in the traditional practice sense; doctors in medical profession have the same similarities as attorneys working for medical equipment or pharmaceutical companies. There are +/- 100K licensed architects in the US and of those numbers, only 70% to 75% practice traditional architecture. With the recession, that number could be more like 65% or even 60% and less if you count the number of architects who work part-time or whose practice has dwindled to absolute nothing.

    Things are improving but many firms are reluctant to hire people as full-time employees opting to stretch and overwork their current staff, hire inexperienced non-licensed personnel at lower wages (not salaries) and put them into “project management” roles with new technologies (BIM) and produce a sub-standard work product and hope they don’t get sued.

    The problem is not that there are too many architects but too many architects practicing traditional architecture. I claim that in the future we only need about 40K US architects as traditional practitioners due to technology such as BIM; let’s all remember the (hand) drafting room with 50 people working on one project and the transition to CADD with 10 work stations for the same effort. To prove this point, Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman said in a blog on 2.2.13, “Technology has shifted in a way that really favors capital over labor” and “that makes it possible to replace people with machines”. In terms of the human resource, our profession is doing much more (thanks to technology) with much less (people). In addition, some say that the new project delivery systems along with BIM are forcing the architect into more of a shared leadership or even a subordinate role for building projects. Some would say this is a tragedy but I see it as a way for our profession to “catch up” with other industries that utilize design modeling/graphics media technology such as aerospace.

    As our profession moves forward in this decade, we very much need more (licensed) architects in the US. However, we need to realize that only a few are needed to fulfill the demand for the traditional roles of an architect considering the advanced technologies and new project delivery systems that “flatten” the project team hierarchy as mentioned above. The rest of the architects working in more non-traditional roles could make a (very good) livelihood pursuing alternative career paths; architects in positions and/or offering services in sustainability, facilities management, CM, fire protection, interiors, product rep, etc. could potentially make a very good living (often times more $$ than the comparable positions in the traditional practices) as well having a more than satisfying career and less stressful life. Given the skills, processes and methodologies that we have been taught and employ every day, the AIA needs to recognize the value of non-traditional architectural services/careers, promote it by educating the public on our abilities to do more than just design buildings and “caste a wider net” for architects outside the mainstream of traditional practice.

    Let’s get off the idea that Architects can only design buildings… We can do so much more than just be the ‘form givers’ and stararchitects which has been our main focus for the last 30 years or so.

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