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 Grew Design
Milton Grew
Milton Grew
Milton Gregory "Greg" Grew, AIA is CEO of Grew Design, Inc and Grew Construction, LLC in Woodbury, CT. Greg is a licensed architect, building official, and contractor with over 20 years designing/building residential, commercial and institutional building projects.


June 4th, 2009 by Milton Grew

What is being an architect all about? That question could illicit a myriad of responses but an appointment of mine today brought it home to a very simple answer.

This afternoon I had an appointment with a prospective client at his home in a suburb of New Haven. They have lived for five years in a nondescript ranch built in 1963 with 1,400 square feet in a lovely quiet neighborhood of similar homes. Nothing very exciting or sexy you might think and you would be right.

Here’s the good part. They need more room. The bedrooms are small for their family and they share one bath. They simply want to get a larger master bedroom and master bath along with another bath for the kids and some additional living space. The constructed project probably won’t cost more than $200,000. What did they do? They didn’t call builders or remodeling contractors. They didn’t call an unlicensed residential designer. They call an architect!

Why did they call an architect? Because they felt they had the best shot of getting comprehensive advice from an architect. Which way to expand- up or out? What range of construction cost could they expect? What implications might there be with zoning regulations and their old septic system? Is their house structurally sound enough to carry a second floor? Could an appealing exterior design be devised?

Now this is not a project that I am going to get rich on. I don’t believe every project has to be a home run. If I can get to first or second base on every time at bat do I win the game? You bet I do! I usually do much larger projects, but frankly my profit margin on the small ones is often better.  Very often when I meet with prospects like this one they tell me they called other architects before me and the architects would hang up when they find out the size or budget of the project. Too bad for them. Good for me!

But it doesn’t help dispell the notion that architects are elitest snobs who can only be bothered designing for the rich and famous or when they can rack up a big fee on a big budget. Why are more architects not happy with the notion of ordinary mid-middle class folks calling on them for help? More architecture is seen in ordinary middle class working neighborhoods and some of that is bad architecture simply because architects hung up the phone on the homeowners and so they called contractors who hashed something together or remuddled.

This is what it’s all about. Not masterpieces or monuments. Simply good design for ordinary folks who appreciate it and know it will enhance their family life. There’s a lot that being an architect means but this is actually as good as it gets. What do you think?

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12 Responses to “WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT”

  1. ron brenner says:

    Not all architects are elitist snobs. Many of them make a living providing simple design solutions for projects very similar to the example you have provided.

    I actually enjoy these types of jobs and find that the clients tend to be very appreciative of our efforts. The key is having the right attitude and the right process to handle this type of project. I will admit that this does not fit every architect out there, but please don’t bash the entire industry.

    Simple,Unique, Creative and Green House Plans
    Spreading the word on great home design

  2. Paul Setti says:

    This is a great example of an untapped market. While I too have been designing homes for over 20 years with different companies, I have recently begun my own business and find this price range of homes and remodel or addition is in dire need of an architect’s, (or a very knowledgeable designer’s I’m not licensed yet) experience. It’s a win win situation. Having worked in a design build company, one learns the mindset of builders and their relationships with home owners. From my experience the design team always lost out to fee and some better design option for the client. But when client recognize the need of an architect I agree that the project really takes on a much better quality of service. I also agree that even though the money spent on a small project is often under rated by Architects who are used to higher end clients and fees, the profit margin is higher for the designer. What I like most though is the opportunity to gain entry into what typically is a builder only market and offer good architecture and service for the client who thinks good architecture has to be expensive.

  3. Bruce Woolf says:

    I couldn’t agree more.
    Good design is what matters.
    Your prospective clients are smart people.
    What’s wrong with a $200,000 renovation budget on a 1400 sq ft house?
    Nothing, if you ask me. Sounds like a good and realistic budget.
    Slow and steady wins the race.

  4. Tim Dill says:

    somewhere near half of all Architecture “firms” are comprised of 1-2 architects working in his/her/their basement on projects exactly like the one you describe. Some are hacks, some are really great, thoughtful design professionals, most sincerely want to provide excellent service to help their clients squeeze the best possible living environment from the dollars they have available for their home renovation or small business. The architects toil long hours, probably not billing all the hours they put in to get the job done, The image that architects have in the popular press, and maybe in the popular mindset, is driven by the few sexy capital A architects and firms that have publicists flaunting their names into the stratosphere. Most of us work away on the small projects that afford us a decent living. We get to excercise our creative faculties every day, one way or another; that seems to be a fairly rare thing among occupations, and it’s what keeps me in the business.

  5. R J Reynolds says:

    Another small practitioner signs on. I believe, despite the paucity of education in TV, radio or in print, that architects are a valuable and too frequently overlooked source of problem solving, for small additions, alterations, gardens and chimney repair. As a pencil and pen sketcher and producer of (some say) beautiful illustrated construction documents, I guess I’m one of the 40% of us labeled dinosaur in the digital age, but we do perform a valuable service to society.

    Thank you for reminding us that serving the small homeowner is an honorable practice. We’re not celebrities, but we count.

  6. I have always considered myself to be a practical architect. The reality is that there are very few clients that say, “the checkbook is open, express yourself!” This is a rare occurrence in our careers, if it happens at all. I’m still looking for mine.

    This is my belief: Architects who can design on a shoestring budget, with a ridiculous schedule, and make every dollar count for the owner are, as a whole, better architects than those on the cover of the magazines.

    Great post and keep the pace…

  7. I agree with Ron, not all architects are elitist snobs, but majority are. When I started my own business in 2005 people were sorry for me because “Realtors and architects are the most disgusting people to deal with”!!! Thanks God small architectural firms and solo architects are not infected with premadonna attitude. They are my clients, some became friends.
    I think AIA contribute a lot to glorify the monuments here and there, and keep building dysfunctional communities.

  8. John DeForest says:

    I agree, but we are preaching to the choir. What needs to be done to dispel the elitist image and demonstrate the value of what architects do? Why hasn’t the profession done more on these fronts already?

  9. Good work! It is a serious problem given a widespread perception that architects are widely seen as ‘just adding another x% of cost to the project” (that a builder or engineer can do). We architects are fairly convinced that we add something significant and valuable — but we don’t seem to be able to explain to people just what that is: a problem of communication. Or, as I like to call it, of ‘how to talk about architecture’. How do you talk to the client about this work? I’d like to know about that. I just finished a book* on that very problem, (among other things) where I suggest the following ‘way of talking’: Architecture is providing places (buildings) for the occasions that make up our lives (and that should all be ‘memorable’) in such a way that they not only work well but also convey an appropriate image of who we (users) are — or who we ought to be? — that inspires and motivates us. I even show how that can be extended into building economics — another area where architects are considered, rightly or wrongly, to not speak or even want to speak the language: developing a measure of the value of buildings based on the value users assign to the opportunities for occasions, the place’s functional and image adequacy. Good luck and success with such projects!
    Thorbjoern Mann

    * not published yet but CD available on request

  10. Pragya Gupta says:

    I’m a student at BNCA, Pune. I really don’t know too much about profit margins or if they are worth your effort, but I am very facinated by Laurie Baker, who worked all his life to find best possible construction techniques for low cost housing. He’s famous doing what? Building houses for the cleaning ladies….now thats a different way of looking at architecture and life itself. He didn’t do it for money and am sure not everything should be treated as a means. Its great that you don’t refuse such projects…best of luck!

  11. I wanted to thank Mr. Grew and the others so far for giving us a reality check. It is a timely encouragement to a sole practioner about how to communicate value with non-architects. We might be guilty of perpetuating the star-architect because we purchase and read the glossy magazines and aspire to have our work in them. I do not find desiring to be published a bad thing or something not worth pursuing. The aspiration challenges me and my work to do the best I can do. However, if this is our sole motivation and we forget our duty and service to our clients and the general public, then I believe we become the elitists that those commenting in this blog eschew. Remember we provide a service. That makes us a servant.

    Architecture is created in a context not a vacuum as we were taught in school. There is a site, a budget and a client, among many other factors that will affect the project. Regardless of our individual design abilities, if we can not convey value to clients, then there will be no architecture. Most of us do not have the means to be our own clients. Taking on a $200,000 house addition is a great way to show that value in a tangible way. Somehow I have not found that designing a large office, hospital or school conveys that same value as when we design for their own personal home. That is simply an observation. Maybe I am biased since my business thrives on such $200K projects and as the owner, I have to convince people everyday that hiring an architect is the best choice for their project.

    My current frustration, which I invite comments, is dealing with the call requesting “drawings” so they can get through the code process. (I admit I generally do not accept these). A contractor or home owner is either cited by the code official or realizes by the permitting process that they need a “seal” to get through the process. After they complain or call their congress person they call the architect. It took some time, but I have finally figured out that in my region, I believe people unconsciously liken it to a notary public (no insults intended) service. You come into the office, pay a small fee and have your plans stamped. I realize it is an innocent misunderstanding, but frustrating none the less. If we could ‘talk architecture” like Mr. Mann (LinkedIn site) is suggesting earlier to a larger audience, then maybe these people would value architects and call us earlier like the good people who called Mr. Grew did. Congrats to them for calling him. How can we convey that investing 5% to 15% of the construction cost is exactly that, an investment in the project that will reap rewards both in real value and in intangible value?

    Don’t hang up the phone on small projects. Talk to them if only for five minutes. If you do not want the job, then kindly guide them to me and Mr. Grew. We might not take the project either, but we seem to be wiling to reward their effort of calling with a few encouraging words. Remember their $200K project is important to them, even if it is not important to us.

  12. I appreciate exactly where you’re coming from. I have worked on these types of projects for several years now. They are 90% of what I do, and I love it! I have developed a great business model for these types of projects and am now franchising it.

    I love to read that others are doing this type of work, as it is definitely more important than those projects that end up on the covers of magazines – just ask your clients!

    Much appreciation and respect!

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