"Thoughts and Observations on Architecture and You"

Topics of importance for people about to build or renovate

Facade renovation in San Francisco

Doing Small Projects Well

Although a building project may be small in size, ordinary in scope of work, and limited in budget, it should not be approached in a cursory manner. Why should our expectations be lower for a modest building endeavor that will have a daily impact on the ease and pleasure in our lives for years to come, and for which we shall be paying thousands of dollars today?

Though your project may be small, if you want a design suited for your particular needs, preferences, and site / building conditions, and if you desire carefully crafted construction, the following thoughts and suggestions may be of value:

Your Project Attitude and Outlook

  • The great American architect, Louis Kahn, once said: "You cannot make a building unless you are joyously engaged." The spirit with which you approach your project work should be positive, enthusiastic, cooperative, and inquisitive. Everyone with whom you work will sense this spirit and usually respond to it with a better work effort.

  • At first glance, almost all small projects seem simple. We start using modifiers like "just" or "only" when thinking about the work and describing what we want to accomplish. Experience tells us that building projects are never as simple and easy to complete as they first appear, but we frequently forget this. In doing so, we undervalue the importance of approaching the work in the deliberate, professional manner that we use for larger projects.

  • Any small project has the potential to become something special and memorable if it is given the proper amount of design attention and construction care.

  • During the project, if you do not understand something, ask someone to explain it until you do understand it. The more you seek to know, the more comfortable you will feel observing and judging the work.

  • Keep your goals high, your perspective broad, your mind open, your skepticism reasonable, and your apprehension under control. Your project will benefit substantially.


  • Each of us has been in buildings with poorly designed and constructed “improvements.” Our impression of the building’s value is lowered because of them. The long-term value of each project dollar spent will increase with a rise in the design and construction quality demanded.

  • To be useful for the contractor, initial design ideas need to be tested and refined to find out how good they really are and how difficult they may be to build. Providing a builder with sketchy design ideas and expecting his crew to “make them work” usually leads to lower design quality, a longer construction period, and higher cost.

  • Well-designed small projects tend to be based on one or two clear design concepts. They become the frame of reference against which subsequent design and construction choices are judged. For the project’s central design concept to remain strong, these design choices should support and reinforce it, rather than work against it.

  • Rooms and spaces may be modest in size, but they need not seem that way. Abundant light from several sources, reflective surface materials, lighter color finishes, and generous openings in bounding walls and ceilings increase perceived spatial size.

  • Traditional design styles, many with visually complex details, are often more expensive to design and build properly (no marginal construction or fake materials) than are simpler, contemporary styles that may use ordinary building materials in fresh, interesting ways.

  • Construction details tend to be more prominent and important to convey design character in small projects. Your architect’s fee needs to be large enough so he can develop these details.


  • High expectations are met most often when matched by a high level of resources (thought, time, energy, and money) that you can give to the building effort.

  • Necessary repair work may be a design opportunity of which to take advantage to make related improvements that may be more significant for your property’s value.

  • Architects and builders solve problems. For them to do that well, state your expectations for the project’s quality level (both design and construction), schedule, and budget with clarity and candor at the start of the work.

  • Retain consultants based on competence, dedication, and experience — and not on price, no matter how tempting to do so. Select your contractor similarly, before the project design work begins. The contractor’s construction knowledge, project management experience, and cost estimating ability will be invaluable as your project design is developed and evaluated.

  • Minimal construction information on design drawings will lead to higher cost estimates for construction assemblies and details with which the contractor is unfamiliar. High estimates may cause you to prematurely jettison promising design ideas before their advantages are fully understood and appreciated.

  • Design consultants and contractors with small organizations are good choices for small projects. These firms are usually nimble, able to give you and your project more attention, and have lower management costs. However, the quality level of their work varies more from company to company than is usually the case for larger organizations. It is also more reflective of the company owner’s particular skills, project experience, and attitude.

  • During the work, meet with your architect and contractor on a frequent basis, perhaps weekly. You will be able to closely monitor the project’s development and changes, ask and answer questions at the right time, and get to know the work habits of the people you have retained.

  • Other than changing the perception that small projects don’t “need” the careful planning and execution that larger projects get, the most important thing you can do to improve project quality is to retain good design and construction people at the start of the work. The greater the level of assistance you get, the better the final building result is likely to be.

John McLean, Architect
San Francisco
(415) 777-9767