Specialization makes architectural firms more appealing to clients

Over the past decade, architectural firms have increasingly begun specializing in one sector of the market. The result is that small, specialized firms are able to compete with even the largest national firms for projects related to their specialties.

James Hundt began working in the area of religious buildings in 1980, designing churches and other religious facilities. Seeing a need for quality service in this market, in 1991 Hundt started his own architecture firm, James Hundt Architect in Clifton Park. The firm has worked on a broad spectrum of projects within its narrow niche, including new churches, additions, renovations to historic structures, and even a private chapel.

His specialized focus provided him with an expert knowledge of buildings for religious institutions. This sets his firm apart from others that are equally as competent but work on a variety of different types of projects.

“It’s easy to be better at what you do if you specialize, because you put all of your focus on a particular type of work,” Hundt said. “It helps in competition because you have something to offer that other firms do not,” he said.

A case in point is the Church of Christ the King in Guilderland, for which Hundt designed a new building. The church interviewed six firms for the project: two large, two medium and two small firms. The church’s committee narrowed its selection down to the two small firms. Hundt won out because of the narrow scope of his work.

This choice is indicative of a trend toward specialization that architects are seeing in their field.

“Everybody wants a specialist these days,” said Richard Butler, a partner in Butler Rowland Mays Architects LLP in Mechanicville.

Hundt had a large portfolio of religious projects that he could show the committee. “We were impressed with the work that Jim Hundt had done,” said Father Patrick Butler of the Church of Christ the King.

Another factor in the church’s decision to select Hundt was the time he was able to devote to the project. In addition, church members and staff would be working directly with Hundt.

“You’re not dealing with someone else after the initial presentation–just always with him,” Father Butler said.

Leonard Angerame, president of Angerame Architects P.C. in Old Chatham, a firm specializing in buildings for the health care industry, would agree that smaller firms can offer clients a higher degree of consistent attention from one person.

“The fact is that, as a principal, I am directly involved with the complete project from start to finish,” Angerame said. “The owner is getting my expertise throughout the whole project.”

Hundt pointed out that the disadvantage of specialization is that it is more difficult for these types of firms to attract employees. Many architects want to gain experience on a wide variety of projects before focusing on one type of market.

The benefits of specialization outweigh this disadvantage, however.

Concentrated experience in one area makes a firm appealing to prospective clients. Angerame’s focus on senior-care buildings, including independent and assisted living facilities, senior day care centers, skilled nursing facilities, rehabilitative facilities and Alzheimers’ care centers, has allowed the firm to work on large projects throughout the state. Currently, the firm’s largest project is one for $20 million.

Working in one area of the architecture market builds expertise and recognition within that industry’s professional circles. Butler, of Butler Rowland Mays, specializes in libraries and museums. He found that his company developed an “encyclopedia of knowledge” through its specialization.

The firm became widely known in library circles through word-of-mouth. Butler’s associate was even invited this year and last to make a presentation at the annual conference of the New York Library Association. The firm took its specialization one step further by developing an expertise in library furnishings, which complements its work in library design and adds to the service it can offer its clients.

Hundt is able to provide the level of service he desires because he spends the time developing an understanding of the long-term needs of a particular congregation. He can dedicate the necessary time to acquire an in-depth knowledge of the client for whom he works.

It is this deeper understanding that allows smaller, specialized firms to stand out, said Robert Joy, president of Joy McCoola & Zilch Architects and Planners P.C. in Glens Falls, one of the larger firms in the Capital Region. “An advantage of specialization for us and for the client is that instead of trying to be all things to all people, we can basically be all things to a very narrow base of people,” said Joy, whose firm specializes in community colleges.

Joy attends community college conferences to learn more about the needs of the schools so he can better understand the market. “We’ve really invested ourselves with the organizations. That makes us more effective,” he said.

Joanne Mcfadden   For The Business Review

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