The Small Firms • Gaver Nichols, Architect

PUBLICATION: inform…architecture • design • the arts
PHOTOGRAPHERS: Drawings Provided by Gaver Nichols Architect
DATE: 1993 #4

The State of Small Firms

Who could dispute the advantages of small architectural practice? There is ample opportunity to be expressive and work with clients through the life of a project. Yet because they wear so many hats, many principals of small firms struggle to find the balance between playing the role of business manager and designer.

by Lynn Nesmith

Rust, Orling & Neale Architects, Alexandria
Guernsey/Tingle Architects, Williamsburg
Gaver Nichols, Architect, Alexandria

All things considered, who would dispute the advantages of a small architectural practice? Lacking the hierarchy and bureaucracy of a corporate design firm, the small office offers ample opportunities to express oneself and to work directly with clients from project conception through construction. But if the benefits of a small firm are obvious, so are the drawbacks. A small practice is more restricted than a large one in the commissions for which it can compete. Running a firm, no matter what its size, still means managing a business. And because they wear so many hats in the course of a day, many small firm principals struggle to find the right balance between managing the practice and practicing design.

Small architecture firms might not get their share of publicity in the national trade or consumer magazines, but they are unquestionably the backbone of the profession. A 1993 survey of the American Institute of Architects reported that 86 percent of member firms have nine or fewer employees.

Gaver Nichols, Architect

A conventional architecture practice has little appeal for Gaver Nichols. In his view, most architectural problems are far more complex than issues of design or aesthetics. “We all know that the man with the money really controls the design,” Nichols maintains. After five years with established Northern Virginia firms including VVKR and Henningson, Durham & Richardson, Nichols broke with convention, leaving design to become a full-time stockbroker. Six years of building investment portfolios for a client base of 500 taught him “everything one doesn’t learn in architecture school about running a successful business.” In addition to his architectural registration, he is a licensed insurance broker, real estate agent and annuities broker.

In 1988, Nichols re-hung his architectural shingle in Alexandria and has since renovated dozens of houses in his own neighborhood. Recently his practice has expanded to include projects in Loudoun County and in North Carolina and New Jersey. Taking a true hands-on approach in his one-person practice, the 39-year-old Nichols works as designer as well as developer, contractor, realtor, financial coordinator, carpenter and landscaper. “Too many architects are frustrated in their attempts to find work and be paid what they are really worth,” says Nichols. “I’m determined to find a way to replace the architectural patron of old by developing my own work.”

Nichols’ most ambitious project to date– the renovation of an 87-year-old firehouse into studio/loft apartments– is nearing completion in Camden, New Jersey. He bought the historic structure five years ago, puled together a group of investors and timed the venture to coincide with redevelopment spurred by Camden’s new aquarium. Into the restored shell of the fire station Nichols inserted six apartments and retail space on the ground floor. A new slate roof was installed, exterior brickwork was cleaned and repaired, and ornate cornices fabricated out of sheet metal were recreated for the fire tower. Nichols is the quintessential American entrepreneur, bursting with new ideas and boundless optimism. Although his approach might not be suited for everyone, he has carved out a niche in a changing profession that seems to be paying off


“On a small-scale subdivision project in Alexandria, Nichols is involved in the full cycle of design-build-develop-sell activity. He is renovating a 19th century boarding house on the original site and building four new houses on infill parcels surrounding it.”