Architectural practice in small towns: A study of the architect-client relationship in the Western Erie Canal Region

Megan J. Basnak
Master's Thesis | Fall 2013

The architecture profession is rooted in a long-standing history of locally-based practice. As advancements in technology permitted practice to become more removed from the local focus, the field slowly left behind many settings, including small towns. Despite the fact that there are currently over 11,000 small towns in the United States, the architecture profession has focused relatively little on practice in small towns, and less yet on practice in their main street districts. Unlike most clients in the urban setting, clients in a small town may not have any previous experience working with an architect or the general construction process. As a result, successful navigation of this environment may depend on architects’ abilities to understand the nuances and expectations of small-town communities and their main street building owners. This study, focused on the Western New York Erie Canal region, utilized interviews with main street district building owners and architects, as well as an online survey with main street building owners to gain a better understanding of the nature of the small-town architect-client relationship. The findings of this study support the notion that the architecture profession’s relationship to the small-town main street corridor and its clients is quite unique to that in other settings and that the social nature of the small-town environment appears to have a significant impact on the ways in which both architects and clients interact in relation to their projects. Analysis of the findings concluded that familiarity is key, reputation and results matter more than appearances; and persistence, an open mind, and a positive attitude get results for both architects and clients when working in the small-town setting. While the findings from this study support a better understanding of the small- town architect-client relationship, this study also yielded a methodological framework that has the potential to be replicated in other geographic locations and also provided valuable insight into new opportunities for practice for architects in the small-town setting.

Thesis Committee: Korydon Smith, Sue Weidemann & Kenneth MacKay