In Honor of Our 20 Year Anniversary

I graduated from Architectural School in 1990 and received my professional license to practice architecture by passing all eight exams by 1993, which was the earliest I was allowed to sit for the exams following a three-year required internship period. From that time, I began working for a wide variety of design firms including Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Walker Group, and Bergmeyer Associates in New York and Boston respectively.  Much of that work was in the retail design and corporate office arenas, but I learned that design must not only meet the practical and budgetary concerns of a client, but must fulfill their brand and aesthetic aspirations as well to be truly successful. This is a lesson that I have never forgotten.

Previous Project: Barclay Square (Newport, RI)

In April of 2004, Ross Sinclair Cann Architecture opened its doors. After having worked for many different firms doing a wide variety of projects over the years, it felt time to work for clients directly to deliver the highest quality design that I wanted to deliver to them. Starting one’s own firm is a scary prospect. Not having the resources and work pipeline of a long-established firm feels like being a trapeze artist without a net. I had started a Rhode Island office for a Boston architectural firm but the firm was only interested in undertaking hospital work, which was very profitable for the company. They had less interest in the residential and commercial work that potential clients were always asking me if I would be interested in working on. When that firm suffered a setback by losing a major client and the owner proposed cutting everyone’s salaries by 50%, it seemed like the right time to start my own firm had come.

Previous Project: SRU Munroe Center (Newport, RI)

I started out by renting an office in a larger suite of offices and eventually took over that suite and the adjoining suite. From 2004 to 2008 the number and size of the projects that we were working on grew steadily. I hired, one, then two, then three other people to help do the work, and “Ross Sinclair Cann Architecture” was reorganized as “A4 Architecture Inc.” to celebrate that it was now a team of people providing the architectural service and not just a single individual. By the time of the financial crisis of the autumn of 2008, we had a staff of six and were working on more than 20 projects, many of which were commercial in nature. As that economic wave began to impact the economy, one, then three then ten of the projects went on hold.  Fortunately, as the projects slowed and then stopped completely, members of our staff were undertaking their plans to get married, return to school, or relocate and so we were able to reduce our staff through attrition and not through having to fire people. Another architectural firm in town was reputed to have gone from more than 40 employees to 7 (half of whom were principals who were paying into the company instead of drawing salaries out) so our situation was far easier. As we had not gotten so large during the boom, we did not have to shrink so much during the bust

As I had extra time on my hands, I was able to teach architectural classes and serve on various boards and committees for various institutions around the state and country. At one point I was serving on more than 20 boards, commissions, and committees so I never felt like I had too little to do, but because these were largely volunteer positions the amount of money coming in was much less than had been the case previously. During this time, a few raises were occurring, which frustrated both me and my employees. They did not know that I was subsidizing their salaries with the sale of securities I had purchased during better times.

Previous Project: Waterway (Barrington, RI)

Fortunately, “The Great Recession”, which hit the real estate industry particularly hard, did not last forever. After two relatively slower years, some projects started to reawaken while other new projects were born from the imaginations and needs of our clients. We began to undertake new work and add to our staff again, but cautiously after the severe beating that the real estate market had suffered. Based on the high-quality work we had done previously, we were able to widen our circle of clients to include Brown, Yale, and Salve Regina Universities, the Preservation Society of Newport County, the Newport Art Museum, the Tennis Hall of Fame, and many other noteworthy organizations and companies. The beauty of working for clients like these is they have multiple projects over time and tend to do work that is of high quality. We cherish these longstanding clients greatly. 

We also started to undertake more large-scale residential renovation projects, helping restore or repurpose the great mansions that had been built in Rhode Island during the Gilded Age. As a person who had studied with noted Yale scholar Vincent Scully, who earned a Master’s Degree in Architectural History at Cambridge University in England and was the teaching assistant to Robert A. M. Stern and Kenneth Frampton while earning my Master of Architecture degree at Columba University in New York, this suited my preferences perfectly. I could use my understanding of historical precedent and combine it with my desire to see old buildings work well in the present day. This experience in “Adaptive Reuse” continues to be an important element of our business offering. 

Previous Project: Longwharf North (Newport, RI)

During this same time, it also became clear that human-induced climate change was accelerating and this was going to be a problem that our time (and not some distant generation) was going to have to face head-on. I studied and passed my LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Accredited Professional examinations and began applying that knowledge to all the projects we undertook. While not every client wanted to go through the small additional time and effort needed to get LEED Certification for their projects, every design we undertook was as sustainable and energy-efficient as we could make it within the budget available, which inevitably lowered the longer-term expenses and environmental impact to operate those buildings. 

Today, we continue to widen our project typology to include restaurants, hotel, and club design and are undertaking a project in retail prototype design that echoes the work I undertook early in my career and look forward to welcoming more such clients to our work schedule in the future. It is hard to believe that more than 30 years have passed since I first became a licensed architect. While many of my classmates from Yale are winding down their careers and looking forward to retirement, I feel like I am still learning and becoming a better architect all the time. Both Frank Lloyd Wright and Phillip Johnson are noted for having continued their practice past their centennials and I wonder if I will be so lucky as to have that opportunity as well. Philip Johnson is quoted as saying “If you can design buildings, why sit on a beach?” and I often share this perspective.

Previous Project: The Pell Hotel (Middletown, RI)

So now that A4 Architecture is celebrating its twentieth year in business we both look back at the two decades that have flown past, but also look forward to imagining where the firm and the profession will go in the next twenty years. I think of the fifty or so people who have worked at A4 Architecture in that time and the hundreds of clients and projects that we have worked to serve faithfully over those years and I am grateful to all of them.  When a client thanks me for helping create a better project than they had imagined was possible, I often respond “We just help spend the money. The hard part was saving and allocating the funds” and there is a lot of truth to that. Good projects start with good clients and at twenty years old A4 Architecture is fortunate in being able to pick and choose more which projects we take than we were able to when we first opened our doors. This also allows us to elevate the quality of our work helping drive our reputation and the beauty of our portfolio upwards as well. Here’s to the first twenty years and here hoping that the next twenty (and maybe even the twenty after that) are even better still. Long may we fly and high may we soar!

Looking to remodel your home? Let’s connect. 

Join the Architectural Forum to stay up-to-date with architectural news from Rhode Island and abroad.

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, is an author, historian, educator and practicing architect at A4 Architecture and lives and works in Newport, Rhode Island. He is the Founding and Managing Principal of A4 Architecture, which undertakes high quality design work for residential, commercial, hospitality and institutional projects in the New England region.

At A4 Architecture + Planning we are expert at integrating building codes into our designs to provide safer and more long-lasting building solutions for our clients. If you are interested in learning more about what can do for you reach out to us at any time!