The Edge: Jes Stafford’s Big Time Small Firm

October 15, 2013 5 min read

Jes Stafford - Modus Operandi Design

Novedge: Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do 

Jes Stafford: I am Jes Stafford, president of Modus Operandi Design. At MOD we do various project types: custom residential new builds and additions/renovations, commercial, institutional. Our strongest niches right now are custom residential and construction administration, where MOD consults with other firms specifically for the CA phase of a project. That is a strong suit because of the construction experience I’ve had (and believe that all architecture students should seek).

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Novedge: How did you become interested in architecture?

Jes Stafford: The first spark came at the impressionable age of 7. I got a set of Lincoln logs, dumped them out and began the Lincoln’s cabin project. When I was finished I was really enthralled with the idea of taking those pieces from a two dimensional diagrammatic set of instructions to a real, three dimensional, tangible thing. I was fascinated, looking at the flat picture, then at the cabin sitting there. I lay on the floor and looked in to the doors, windows and crawled around it just studying the little cabin from every angle.  

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From that day I started looking at the whole built environment differently…really noticing how space worked, the difference between in and out, how a colonnade was aligned, texture, light, shadow etc. That was all reinforced when my father and I built a dog house together, then a picnic table. Again I was really interested in taking an idea, making working drawings, then building something from the drawings.

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Novedge: You work both as an architect and as a construction administrator: what are some things architects should look for before hiring an independent CA?

Jes Stafford: The things that I find most helpful are my ability to break the ice with contractors, a good knowledge of construction law and the contract structure for any given project and a good pair of dirty scuffed up work boots. Architects should look for a CA person with good people skills and someone that left the elite architect attitude behind a long time ago.

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They should look for a CA person that knows the responsibilities of all parties to the contract for a project. Finally they should look for a CA person that shows up ready to walk a job site – favor the one that rolls up in a pickup truck with some boots that have seen some miles over the one that shows up in a convertible sports car tip toeing around the puddles in some Italian loafers.

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Novedge: What is a recent project that you worked on? 

Jes Stafford: The most recent project completed as a full service job was a performance stage for the Henderson County Tourism Development Authority (TDA).  

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This was a fun little project on Main Street Hendersonville, NC to replace a wood carpentry stage that had run its life expectancy and then some. The TDA sponsors a summer music series called Music on Main where different area bands come play this venue every Friday during the summer months.

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Another fun project is the “Bow-wowhaus” project where I built a dog house for a benefit that AIA Asheville did for a local animal rescue organization.

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The great thing about that was showing how the elements of passive design can be employed even at that small scale. I designed the front overhang to allow, at proper south orientation, full sun penetration during winter months and full shade during summer months respectively heating or cooling the slate tile floor. There is also an operable window for cross ventilation.

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Novedge: What software do you use? 

Jes Stafford: AutoCAD 2012 LT and SketchUp…saving to step into Revit and can’t wait.

Novedge: I discovered your work thanks to your Google+ Community for architects. What are some of the rewards and challenges of founding and being part of an online community?

Jes Stafford: Big Time Small Firm has been extremely rewarding to interact with some very talented, knowledgeable and influential architects from all over the country. It is a great resource for practitioners like me that might work for hours, days really, alone in our offices to be able to interact with one another.

It makes the world smaller to get to know architects from coast to coast and relate on a personal level and share our experience. The challenges are mainly the time it takes to put hangouts together and maintain the community, but the more I do it, the easier it gets.

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Novedge: What has been most important in developing and growing a successful architectural practice?

Jes Stafford: First – a business plan. Then – networking. This was not just to establish a presence in the community as a local architect, but to meet other local professionals to rely on for legal counsel, accounting, printing, etc.

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Novedge: As a professional, what do you wish you had learned in school?

Jes Stafford: I do not share the sentiment that many of my colleagues have that architectural education is somehow incomplete. I really got a lot of value from the School of Architecture and Mississippi State University and reflect favorably on that time in my career. I took it upon myself to get construction jobs and learn that side of the business. That would be one thing I wish all architectural students would learn…more about construction. A professor once told me that I had “learned too much too soon” when it came to my construction jobs. I think he was talking about my exposure to the age old tension and adversarial relationship between architects and builders. He was on to something…I think that experience took a little bit of the mystique out of the design side of the education because I was ALWAYS drawing something I knew could be built even though I started really pushing the envelope with tensile structure and segmented curve walls later in school.

Jes Stafford-PHTT Board Draw copy

Looking back, I wish I had more humility when I graduated. I see a lot of cockiness and over confidence in recent grads and remember how I was that way too, trying to cover up my lack of experience and knowledge with a bunch of young “piss and vinegar” as a former employer liked to say. It is best not to take yourself too seriously and be easy going. That exudes confidence a lot easier that trying to impress people with arrogance and throwing around a bunch of $10 words.


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