Small practices are the tiny, furry mammals skipping under the scaly feet of industry dinosaurs, with an agility and an imagination that they can't begin to grasp
When you're in full-time employment, or part of a big operation with plenty of people minding the shop for you, going to a conference is a bit of a jolly. A day out of the office, a bit of networking, possibly a few drinks with former colleagues at the end of the day. When you're running a very small operation (and 80% of all architects work in practices of fewer than 10), it's the opposite. Not only are you having to pay the attendance fee and travel costs, but you're losing a day's income-generation. So it's always gratifying when you come away feeling that you've learned enough to recoup your investment pretty quickly.

When I went to the RIBA small practice conference two years ago, most of the attendees seemed to be architects in their 30s, probably only recently setting up on their own. This year, most were a good deal longer in the tooth, and they had the haggard look of people who'd been buggered about by clients of different sizes for several years. You can usually tell how good speakers are by the acoustic level of bums shuffling in seats, but this year most of the subjects were so well-presented you barely even noticed that time was passing.

What is clear is that architects are finding different ways to use their skills to earn money. And different ways to charge for the skills they have. RIBA president George Ferguson is a great exponent of this attitude and in his keynote speech said that his non-architectural business interests generate more income than the 30-strong practice he runs in Bristol. Indeed, he summed up the whole ethos of the small business when describing how he was generating interest in his most recent venture. Our indomitable president has bought himself a small brewery in Somerset that last brewed beer in 1933. He was thinking of things to do with the building when he had one of those blue-sky brainwaves that architects are famous for. "I know, let's use it to make beer!" In due course he was contacted by some like-minded microbrewers and boutique publicans and the show was on the road. "You can always tell when you're in a pub run by a very small company," he said. "The atmosphere is better because the people providing the service are the people who run the business." Unlike, for example, all big building companies and most big firms of professionals.

The best idea was to insist that clients paid on completion. ‘We found that if they weren’t given time to complain, they never did’

What was also interesting was to see how small practices are beginning to get into Urban Design, something I had always thought the prerogative of enormous firms. However, post-industrial Britain is bursting with crappy bits of derelict, urban wasteland. Big firms can never think of any further than bulldozing it and starting again. Architects in small practices, for whom half a million pounds is a serious project, are far more imaginative. Deborah Saunt of DHDSA showed how her firm had won a competition for a housing scheme by submitting a proposal that developed accommodation for start-up businesses. She had also managed to get her firm to prise open a development corporation's budget with a scheme for rescuing a pedestrian underpass that nobody else wanted to touch. "We only win one in 20," she said – but half a million is a lot of kitchen extensions.

Small practices usually start out on exactly this sort of work and one of the presentations was given by Hugo Tugman, who set up his practice a few years ago. Tugman's research had established that the biggest amount of money spent on residential construction was by people renovating their homes. He also discovered that 92% of this was spent without using the services of architects. Further research revealed why this was (basically because people were terrified of how much they'd end up paying), so he and his wife set up Architectyourhome to generate some work for themselves in this virgin market. This offered clearly identified architectural services in bite-size chunks. The business became so successful that they could not cope with the work and now run it as a franchise — which provides a workstream for young practices hoping to set up on their own.