What is the Future of Architecture as a Profession?

In 2010, the Royal Institute of British Architects think tank, Building Futures, published a report addressing some of the following questions: “…who will design our buildings in 2025; what roles will those trained in architecture be doing then and how will architectural practice have changed as a result?” In April of 2013, Steve Mouzon offered his insight on the future of the architectural practice. Below is my humble take on what can be done to save this noble profession.

Here are some highlights from the Building Futures report:

  • Global population growth from 2000 to 2050 will rise 46% and 70% of the population will live in urban areas.
  • As of 2008, demand for architectural services has declined 40%.
  • Only 50% of the architecture firms interviewed have a business plan.
  • Areas of the profession predicted to remain relatively stable in 2025: small local general practices, international “starchitects,” specialist niche practices, traditional regional delivery driven practices.
  • Emerging areas of practice: developing economies, global inter-disciplinary consultancies, build/own/operate/transfer designers, subcontractors and specialists, design houses and creative agencies.
  • Areas of practice most at risk: medium-sized firms of 25 to 150 people, and small metropolitan boutique practices.

In Mouzon’s article, he identifies some trends in the architecture profession that I hadn’t anticipated. Specifically:

More than half of the people working in architectural offices in 2005 aren’t there anymore. Some are still unemployed, some have gone in business for themselves, but many have left the profession. And when people leave architecture, they rarely come back for three reasons: an architecture degree prepares you to do so many other things, it’s such a stressful profession, and the pay is usually significantly lower than other professions like law and medicine.

Mouzon lists seven ways that the Great Recession has permanently altered the business of architectural design:

  1. The exodus of experienced employees (see the quote above)
  2. Clients no longer trust the “expert opinion of an architect”
  3. The Great Recession is drastically impacting consumer attitudes, introducing a new era of frugality
  4. Homeowners seek “smaller and smarter,” in part due to lending practices by financial institutions
  5. Clients are younger and very motivated to make more sustainable choices
  6. “Patience, Generosity, and Connectedness” will replace “Better, Faster, Cheaper”
  7. “Most marketing methods architects have used for decades don’t work so well anymore”

My perspective, one that is shared by the findings in the Building Futures report, is that overall the role of architects has been greatly reduced. Traditional services that architects rarely provide: project management, contract administration and cost control.

As more of the detailed design services are provided by supply chain, the role of the architect is further diminished. I have seen many projects where the architect’s work involved little more than CAD drawings showing floor plans, elevations, section drawings and mostly boiler-plate specifications. Specific details are often not supplied, or are copied and pasted from standard libraries or supplied by material manufacturers. Other information incorporated in construction drawings are supplied by engineers and other consultants.

In addition, contractors, engineers, project management professionals, energy efficiency consultants, owners representatives and others have taken on expanded roles in the construction field.

What Happened?

I don’t know. Though I suspect that some of the problem has to do with the failure of the architectural profession, in general, to properly meet the needs of clients and to adapt to changing environments.

Architects used to be the main representative of the owner’s interests on construction projects. Other professionals have stepped in to provide those services more efficiently and with less hassle than architects.

Technology has impacted the role of architects as well. Specialized tools for project management, scheduling, cost reconciliation, etc., have become more integral to larger projects. Most architecture firms do not place a priority on use of these tools, in my experience.

Another factor that I have seen impact the role of the architect is arrogance. More than almost any other profession in the construction industry, architects tend to hold fast to romantic or idealized views of their role. There is a reluctance to relinquish the creative and artistic side to the increased need for the technical and more pragmatic side of the practice.

Contractors, engineers, and other professionals responsible for the built environment have evolved to expand their roles. Even smaller general contractors have staff proficient in use of standard computer-based design tools. A general contractor is much more likely to bring in a design professional on staff, than an architecture firm is to bring in a licensed contractor.

How Can Architects Adapt?

A theme that I have proposed to many architects I have worked with is to shift more towards consulting.

The report by Building Futures hammers that point home as well. According to a project manager interviewed by the researchers, “the profession is heading towards consultancy. I think that architects will have the greatest influence if they concentrate on high-end consultancy and strategic thinking.” And this isn’t at all hard to imagine. Due to standardization and accreditation, architectural education has become very sophisticated and evolved. In many ways, I see a lot of similarity between MBA programs and advanced architectural degree programs. The Bachelors/Masters of Architecture degree is to me, the MBA of construction.

If architecture professionals could embrace the changes in the marketplace, their training and experience would be ideal for a role as a consultant and strategic planner for the built environment.

Many architects have embraced sustainable design practices and sought out relevant credentials. I see much greater potential for architects that position themselves as sustainable design consultants than as a traditional architect. So positioning and broadened service offerings are important.

The other component necessary to the evolving role of architects is broadening strategic alliances and partnerships. By integrating professionals from other disciplines, such as engineering, project management, project controls, etc., an architecture firm becomes a one-stop shop for facilitating owners’ needs.

Finally, the biggest change that architecture firms and professionals need to embrace is in regards to culture. From the report:

A number of architects and designers we spoke to had built their brand on the basis of a very particular way of working, or a set of founding principles. This was consistently tied to ideas of longevity and of survival beyond the founding partners.

In order for the architectural profession to evolve and thrive, the purchasers of these services will need to perceive the changes in practice. Architects will need to become more involved in the networked world that we now live in. Contrary to the perception that now prevails, where architects are often viewed as an expensive nuisance and obstacle, architects need to position themselves as integrated and essential resources for improving the built environment.

The walled gardens of architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry will be replaced by forward-thinking design consultants that move easily between disciplines, with an eye for cost and energy efficiency. As Building Futures’ report advises:

[T]he client-savvy architect must be able to see beyond “building a building” and offer a service that embraces the client’s broader aims – becoming a problem solver as well as a designer.

Image courtesy Ed Welker