Is the Architecture Profession in Need of a Makeover Despite the Upturn in the Economy?

By Tara L. Imani AIA posted 06-25-2011 07:43 PM


The Changing Role of Architects: Can Traditional Practice Continue to Survive and Thrive?

I first voiced this concern at a Saturday morning seminar on Life/Work Balance at the 2008 National AIA Convention in Boston, MA while participating in a small group talk.  In that 4-hour seminar, we were set in groups of 10 at round tables to discuss issues we face as architects and how we approach them.  When our group leader listed our top concerns about the profession, he did add mine at the tail end, namely, that "architects, as sole practioners, seemed to be facing obsolescence." 

To my surprise, no one said anything.  No one screamed.  No one argued.  No response- good or averse.

I suppose it was a subject that no one really wanted to discuss or even entertain- not for a moment.  And maybe it isn't something to be said.

Perhaps architects are not facing extinction or the potential of becoming obsolete. 

Yet, at a recent statewide Architecture Convention I attended, one of the most respected female leaders did say, during her brief talk as a panelist on the Young Architect's forum panel- when asked what is her next step- she said she planned to work at the national level to address some critical issues facing our profession because, as she stated: "I do think our profession [of architecture] is in trouble."

This theme was openly addressed, albeit in passing, almost as a side note issue in a few other seminars; and it was discussed in hush-hush tones after various seminars by a few attendees who I spoke with.  It seems it's an ugly subject that no one really wants to address full-on...yet.

I forget who said it, it might have been the same YAF panelist, but the person further expounded on the problem: that architects have given up so much of their responsibilities that the profession is being eaten away.

Not to mention the capabilities of engineering and construction firms to handle design-build projects on time, on budget and, supposedly, with architectural finesse (due to the architects they have employed).

After hearing someone else voice my same concern, I felt a bit vindicated in having first raised it as an attendee at the 2008 AIA Convention in Boston, i.e. that huge world-renowned firms were going to swallow up our profession.  And from the other side, looking to smaller residential projects, many clients seemed to be able to handle designs themselves (or so they think). 

The other issue that adds to this is how drawings are put together.  We went from hand drafting in the 1980's to blindly accepting AutoCAD in the late 1980's and going mainstream with CAD in the early 1990's.  Then, we seemed to have BIM thrust upon us out of nowhere- or so it seemed- including newer programs like REVIT, not to mention older, less mainstream ones like ArchiCAD, etc. still being discussed, debated.

If surgeons operated like this...I shudder to think what would be the outcomes.  

In a seminar I just recently attended this past weekend where a group of panelists- all Deans from prominent schools of architecture in Texas- spoke on critical issues facing education, it was mentioned- as a mere side note- that there is now a new software technology (not necessarily created for architecture) that is capable of far more powerful design abilities than BIM; and it supposedly enables lay persons to design in real time 3D, including the use of holograms, etc.  Shouldn't we as architects be at the FOREFRONT of such technology?  Why does it seem like we're lagging behind, playing catch-up in the area of technology? 

I write all of the above as it begs several questions: to what extent is an architect needed in today's society?  Are there too many licensed architects for the number of available projects?  Or, are there not enough architects? 

Also, in the above referenced panel of Texas Architecture school Deans seminar discussion at the most recent TSA Convention, the Dean from Prairie View A&M University put forth this question to the architects in attendance: Why aren't more architects taking a leadership role across the broad spectrum of business arenas?

Again, there was silence in the room.

Also, we explored the question of how strong and effective is the relationship between the university and the work force?  Are architecture students being trained to fulfill the needs of firms?

While architects may not be facing all-out extinction, I think there's a major earthquake in the architecture profession which will undoubtedly lead to major changes- for the better- across the profession. 

From a legal and building permit standpoint, architects will always certainly be required on many/most projects.  Yet, firms like Jacobs engineering, for example, can handle those larger projects.  The pie does seem to be getting smaller, or the slices are being cut bigger- thus fewer pieces to go around.

Are you concerned about this? 

If, as Lisa Stacholy's video states, 80% of architectural practices are less than 10 people in size, surely this blog must resonate with the majority of AIAKnowledge Net members.

All comments, ideas, and perspectives are encouraged.



06-28-2011 02:23 PM

James: Thanks for the positive feedback. I am working on the marketing post and hope to have it up shortly. This year has been very busy putting my words into practice. My current activities include good ole design work (residential & commercial), CM (firehouse), GC (residential remodeling), building code consulting for other architects, expert testimony for 5 construction suits, and structural inspections for a warranty company.
Milton: Many thanks for your "...Oxymoron?" article. VERY helpful. When do you expect to post the next one on Marketing that you mentioned?

05-04-2011 02:52 PM

You may also be interested in reading- if you haven't yet done so- Milton Grew's AIA KnowldegeNet Blog: "Business of Architecture (Oxymoron)?"
(to do so, copy/paste the link below into your web-browser or click on the "aia-network-org" link in the Add Related Link section above.

11-20-2010 01:45 AM

So far, from this topic/blog and, mostly, from the many superb responses, ideas, and suggestions posted by members on the SPP Discussion threads; here is a short and, by no means all-encompassing, list of what seem to be the top priorities toward improving the architecture profession:
1. We need to define who we are as architects and what are the core general services we provide. This needs to be separated into two distinct categories: residential and commercial.
2. We need to recapture the training and mindset of the "Master Builder" (i.e. Imhotep; or the architect(s) of the Parthenon, for ex.- how they took care in overseeing the carving of each stone...)
3. We need to revisit our notion of what defines "good design"- aesthetically, functionally, cost-efficiency-wise, environmentally, etc.
4. We need to develop better self-images and we need to really strive to improve our camaraderie and mutual respect between one another, as fellow AIA members, and within the greater architectural community and allied professions.
5. We need to explore more meaningful ways to connect with the public and increase our leadership roles in every facet of society
6. We need to collectively resolve to take back the residential industry/market by storm and work together to create and implement a cohesive, workable strategy to do so.
7. We need to create a marketing campaign on TV, the internet, social media of all types that will further educate the public as to the many benefits of hiring architects and the value we add to society's health, safety, welfare, and aesthetics.
8. We need to get adequately paid for the services we render. Therefore, out of self-respect and respect for our profession, we can choose to agree to work for fees that are appropriate professional rates for any given architectural service rendered.
Again, this is just a rough draft.
Thanks, again, to everyone who has read and/or posted your thoughts on this topic. I think everyone's opinion on this forum is valid and has a right to be heard, especially those of you who are fortunate enough to be working and are in the trenches providing architectural services at this time.
As always, I look forward to your continued input.

11-18-2010 03:01 AM

Some good news for a change- this, coming out of NYC:
I sure hope the above link goes live! If not, try copying it into your web browser and go from there.
It's well worth the read. Much of what we're talking about here is echoed and confirmed by statements from top principals and CEO's of prominent architectural firms in NYC who were interviewed for the above article.

11-15-2010 10:05 AM

Tara, as you have stated in other posts. We need to define what an architect does. I, and really most everyone else, would never consider doing brain surgery or an appendectomy, even though I love shows like Greys Anatomy and ER. Not would after watching Law & Order, would I consider trying to defend myself. However the majority of the public believes that a viewing a few shows on HGTV makes them a designer or architect. We need to, as a profession, be able to articulate the value we bring to the table. Specifically the HSW issues which tend not to register for many do-it-yourselfers out there. Just some thoughts from an Associate member of the AIA.,

11-12-2010 11:40 PM

I've been licensed for some 27 years now, and I think I've heard about the decline of the profession in every one of those years. There may have been some over reaction, but I think there is some truth to it as well.
Eventually it all comes down to the clients, and the question of whether we as their architects provide value or not. A service that is highly valued will be highly respected - and high compensated. Services that are seen as a bureaucratic necessity are not valued nor respected, and compensation is done as a commodity.
I fault the AIA in part for this. The emphasis from the Institute for many years has been on design, and now green design and Integrated Project Delivery (IPD). Too many young architects have prominent roles in their firms, yet can't detail their way out of a water soaked paper bag, to paraphrase General Patton. Design IS important, but clients can't be happy when their designers create buildings that are insufficiently detailed, are unconstructable, and result in extra charges by the contractor to "fix" what the architect should have done right in the first place.
The AIA construction contract documents state that our drawings show "design intent", but in the marketplace they are looked at as assembly drawings. Plan checkers do not care for intent - they want to see the exact UL rating for a particular partition, and make sure the UL number matches the manufacturer of the gypsum board on the job site. Where is design intent when the GC sends in hundreds of RFI's asking for dimensions on every power outlet and light switch? Some clients understand the game that is being played (RFI = Liability Transfer Device) but many wonder why the hell the architect didn't do his job?
I saw a short article the other day that was in interview of Ron Altoon about his soon to be released book. As he describes it, he makes clear to the clients that using a good architect can be a great value when retail centers are being renovated, and that architect can be a great help when the deal is being analyzed in the due diligence phase. That is the sort of thing that clients value and architects can more readily provide than engineers or contractors.

11-07-2010 06:07 PM

Hello fellow bloggers! Thanks to those of you who've taken the time to read the posts and comment.
In getting around to opening my mail today, first on the stack was the November 2010 issue of Architectural Record, ironically titled: "Americans Design Abroad" with subtitles of: "Rex in Istanbul," "Carpenter in Israel," and "HOK in Saudi Arabia." Turn to page 79 for the feature article titled: "Where the Work Is." It's a great read, but it might not be as pertinent to the Small Project Practioner; it talks of how many architects are finding work in China, India, and in other countries with booming economies. Entire cities are being designed by U.S. architects.
The site has a wealth of information for us. Here is a link to an interview video of architect and principal Eugene Kohn of Kohn Pederson Fox with his outlook on the architecture profession and how the economy will affect future design:
What I see in our profession is that as much as we were all trained to be generalists, I think it is very difficult for firms to effectively handle corporate architecture and residential building types. The two are so radically different in terms of sheer size as well as in detailing, client contact, and budget.
I wonder if our profession needs to take a more specialized approach to teaching, similar to the medical profession in order to properly prepare architects for the kind of work they are going to be doing? In my opinion, it can no longer be a one size fits all approach to the teaching of design.
Education was another topic that was discussed in the latest Arch Record issue: see p. 69 for "America's Best Architecture Schools- Top ratings from DesignIntelligence's 2011 survey of firm principals, students, and deans.- by James P. Cramer Here'a a link to the article on line:
Lastly, for now, here's a link to a very interesting article on the employment status of U.S. architects today. What's more interesting are the comments from architects themelves in response to the article:
I have recently had the pleasure and privilege of corresponding with a talented and successful emerging architect working in UAE. He, too, says many firms in his region have felt the effects of the Great Recession. What doesn't wane is our passion for the profession and our commitment and love of design. That seems to remain a universal language of architects, no matter what corner of the earth we're from and no matter what challenges we face.

11-03-2010 02:42 PM

Pleased to see that others are ending the silence you've received earlier.
Is the profession at risk? Yes. Last data I saw showed that somewhere around 40% of licensed architects are unemployed - the hardest hit profession - and we are a leading indicator of the economy. 40% of GDP is related to the construction industry.
Is there a fix? Yes. Several.
First and foremost we need to lobby every state to align health, safety and welfare driven rules. Ostensibly, permits are required to protect HSW - HSW is also why we (and other professions) are licensed. Permits are not going to go away - they represent revenue for municipalities.
So... we need to establish "if it needs a permit, it needs a stamp". Period. The demand for architectural services would grow dramatically and supply and demand would mean that we could charge livable fees, pay decent salaries to great people and encourage others to consider the profession.
If we accomplish that - its done.
Second item; we need to be politically aware. Example, there are those who want to generate class envy and "tax the wealthy" disproportionately. They further define wealthy as $250K per year or more. Instead of falling prey to such divisive thinking, celebrate that some take risks and succeed. They are the ones who are you clients. The more incentive to risk, to grow wealth without penalty, the more clients we have. Vote accordingly.

11-03-2010 01:27 PM

I agree with your comments. In my opinion, we need to release the full throttle of our expertise in designing sustainable, functional and innovative spaces that can relate with the environment and with the greenest aspects of constructability.

11-03-2010 12:45 AM

I have been principal of my practice since 1989. Rather than pursue a very narrow mostly design practice my business has evolved over time to providing the traditional architectural services and also building code consulting, construction management (agency), general contracting, interior design and consulting on development and project management.
The practice of architecture has been changing. I find that the turf has eroded and given way to unlicensed designers, construction managers, project managers, and design/builders. So I have expanded my services to be the "master builder" that architects originally were, to be the sole resource for my clients for managing the design, permitting and construction of their project.
I think there are areas that architects should concentrate on to reclaim our prominence in the construction industry:
1) ENERGY/GREEN DESIGN; LEED has helped take our role away. Architects without other letters following their names should be able to design and certify their buildings for energy efficiency, sustainability, and overall greenishness.
2) REGULATORY: Expeditors, "inspectors", and other consultants are getting the role of telling owners that architects' documents don't comply with codes or need changes to get permits. We need to take responsibility to be the experts of the regulatory landscape in our realm of practice and keep ourselves in direct contact with public agencies instead of allowing others to get in between and reduce out profile.
3) CONSTRUCTION: Architects should be experts in understanding how to execute their designs. Whether we are willing to be part of design/build teams, manage construction, or at least make sure our documents are buildable.
4) PROJECT MANAGEMENT: We lose our value to clients when we send them to engineering consultants and don't take charge or hiring, incorporating their work, coordinating their work with ours, and managing the entire design.
If even small practitioners don't get a handle on these items to some extent we will continue to be responsible for the erosion of our own profession, income and value to the public.
Milton Gregory Grew, AIA - "Greg"
Grew Design Inc / Grew Construction LLC
Woodbury CT

10-30-2010 01:35 AM

Hi Gisela,
Thank you for your comments. Your points are right on target, in my opinion. Specifically, you mentioned that fewer young folks are interested in the nuts and bolts of building. This same thought was stated by the City Architect for San Antonio at the recent TSA Convention a few weekends ago. In a panel discussion titled "Women Architects: How to Retool and Re-energize Your Career", she specifically noted that, not just the newcomers, but architects, in general, have seemed to shun the learning of construction methods and have deferred to structural engineers and contractors to do too much- paraphrased, but I believe that was the gist of her stance.
And, in that same room, in a different seminar (the panel of Texas Architecture Deans), one of the attendees in the audience, in response to a Q & A comment that was made on the role of education, he suggested that the way most education leaders view it is that they can teach design, but the individual can learn the technology of how buildings go together in an office environment.
Time was short, so there was no further discussion on his statement. From what I have seen, however, is that this often does not occur. Maybe this is only unique to my experience. It seems that there is not enough time for senior architects to truly mentor young associates on the basics of construction detailing. It then becomes a sink or swim situation and the intern is left to learn it on their own by studying working drawings of similar building types. We certainly have the educational background to do this; however, sometimes it helps to have things verbally explained while flipping through a set of drawings.
I wonder what experience others have had in this area?
So far, it seems a common theme is emerging from this discussion: that the role of the architect does seem to be eroding due to a number of factors.
How can we stop this erosion?
Not to throw everything, including the kitchen sink, into the discussion, but I was thinking about something that seemed pertinent. Lest I come across as a negative nelly by bringing up this topic. I am aware of the truth to the adage: "Never Verbalize a Negative." A negative statement would be to say, "The role of architects is approaching extinction." Okay, I have to admit, on bleaker days, I may have uttered that- even posted that. However, it is one thing to get frustrated and despair for a moment, a while, a week; it is another thing to get frustrated and set out to define- and solve- the problem. The latter is what I am aiming at with this blog.
There is an excellent quote that I used to have posted up on my home office bulletin board. I couldn't find it, but it goes someting like this:
"You see, you can do anything you set your mind to do if you would only focus on HOW you CAN do it rather than only looking at why you seem to think you can't."
If anyone has seen this quote and has it correctly worded, please give me a it to this blog.
I have a few other ideas I'd like to share and will do so in a separate post.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. It is much valued and appreciated.

10-27-2010 11:00 AM

I have 20 years in the industry and would like to comment on some ideas expressed. I agree that architecture has evolved and is continuing to do so through this downturn because architects have sat by. Others are doing our work without our education and rather than leading the charge on developments we have been merely reactionary, and glacially slow at that. I advise interns to get their license but many feel that becoming LEED AP is more important, because they are always hearing about it, but also perhaps because it is only one test to take to get the credential. The paper and pen test was only once a year but much cheaper to take than when they switched over to the computer test, I think this is one reason so many do not pursue it. The pay raise, if you get one, is small compared to the cost and effort to get licensed, yet eventually it does keep you from getting ahead. I think that the downturn is also a shift in the profession where fewer architects will be required to work on projects since others will continue to erode what we do, including detailers working for a contractor or manufacturer who will work off a fancy 3D drawing provided by an architect. Fewer and fewer young folks are even interested in the nuts and bolts of building and this is another area where we will lose out. Ultimately maybe this makes more sense for the construction industry and Owner/Clients, I don't know.

10-26-2010 06:46 PM

If you'd like to join the conversation and post to this blog, just click on the "add a comment" (underlined and bold font) text on the far upper righthand side of this Comment section in the medium gray header. ^^^
I think we architects can be shy sometimes, or at least reserved. I know I am; however, after posting on social forums, I am getting more accustomed to posting on public boards. It is important to choose words carefully, use spellcheck, and think before posting.
I enjoy the dialogue, discussing the issues, and getting things resolved. I love architecture and do see a need for change- more clearly, a need for the strengthening of architects in order for us to be able to respond to all the changes that our field is facing: new technology, code changes, globalization, tighter budgets, the need for ecologically-conscious designs, a savvier client, and more competition- all this, balanced with our need to use our talents, skills, education and imagination to provide the best designs possible while supporting ourselves financially and seeing our visions of a better world/superior built environment come to fruition.
I hope you'll join the blog!

10-25-2010 11:57 PM

Hi Cecelia,
Thank you for posting your thoughts. You’ve brought up some great points and I’d like to address your first item for now:
(1) On whether becoming LEED accredited is more important than passing the Architect’s Licensing Exam:
My gut response is to say a vehement no! Yet, when I take a step back, I have to ask from what vantage point are you asking this? For emerging architects, for example, having to decide which credential to obtain first is relatively new in the last 6-8 years. While I am not yet LEED accredited, I don’t know how challenging the process is; however, I would expect it is much easier and less time-consuming than the A.R.E. Being LEED accredited would add value to the firm where the emerging architect is employed and show clients how committed they are to sustainability.
It’s definitely not ever going to be an "either/or" situation, as LEED accreditation is not a license to practice architecture. I think the order in which someone approaches this is important. I have seen many business cards of associate architects specify they are LEED, A.P. accredited and I greatly respect that.
The Dean from Prairie View A&M University, in Texas, has said that she is being asked to graduate her students sooner as the population in Texas is exploding and there is a shortage of space- both student residential and instructional- on campuses. Also, it has been noted that architecture graduates are taking longer to pass the A.R.E. because there’s no longer that push to finish by the June deadline as it was when the exam was on paper.
It seems that now that the exam can be taken at any time, it is being spread out over a longer time period. This could also be due to the economy though, too.

10-23-2010 11:00 AM

Thank you for posting. I've been in the profession for 16 years and have seen ups and downs. The common thread during the good times and bad is this subject of the eroding role of architects in building design and construction. Let's get this dialogue going.
I have a few suggestions on specific topics:
Is becoming a LEED accredited professional more important than passing the ARE?
How can the new drawing programs help the small practitioner?
How do architects compete with do-it-yourself design depicted on TV? Have these TV programs helped or hurt the professions image in the general public?
How can being involved in your local community organizations improve the image of architect's?