Editorial: Architecture: what future?

May 22, 2014

It doesn’t look good right now, but in a changing world, architects will always be needed.

There’s a lot of discussion about the future of architecture. It’s happening in the media, it’s occurring in the halls of architecture schools, and it’s taking place in architectural firms around the nation and the world. It’s my turn to weigh in. Architecture is under attack. Contractor-led design-build is eating into their market. Clients don’t understand the value architects can bring to the building process, and lawyers find it just as easy to sue the architects as it is contractors, subcontractors and everyone else. There’s a lot of risk for what ultimately may not be a lot of pay. Meanwhile, architects aren’t doing a very good job handling these threats. Contractors rule the design-build domain because they are less risk averse and have a much better handle than architects on what things actually cost to build. Some might say contractors are also more businesslike and less tolerant of non-performance from other team members. I would also say they are much quicker to compromise their design for cost (not always a good thing, ultimately, for the client, but definitely a good thing if you want a profitable project!). Most architects have a very poor understanding of marketing and brand-building, even though some have shown the incredible power a real brand brings in terms of more work and higher fees. You can’t blame clients for not wanting to educate their design professionals in the industry or business they operate in. The resistance many architects still feel at their core to specialize is yet another problem. The Howard Roark model of a good architect who can design anything is taught in design schools around the globe. This hurts architects’ ability to be good functional designers and effective cost estimators. And the over-emphasis on design training in school has resulted in them having a big deficiency in terms of their overall construction knowledge. It’s not pretty. Starting salaries for architects, after five years of education costing $25-50K annually, remain around $40K or so in most areas in the U.S., when new undergrads in business or engineering can make $50-70K or more in some cases. This, too, is going to drive talent out of the field. These are just some of the threats to the architectural profession. But I still remain hopeful for the future of architects and architecture. The world is changing fast. We have huge population shifts occurring in many places in the world from the country to cities. We need better schools. Manufacturing is changing, requiring all new facilities. Technological changes affect every place where people live and work. The healthcare area alone is a huge and growing market that requires good design. More people are in jail. More people are going to college. Our housing stock is inefficient. Public facilities are in need of investment. You get the idea. There are also architects who are bringing in more construction knowledge to their firms, either through acquisitions or key hires – or both. And there are some architects who are good marketers and business people. Look at the history and growth of companies such as Gensler or DLR Group and many others that keep growing and growing, good times and bad. Finally, there’s hope for architectural education. Schools are trying to get students more relevant experience. They’re also doing more and better practice management education. I have even taught a course here at The Fay Jones School of Architecture called “Everything They Don’t (usually) Teach You in Architectural School.” And there are many other courses like this springing up at architectural schools all over. The architectural profession isn’t doomed. But it is – and will be – going through some changes! Mark Zweig is the chairman and CEO of ZweigWhite. Contact him with questions or comments at mzweig@zweigwhite.com. This article first appeared in The Zweig Letter (ISSN 1068-1310), issue #1057, originally published 5/26/2014. Copyright© 2014, ZweigWhite. All rights reserved.

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