Who's on the Team? Rapid Role Changes in Design

May 26, 2005 · by Gerald S. Hammond

Ed. note: This is Gerry Hammond’s perspective on how design roles have changed in the past decade.

Ed. note: This is Gerry Hammond’s perspective on how design roles have changed in the past decade.

How to Manage the workforce during a shortage of qualified individuals

For about five years it was a challenge to find, recruit and retain project architects who could act as project managers for the significant workload generated during our expansion period. This was something for which the profession was not well prepared. In retrospect, though, it allowed (for the first time in my experience) compensation to rise appropriately across almost all levels.

Expanding service scope upstream

The profession was challenged to become more creative in approaching programming and project feasibility—including financial and other aspects not traditionally a part of our services. Demographic studies, market research and other activities became mainstream for successful firms. Engaging the community came to mean the whole community in some instances. The traditional AIA document phases of service became fungible in the marketplace. Adapting to these new realities has been a challenge.

Package nondesign services in our scopes of engagement

The challenge here was to find sources of expertise in areas outside project design. Financing, demographic analysis, community surveys, market analysis, campaign strategies, site seeking and other demands were placed upon us by our clients. This required us to look outside our normal spheres of influence for experts we could bring in-house or partner with as consultants. We began to stretch the meaning of the term “multidiscipline” well beyond what it meant in the ‘80s and before. In some cases, these new services contributed significantly to our revenue stream.

Maintain professional responsibility in design-build delivery

While the acceptance of the design-build delivery system continued to increase across the country, one unintended effect has been to isolate, in many cases, the architect from the users of their projects. While the design-build entity is often the one with which the architect contracts for work, architects still have a professional duty to those who use the buildings. The compact between society and the professions demands this in exchange for special designation and privileges.

Watch material shortages and prices

It has been a recent phenomenon, but nevertheless, the challenge of dealing with what has become a “race to the top” in construction pricing/costs has become an enormous challenge for architects. Unfortunately, this has placed architects’ budgets at risk and has the potential to further erode the profession’s already shaky reputation for controlling project costs.

Effectively transition leadership from one generation to the next

While I don’t have any statistics to support it, I believe that there is a very large body of firm principals who are nearing what was once uncommon in the profession, retirement. This has posed new challenges in making the transition from one generation to the next as smooth as possible. The large number of corporate organizations with significant assets makes this an important effort within the profession. It is also one for which few have any experience or training.

Avoid marginalization by project Managers, CMs and others

As there has been for many years, there are those who would marginalize the role of architects, relegating us to “design” and removing us from the more elemental functions related to both the development of project parameters and implementation of design ideas. This is a large, continuing challenge for the profession. While some signature design firms have managed to maintain a central role in their projects, mainstream firms struggle to compete with the scale of some of the businesses that provide CM, PM and other services. It appears that architects are losing this competition and some have begun to adapt to this new and somewhat diminished role.

Finding a niche to focus on

The trend towards specialization accelerated in this decade—many smaller firms chose a single focus for their practice—which in turn has made them vulnerable to economic downturns within their chosen market. Only those who are adaptable and able to sense change before it happens have done well. On the other hand, this has made larger practices more competitive as they have been able to create a degree of diversity through multiple specializations, in so doing providing some safe harbor for its development.

Find the sweet spot in how you use technology

How much technology is too much? With the pace of change increasing, and more and more tools available to the profession, it has been difficult to decide where to put finite resources for present and future return on investment. The constant fear of being left behind drives some decisions probably better left unmade. For instance, capital that might be better spent on human resource development is sometimes spent on unnecessary or marginally productive technology.

The increasing role of attorneys in our collective lives

Attorneys have found a new industry to exploit—design and construction. They now do contract negotiation, wedging themselves between architect and client. Lawyers file suit on behalf of owners, contractors, and third parties—all seeking redress for economic losses perceived to be a proximate result of something the architect did or did not do (without regard for the standard of care). Our world has changed and managing risk has risen to a new level. This now demands that we budget time and costs for handling myriad potential claims. This is a significant shift from only a decade ago. It has changed our relationship with clients and industry partners alike; all the while our authority over projects erodes.

And How to Prepare for the next decade

We must survive an onslaught of foreign design firms and outsourcing.
The challenges will be:

  1. To acknowledge and understand the impact that foreign design firms will be having in the marketplace
  2. To react in an appropriate manner (join up, off-shore, compete, etc.)
  3. To learn how to work with foreign partners

One possible result of foreign influences may be off-shoring of technical documentation to low-cost locations. This would have the effect of reducing revenue for most firms which derive a significant portion from this phase of service. Replacing this revenue will become the challenge.

Become more effective in partnering and forming alliances outside the profession.

Such alliances will be key to capture many significant future clients. The challenge will be to make design firms attractive to the right partners while maintaining appropriate control over our areas of primary competence. We must also pursue opportunities to orchestrate the whole effort.

Maintain focus on our customers

This will become increasingly difficult as the definition of our customers changes. Where once our customer was also clearly our client, this may be less certain in the future. If we lose touch with our real customers, our importance will diminish. Architects must continue to find ways to stay “in-touch” with those who actually populate and use our projects—while at the same time finding ways to serve those who hire us (as in a design-build delivery system). This will be a challenge, as evidenced by a recent article where a significant design-build manager said essentially, architects need to get over the need to be in direct contact with the users and focus on viewing (and serving) the design-build entity as the client.

Fund the retirement of the boomers

As with society as a whole, we face the issue of demographics. The boomers are entering the realm of retirement eligibility in great numbers. If they choose to do so, funding their exits will become an enormous burden on the next generation of aspiring leaders. This may cause firms to just fade away, or present leadership to remain on board out of necessity. Whatever the outcome, this poses a real economic challenge.

Avoid continuing marginalization by project managers, CM’s and others!

The trend toward project control by CMs, PMs and others will continue placing the architect’s influence at risk. We must find ways to resist this trend by reasserting our influence in new and compelling ways. We may also have to look at alternative forms of practice; then do an end-run around this trend to centralize control with others. It is unlikely that architects can prevail in direct competition with these large business entities. How long will it be before CMs and others start buying up design firms?

Bring design schools into alignment with the demands of the marketplace

All of the above challenges can be better met by the profession if the training grounds, both schools and offices, would face that for many professionals, the kind of elite design-oriented education centered on signature architecture that is purveyed by much of the academy, does not serve the interests of the profession at large. Indeed it works against our interests in many regards. Alternative school settings, where applied education at least plays some role in the studios, may result. Much like the trend toward community colleges by many young graduates seeking tools to enter the workforce, we may see alternative schools like a few that exist today (e.g., the Boston Architectural Center) increase. The Gen X-ers want their children to receive economically relevant educations, which prepare them to be successful in the workplace. If traditional schools fail to do that, alternatives will challenge them soon.

Work within sustainable imperatives for project design and construction

Talking about sustainable design does not make it happen. We lived that in the ‘70s during the oil shortages and the advent of the solar panel. As soon as energy costs went down, the movement died.

The current push to better understand how we can implement sustainable design, however, is strong.

And it appears inevitable that architects will be faced with a mandate to work within these new paradigms. This will over-run many of the professions’ accepted styles of design, and may indeed force many practitioners to re-educate themselves to handle these responsibilities. The new “signature design” will not happen without a high level of respect for environmental impact. Reading William McDonough’s book, Cradle to Cradle, may challenge designers’ definition of what is responsible and what’s not. Conventional ideas on what constitutes good design may not hold anymore. It may also create a new generation of design leaders.

Diversify firm skills and competencies beyond architecture!

There is no question in my mind that this must happen. To get beyond our traditional bounds and learn to work effectively with fields not previously seen as related to architecture is going to be critical to secure a position in the future economy.

Redefine ourselves within a society that no longer demands/supports licensure and registration.

Pose the question: Who are we if there is no “registered architect” in all or many jurisdictions? This may be a question answered in the next decade. Will another fact be: You are not needed just because you are an architect, because anyone can do the work? Will there be an increasing proportion of design work done by non-architects? Will the concept of registration be attacked as unnecessary and a monopoly? There are rumblings!

Find a role in the evolution of construction systems.

Since the Middle Ages, little has changed in how we construct a masonry wall. There is a surprising amount of resistance to change the ways we build buildings. The trades resist, and architects for the most part stay within “proven” systems, to assure success and avoid retribution (or worse) for things that don’t work. Architects will have to be much more aware of developing new materials and systems that reduce time and cost while delivering appropriate value. The sustainability movement may at last provide the needed boost to get this done. Creativity and imagination will be imperative, along with skills within industrial design and engineering. This will require alliances that include experts from manufacturing and design as well as entities willing to invest in new ideas that might work.

—Gerald S. Hammond

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