Reprogramming Practice

19 Jan Reprogramming Practice

What’s Next: Reprogramming Practice

by: Wanda Lau

In some sectors, disruption is so pervasive that it’s practically a cliché. Soon it will be architecture’s turn. Meet the champions who are prepping for the inevitable.

When the future of architecture practice comes up at conferences or in conversation, someone invariably pulls out a chart comparing the productivity of various industries since the mid-20th century. And while the numbers for agriculture and manufacturing skyrocket, construction’s remain dismally flat. Another popular take on the same point juxtaposes two photographs of laborers framing a house, one dated to the 19th century and the other from the 21st century, with the presenter dryly asking, “Do you see any difference?”

As Yale School of Architecture lecturer and former Autodesk vice president Phil Bernstein puts it, quoting research by one of his students: “The building industry is suboptimized to the point of failure.”

2017 McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) report identified numerous reasons for the building industry’s lagging performance. Three in particular should sound familiar to architects: a bidding environment that prioritizes cost over results; a design process that fails to leverage opportunities for standardization; and tight profit margins that preclude investment in digital technology, data management, and workforce training. On the bright side, the report estimates if the U.S. construction sector’s productivity matched that of the overall economy, it could increase revenues by more than $500 billion annually.

The profession isn’t just losing out financially; it’s also bleeding talent. While the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards reports that accredited U.S. schools have graduated an average of 6,152 students per year since 2009, the average number of designers completing the Architect Registration Examination per year during that time is just 3,560. That’s a dismal proportion, even taking into account the six or seven years it takes many graduates to achieve licensure.

What happens to all of those creative minds? One of them, AIA Practice Innovation Lab

chair Evelyn Lee, found that the promise and pace of design studio did not match the backward realities of practice. After spending her intern days at an architecture firm fielding complaints from clients who could not “plug in their coffee machines” because they couldn’t reach the newly relocated electrical outlets, Lee now works at a commercial real estate consultancy.

Everyone needs to pay their dues, but there’s no escaping the fact that other fields allow young designers to engage more immediately, with greater impact. With today’s seemingly endless technological resources, innovative practitioners can cut their losses, broaden their skill sets, and join sectors that are already acing the productivity curve. According to WeWork senior vice president, head of design Federico Negro, “half of the students” who attended a recent talk of his at the Yale School of Architecture “weren’t asking how to get into big or fancy architecture firms, but rather how to get into Google and Airbnb.”

Silicon Valley will be happy to take them — and to eat the rest of your lunch while they’re at it. As Georgia Tech architecture chair Scott Marble observes, the Elon Musks of the world, having conquered the digital arena, are eyeing the built environment and its enormous data potential. The infusion of technology and cash into the AEC space from these outsiders will, Marble says, “have a profound impact on the structure and potential of the industry at large.”

Are dark times ahead for architecture practice? Demand certainly shows no signs of decreasing in the longer term: The MGI report also predicted annual spending on buildings and infrastructure to increase from $10 trillion in 2017 to $14 trillion by 2025. The challenge is to ensure that architects are in the best position to meet the demand. With that in mind, the individuals and organizations featured on the following pages are adopting 21st century models of entrepreneurship, embracing demographic and socioeconomic change, developing new technologies, and fundamentally rethinking process and product. They have not only heard the wake-up call, but in many cases and in many ways they are the wake-up call.

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The original article was published in print and on the Architect Magzine website HERE.