around the middle of summer when the wheels began to fall off. Our team's final deadline for submitting
construction drawings for a project in Utah was just a day away, and like usual
everyone was scrambling to get every last detail finished and red-line picked
up. Then an email from the client's lead
project manager came, ordering us to postpone drawing package until further
notice. She informed us that her entire team had just been laid off . After an initial feeling of relief of not
having to put long hours to finish the job in the next days, it became clear that the flush years of
abundant work and job security were coming to an end. This was a few months before the Lehman
collapse and about six months before the TARP bailout. Little did we know how much more was to be faced by our client, my colleagues and even more so the architectural profession at large. The client, one of the country's larges proprietors of shopping centers, would later undergo bankruptcy, the sale of many of its assets and multiple hostile takeover bids. My colleagues and I were simply continuing in fear knowing that any day could be their last, and those who were left would be subjected to even longer hours, as teams would be expected to do a lot more with less. The mood at the state architect's convention that fall was naturally ominous, but even the attendants were in hindsight too optimistic on the depth and breadth of the coming recession and the time it would take for business to pick up again.
|Inside a corporate architectural office. Notice that everyone|
works on computers and there are no walls or partitions,
supposedly to foster team collaboration. In a recession, half
of those desks would be empty.
Signs of Strain
In a big architecture firm, there are a couple of signs that indicate the souring of the overall economic climate. First, there is a frenzy of expansionary activity within the office- hiring becomes rapid to replace all those leaving for better-paying opportunities elsewhere as well as from inflated expectations on future business. Office work space expands, new cubicles are buitlt to fill it and suddenly your quiet team meeting spaces have turned into a cluster of makeshift workstations for summer interns. Though this expansion seems haphazard, it actually conforms to a plan dictated from above, often as a result form strategic forecasting initiatives it rolls out. It took a while since the last recession, but now the firm's leadership can induldge in setting its sights on growth rather than survival (which often takes a couple of years after a pick-up in billings). When times are good, one can indulge on think about the future. When they are not, the present is all that matters.
And finally, in my experience, there seems to be a kind of inverse relationship between the degree of the firm's leadership tries to publicly reassure staff and the pessimism they conceal as their project backlog evaporates. They explain that when a project is "put on hold" has little to do with the client's lack of money or commitment, but rather that they are simply taking time to refine the program before moving forward, which, as they constantly reassure you, will happen.
Eventually the holding patterns become terminal, the reassurances turn into extremely thin silver linings, and the layoff notices strike. This didn't occur immediately after Lehman, but mostly throughout the first year-and-a-half afterwards. Fortunately in my firm there were a couple of projects that had already been approved for construction, as the expenses for them had been approved years before and shielded from the stock market (thank you, healthcare sector) and required a lot of man hours. That life-raft lasted for a good 6-9 months, which for me was briefly followed by doing more healthcare work along more analytic lines by learning new software. And then commercial projects, my main specialty, began to trickle in again (about 2 years after Lehman), usually demanding a more conceptual focus over expertise in technical detailing and construction.
Others weren't as lucky. After the healthcare projects dried up, there were many on those project teams who had no place to go, since the new projects starting up had no use for their technical expertise or managerial skillsets. There was instead a need for people who could generate colorful design concept packages, which required the ability for people quickly model, color and render ideas to a level that the client could begin to market a project to banks and tenants, with a very small hope that it might get built. Naturally the architect's fee for delivering this kind of work at the initial phase of a project is small (since a large majority of an architect's fee is earned during the construction document phase), and so the staff allocated to the design team has to be very small in number and pretty cheap to pay, of which being young in age is actually an advantage. Older architects, who accumulated many years in various jobsites and valuable experience in managing brick-and-mortar projects were suddenly unsuitable to the overrarching task of making pretty pictures for highly speculative projects--they were eventually let go. Young architects, who weren't as enamored with the conceptual side of the profession as they were with getting something real that was tangible to be built in the real world, were struggling to keep up with the quick pace of producing concept models and coordinating outsourced renderings--many of them were out of a job, too (they kept a few, though, since they were still cheap compared to their older mentors).
In the end, there were about 4 waves of corporate-wide layoffs, and several more that were unannounced within various sectors. In my firm alone our overall personnel count was reduced by 20%. This was actually better than many other offices, where it wasn't unusual for their staff to be cut by half, or sometimes dissolve altogether. The 2008 financial crash and the ensuing recession decimated the architectural profession, more so than in any other industry, and to this day it boasts a relatively high unemployment rate (around 25% or higher). It was the equivalent of a "Götterdämmerung"--a disaster, at least for the profession as it was traditionally understood. It was the worst economic environment endured since the Great Depression, and there is a veritable "Lost Generation" of young designers who happened to graduate from architecture school at the wrong time, who have migrated to other industries to make a living or hole themselves up in the parents' basement. Such devastation naturally took an emotional toll on those of us who were spared, since we all work in close-knit teams where each person pulls their weight equally. A sense of camaraderie develops among in the trenches at the office working late nights meeting deadlines. The first layoff a very big firms tends to remove the chaff, those individuals who were never able to become vital to a team whether because of their lack of relevant skills, basic sociability (antagonism within a team is costly to our productivity and morale) or for some other reason have become a liability rather than an asset. The second and third layoffs hurt a lot more because real quality people are lost, including the firm's own investment in them as they were trained to work as part of their efficient way of working.
|Given these outcomes, what good is an |
Needless to say, the years between 2002 and 2008 were fat ones for architects, even with all of its so called 'decadence'. Spawned by a Federal Reserve-induced real-estate bubble, average wages rose at their fastest rate, hiring was widespread in most markets, and working in a firm even had its fun moments. Big fees helped cover for rising overhead costs that included a number of company parties, meals and weekend outings throughout the year. Although new all-in-one 3d software was emerging around that time that would boost productivity and thus shrink the size of project teams, the practice was still reliant on 2d Cad software that demanded a sizeable number of people to adequately document sizeable buildings.
Surely such days would come back once the economy recovered, right?
Five Years Later
As far as predictions go, the more pessimistic ones seem to have won out, but there is some consolation to be had in the changing quality of the practice that will be explained later. In terms of employment, salaries, project backlogs and even with regards to our moral stature, the architectural profession is still not even close to where it was when the recession started five years ago. Whatever sense of security that is left, even in a profession as economically sensitive as ours, is now gone. I personally don't think we are quite out of the woods yet, and the overall mood in my firm (which enjoys a more comfortable financial position versus its rivals) is one of caution and survival. We are very busy, but much of the work continues to be of a conceptual quality, useful to developers to market the project with pretty pictures and diagrammatic floor plans but rarely advancing to actual construction, which is where our bread-and-butter is made (a rule of thumb from my own experience as a design-side commercial architect is that there is a 10% chance that the project you are slaving over will get built, and that might be a bit optimistic). Thus any recent hiring that has occurred has been mostly to meet staffing needs for the initial design phase of projects, while expert technical detailers and seasoned project managers have been whittled down to a select few experts, who still don't have enough to do most of the time.
The overall reality that afflicts the labor pool both young and old has become a bit tougher, and I don't seeing it letting up anytime soon. There is still a huge glut of young architecture school graduates seeking employment, resulting in an extremely competitive job market that has naturally bid down starting salaries everywhere. According to a few industry surveys that I have seen, salaries for newbie designers seem to have stagnated at best and shrunk slightly overall, thus not even closely keeping up with inflation. Add to this the staggering cost and the accrued debt of their university degrees, the young are in a deep financial hole before they ever start (something older types can't begin to comprehend with their past ability to draft part-time to pay for school not so long ago). Cost-cutting is the name of the game at most firms, which informs a tendency to offer lower starting salaries, and worse, to act on a preference towards cheaper and less demanding new hires (foreign workers on visas, in other words). Older architects with lots of real-world experience in construction often take a modest pay-cut when re-entering the workforce, while those who specialize in business development stand to profit most (and they have according to this AIA survey). One quickly-expanding construction-oriented specialty that once kept a lot of this particularly demographic busy, healthcare design, has since the passage the Affordable Care Act has stagnated or shriveled. Going towards a healthcare career route now doesn't seem such a sure bet, and has become as precarious as any other commercial or residential sector.
What about us survivors, those who managed to stay on board layoff after layoff, has it gotten any better? Though we are extremely grateful for our jobs, it doesn't mean that our overall lot has improved all that much. In many ways it has become significantly tougher due to several major factors. As has already been mentioned, cutting the cost of doing business has been a key driver in all decisions pertaining to the staffing, scope and time. This has partly to do with shoring balance sheets within the firm, but it has also to do with increasing global competition for projects, since the domestic market isn't sufficient to maintain numerous firms' large sizes. Construction activity in the US has picked up quite a bit since 2008, but the volume of work is smaller than during the bubble beforehand with hungry firms bidding down their fees to new levels. They therefore have pursued opportunities abroad, which have been fruitful for many firms but are limited by the fact that construction documents are to be done exclusively by the architect local to that country, thus making a full scope of service impossible and fees even smaller.
The BIM Revolution
Since BIM is essentially an extensive database embodied in a virtual building model, those who master it first wield new powers in the design and construction process. More importantly, it shatters the traditional relationship between the lowly intern and the seasoned project manager. The young naturally learn BIM and allied parametric modeling tools much more quickly than the old, and within a few years become the gatekeepers of vital information about all technical aspects of the project. Older types, who were just barely getting up to speed using 2-dimensional drawing programs (e.g. AutoCAD), haven't quite grasped how the new BIM tools work, much less understand the time and skills required to make it work effectively. As leaders of project teams who have to decide on the kind and actual amount of resources to devote to a project, they still rely on old formulas based on yesterday's technological standards. They are unable accurately assess the emerging skillsets of younger workers, thus making the mistake of expecting a lot more from their staff in less time while at the same time writing proposals promising clients that his team can deliver a higher level of quality and standard of service for the same amount of fees. This really puts the squeeze on the young, who now must learn in a couple of years what used to take decades in learning how to put buildings together (a good thing) while spitting out detailed drawings, photo-realistic renderings and run systems analysis in the same amount of time and fee it once took to create a few hand-sketched plans and an elevation or two. For example, when I started in the profession over a decade ago, a concept design package (the first 5-10% of an architect's fee, usually) consisted of around 15 to 25 colored pages of hand-sketched plans, sections, elevations, hand-drawn perspectives and area tabulations for a large mixed-use commercial project. Now, it is not unusual to see over 150 colored pages containing precisely drafted plans showing structural data, rendered shadow-casted elevations with material swatches around it, sections depicted in single-point perspective (pretty cool), photo-realistic renderings prepared by a Chinese rendering company, plan diagrams detailing traffic flows, pedestrian experience, green coverage, shadow studies, energy consumption, sightlines, and finally area tabulations.
|What an architect's drafting board look likes, circa 2012.|
The Global 24-Hour Practice
For those of us who have weathered the fallout resulting from mass layoffs and technological disruptions, we are having to come to terms with an uncomfortable new overarching reality: our domestic economy hasn't recovered the way it did in past boom-bust cycles, and it will continue to stagnate for the long term. We are getting a sense this 'new normal' represents some structural changes that inevitably occur with any mature post-industrial economy, in which aging demographics, the growth of the entitlement state, technologically driven productivity, and the transitioning from manufacturing to services as a source of employment all contribute to slow growth further hampered by higher taxes and running inflation. It's not coming back, and firms that have positioned themselves to local economic conditions are extremely vulnerable.
To survive, one has to cast much wider net and develop new markets to balance existing soft markets. Large firms that have achieved a certain critical mass in terms of total billing and attendant staff before the recession have had to go even farther out to other countries with rapidly growing economies to stay busy. These large firms have used the advantage of their size and resources to establish offices in key markets specifically in Middle East (e.g. Dubai) and the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China). A London office for most of these firms is still important geographically, since it is close enough to any potential European projects (relatively few) and the growing Persian Gulf region (which is mostly run by British commonwealth expats). This is no doubt quite a large investment in infrastructure on behalf of the firm, but it is becoming quickly necessary to assure the large legacy firms' competitive advantage, especially against the upstarts native to those emerging markets. Small firms have also started to go that same route, subsidizing their loss-making boutique work in their home country with commissions from Asia, even Africa. Starchitects such as Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, Rem Koolhaas, Herzog and De Meuron, Snohetta, and Bjarke Ingels have gone full bore into these fast-growing markets, setting up expanding store-front offices near their projects.
|China: it might be polluted and hazy most of the time, |
but it keeps a lot of architects in business.
This new global reality has indeed created some new roles for architects beyond merely those of software operators. We have now become outsourcing coordinators. Clients have become more sophisticated in the kind of imagery they expect to use for marketing. Hand-painted watercolors are on the way out and computer generated photorealistic depictions are in, and the more, the better. Physical models made with cardboard have been replaced with 3d-printers, which can offer superb results at high cost, but also require specially trained personnel to operate the machines as well as prepare the software files in advance. Since reducing cost by restraining wages is the main priority, it becomes nearly impossible to do the work in-house, much less to do it within the U.S. Now the task of visualization and model-making is open to firms throughout the world. You are no longer expected to actual do the grueling work of making a detailed model or pretty picture, but you are expected to manage the process across vast distances and time zones. Now you are expected to be on call to review rendering or model samples as they become available, often outside regular business hours, and usually while you are sleeping. It's important not to put off working on these renderings, since they often make-or-break the project, particularly to non-Western clients in which image seems trump function. If the client and/or architect is willing to pay a hefty fee, the rendering companies can bring your design to life with relatively little input. If not (which is most of the time), plan to spend many hours marking-up each rendering for multiple rounds, since companies with cheaper prices tend to hire people with no architectural background or sensibility. They will often make lots of mistakes and demonstrate poor judgment when it comes to color, contrast, entourage and scale. After much labor and time on your part, though they eventually fix their mistakes. All of that effort on your end has saved the firm a substantial amount of money compared to having someone in-house do the job. You get what you pay for.
|Architecture as a jewelry collection- Saadiyat Island near Abu|
Dhabi will have at 5 starchitect designed museums, and will
be supported almost exclusively by 5-star hotels, luxury
apartments and a giant shopping mall.
Another winner are construction and engineering conglomerates. Because architecture firms have yet to find a profitable business model and are prone to engage in under-bidding their services to get the job, other stronger players in the building industry are gaining ground in deciding how projects are designed and built. Companies that offer construction services (general contractors) are flexing their muscle by assuming more design responsibilities themselves or buying the designers outright by taking them over. These companies see architectural design services as a means of attracting more work for their engineers and contractors, not as a means as making much money from the architects themselves. Inveresely recommendations and referrals from contractors are a major source of work for architects. Japan is a notoriously difficult market for foreign architects mostly because local construction companies offer in-house architectural design for free on the expectation of making their profit upon a project's construction. For example, in 2009 AECOM a 45,000 person-strong engineering and contracting firm, bought out Ellerbe Becket, a Minneapolis-based architecture firm of 450 people known for its work on sports arenas and stadiums. Amsterdam-based Arcadis, a giant engineering company most known for its infrastructure and brownfield-redevelopment projects, acquired Baltimore-based RTKL Associates in 2007, which was already one of the largest architectural firms in the world at the time. More locally, The Beck Group, a Dallas-based construction services company acquired Urban Architecture in 1999 and has turned those who remain after the acquisition into it's in-house architectural team. These mergers pay big dividends to an architecture firm's senior partners who agree to sell their shares, but they imply a sort of demotion for salaried upper management that were once hopeful to acquire shares in the future. With the emergence of integrated project delivery, in which designers, engineers and contractors collaborate closely on a project from beginning to end (thanks to BIM), I predict we'll see more mergers in which architects lose their traditional autonomy in the construction process.
|Oh, and somewhere in there we happen to be the world's |
largest architecture firm.
Given all these factors, who the losers are turns out to be obvious--those who like to produce the work line by line, extrusion by extrusion, who enjoy being directly engaged with the craft of bringing an idea to fruition. They are not inclined to be pure project managers, are not interested in spending countless hours meeting with clients, and are not savvy enough to manage office politics. Many of them are young, very capable, and idealistic about the world and naïve, thus perfect fodder for spending many late nights for low pay to crank out dazzling design presentations. Some are older, often quiet and shy, who have really perfected a method for delivering quality work, and invested their free time learning new technical skills, but are always under the thumb of a bossy manager or a scatter-brained design lead. His salary creeps up slowly, and his marketability fades as he becomes too expensive for a firm to keep around, when there is so much fresh blood willing to take his place at half the cost. Personally, I love working with these kind of people, because they represent why architecture was so attractive in the first place--full of hope, the ability to bring something imagined into the world in a tangible way. It's the dream-like imagery of the renderings, the boost to one's ego of making something mind-bendingly complex out of nothing, to be a vital part of something important and much larger than anyone involved that keeps these producers going and willing to sacrifice everything else in their lives, be it their health, their families, or their time. Sadly, the work will continue to pile as we are able to deliver more and more, and pay will continue to get squeezed thanks to intense competition and an endless over-supply of starry-eyed workers spellbound by the romance of the architect.
|A Room with View: What I'd like my office to look like one |
With this in mind do I come to the conclusion that doing what I do is more of a privilege than anything else. Despite our important influence on the built environment and our overall cultural impact on society, we are not part of the critical professions--those that address the immediate needs of people with a lot at stake, whether it is for reasons of the health, law, or money. To most people what I do is not equivalent to saving someone's life, getting him out of jail, or making him loads of money. As much as we would like to believe that we are driven by a humanitarian social mission by making the world a better place, there is relatively little monetary value for such original qualitative problem-solving. It's sort of a cruel fate: there is tremendous emotional and intellectual value in designing spaces that it naturally appeals to our most fundamentally human impulses yet there is very little real economic demand to fulfill this impulse in what we build. The former accounts for the oversupply of those wanting to become architects, and the latter explains our current predicament as a profession. It has always been this way, and I think it will continue for as long as people stay the way they are. Only the exercise of arbitrary power, in other words politics, can override this tendency, and yet there is little real political inertia empowering the architect. And so we continue on, relishing what few opportunities we get and grateful for the chance to be members of the dream-making business and all of the unpredictable volatility that naturally goes with it. We definitely can be comfortable knowing that choosing this path was not a very rational one, right?