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“…the uncertainty we all feel.”

July 15, 2013

I am a grudging member of the AIA. When my publisher brokered a deal to have my book “The House You Build” receive the AIA’s second-ever imprint it mandated my membership. At the same time I caved after 20 years,  a bunch of residential architects, including moi, created The Congress of Residential Architecture – CORA, a place for non-AIA home designers (and their AIA/licensed architect counterparts) to share what’s up in their professional lives.

Any desire to organize any herd of professional cats implies there is a future to be had. Lately, this sense seems to be eroding in architecture, at least in my niche. Anecdotally, there is a lite flurry of hiring this year, but no one is making enough money as fees shrink to generate demand. My wee firm is as busy as it has ever been, and we have signed about 10 new projects this month – but there is precious little cash flow.

The Great Internet Flood has cast many professions adrift. This time of  technological explosion has meant homeowners think of “HOUZZ” before “architect”. It has seen publishing  of “shelter” books dry up to a precious few, magazines reduce issues, go digital, or simply die, and conference attendance whither.

This is old news after 6 years of the bottom falling out from under an industry that had distended from 500,000 new houses a year being built to almost 2,000,000  back down to a low of 300,000. Happy talk now chatters “rebound” at rates that suggest 600,000 might be possible – half of the annual average in the decade before 2008. While there are firms who are just fine, in the trenches its trench warfare, not over-the-top enthusiasm.

Even with a pounded to grounded attitude, I was sadly not surprised when my local AIA chapter offer up a rallying seminar:

“Taking Back the Profession: Successful Strategies and Models”

– for a full half Thursday last week.

Then a few days before it was to happen: “THIS PROGRAM HAS BEEN CANCELLED.” was appended to its webpage. Not enough cared, or could, attend.

This parallels a lack of initiative for the our CORA to gather annually – that will not happen for the first time in its decade of existence.  It will now, for now, lurk nationally as a cyberplace entity.

I sent the AIA seminar cancellation notice out to a small group of architects and editors all across the country – and the responses were remarkable – but no one wanted attribution/publication so I present them here as anonymous outpourings.

One responder sent this part of a Berkeley architecture school course description, that synopsizes the disconnect between how architects perceive homes, and train others to view them in a way that gives many homeowners pause:

“Houses offer an unusual opportunity for architects. Clients can commit to indulgent and idiosyncratic choices rarely possible in public work, allowing for extraordinary variation in what houses look like, and live like. But this lack of rigorous constraint has led many architects to dismiss houses as outside our professional realm. On the other hand, the smaller size of most single-family houses exaggerates our awareness of many factors that are central to architecture: scale, sensual materials, crafted detail.”

Amid this obvious and abiding disconnect, a member of the wee anonymous round table mused on the context of the cancellation of that AIA course:

“the fault is not in our stars but in a lack of imagination. All the conferences, cleaver titles, or awards don’t mean a thing to those who actually hire us. Does anyone honestly think that our internal questioning of modern versus tradition or reinventing our practice has any significant impact on the built environment… perhaps, but not the environment.”

There is a deep consensus, not just in this tiny focus group, but crystallized by one responder:

“Established practitioners who survived the last 5 years are just plain tired of coping with the turbulence. I’m still swimming but my arms are tired! Younger architects who might normally step up to ride the next wave have been knocked out of the field.

We can either use this moment to retool and redirect our energies, or find ourselves enervated and irrelevant. Let’s focus on the possibilities and stop dwelling on the decline of civilization. True or not, what young architect is going to want to join a conversation framed by the words ‘withering, hunker down, funk, declining, and tepid’?”

Amid this depressive and exhausted atmosphere the dogged resolve of commitment to practice was an essential drumbeat.

“I can’t get a lot of energy into worrying about who publishes what projects.  It’s irrelevant when the basic gameboard is broken.  We need smaller, quicker sources of investment, and smaller, faster, smarter regulation and approvals processes, just for starters.”

For those who are making it, architecture is a mission. For the dabbling or simply the young who can’t get the experience to get the skills to get into the game this is a black box profession, where work is elusive, relevance has a shifting standard – shrinking into inside baseball accolades.

Obviously, this time of professional PTSD is not limited to architects – an editor chalked it up to “…the uncertainty we all feel.”

Unfortunately our lack of work, and hence underemployment leads all the other the professions at a time when the schools of architecture are full of paying acolytes to a faith that seems to have lost its street cred.

The desire of architecture students to go into extreme debt and sketchy employment potential validates the value of creating with a greater tangibility than canvas or clay. Humans breath, eat, sleep and they build. My own mission includes helping to  make the instinctive desire to build as meaningful as possible – in every way. Architects do that. I do that every day.

But unless we wake up to the real potential that we are becoming buggy whip makers in a world of Model T’s, we will simply continue bend the truth of our mission to what people “should” want from us, versus what actually is our window for change. As one of my cyber salon put it:

“One thing I have found, that in this world in which everything is underlined no matter how mundane, the public is eager for a fresh, calm voice that gives them back their imagination and their sanity. We are all natural teachers.”

When you are in a state of denial you either OD into delusion, or you wake up to a reality that is part hangover and part inspiration. Survival is not enough, even in a place of extreme uncertainty.


Postscript: Response

Duo — I feel your pain and I understand it. (I run a communications company.  Whenever two or more sit down to talk, there is something I should be doing.)  Like your profession, mine suffers from same problems as yours, maybe even more so.  And, we both suffer for the same reasons: we are an enigmatic, erudite group — few people know what it is that we really do and even fewer of them understand its value.  To a large degree, it is our own fault. We are not communicating with the masses.

While the answer is simple enough, the process is daunting. It isn’t something that we can do as a few individuals carrying water to the masses. This is a Herculean task of near epic proportion. The masses need to understand the value of what we do.  Yet no one is addressing them.  We can sit around the campfires and talk about the good old days and about comebacks, but it isn’t going to make a difference as long as our audiences are incestuous.  We need to see the people and tell the story.

Case in point, I understand the value of an architect, but when I talk to the masses of people they do not.  I have a few friends that are in the process of rebuilding at least four homes on the Jersey Shore.  I have recommended that they use you and if not you, at least a visionary architect. Unfortunately, to a man, each does not see the value in working with an architect.

“I have a friend, a friend of the family, or a guy I know — take your pick — who is a general contractor and he says he can build me a great house and save me thousands of dollars,” — which might be true if only in the sense that they’ll get to keep the money they should have paid you. The problem is that the few thousand they might save by not paying an architect to think of the things that will never cross their minds or those of a contractor will cost them much more in the long run, e.g., the money I have spent with you will return no less than tenfold in terms of property value. Then there is the benefit of owning a quality, custom built home that is more comfortable, efficient and far more enjoyable then the raised ranch so many offered to build for me at $100 a square foot. These people have no idea of the value you bring to the table, but it isn’t their fault.

AIA has no out-reach programs to educate the unannointed, the unknowing.  Talk to yourselves all you want, but nothing is going to change until the masses can see value in your offer.  I’d love to hear your, or the industry’s elevator speech that addresses this issue.  If I give you two minutes, can you give me enough of a reason to consider hiring an architect? 

In my industry, you hear ignorant comments like: “Why should I hire you?  My secretary knows everything there is to know about PowerPoint,” as if that is all there is to presenting.  I always want to respond by asking if that’s so, why isn’t she using that knowledge.  When it comes to creating affective (yes, I mean affective) presentations, I hear all too often, “I’ve given hundreds of presentations. Why would I need your help”?  I’d like to answer by pointing out the lack of an impressive success ratio.  But I digress.

You and I cannot change the world by ourselves. We need friends, colleagues and confederates to help. We cannot be that single voice crying out to the uninformed, philistine masses that there is a better way.

So, to whom am I preaching? Perhaps to no one besides myself.

Your Friend, Zki

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 11, 2013 8:05 pm

    This is déjà vue. Unfortunately it might take another lifetime to ripe the benefit of educating the public about the benefit of hiring an architect. If you can’t beat them join them.
    Architect turn builder seems to be the “new model” for small Practioner like us to earn a decent wages doing tough time. We are doing all the heavy lifting anyway so why not getting ourselves in position to earn more revenues …


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