Architecture has changed irreparably in the past decade, but those who know how to adapt just might find themselves in a far better place in a few years. It has now been 8 years since construction peaked in 2005, nearly 6 years since the subprime meltdown, and close to 5 years since the big meltdown that really kicked off the Great Recession.
The End of Experienced Employees
Today, it appears that construction is finally beginning to pick back up, but it's too late for architecture as we knew it. More than half of the people working in architectural offices in 2005 aren't there anymore. Some are still unemployed, some have gone in business for themselves, but many have left the profession. And when people leave architecture, they rarely come back for three reasons: an architecture degree prepares you to do so many other things, it's such a stressful profession, and the pay is usually significantly lower than other professions like law and medicine. So if you're a firm owner, your former employees are likely either gone for good, or have started their own firms and are competing with you for work. So you can't simply gear back up with the same experienced people you once had.
The End of Trusting Clients
During the past 8 years that we've essentially been out of business, our clients have changed in several ways. A decade ago, clients were much more likely to accept the expert opinion of an architect. Now, they've all learned to Google. Just ask doctors about their experience with patients who know WebMD for a look at what a web-searching clientele means to another profession.
The New Frugality
Your one-time clients have become much more frugal over the past 8 years, and because the construction crash has now lasted twice as long as it takes to get a college degree, this new frugality is likely to stick. Just look at how the Great Depression transformed a generation of Americans almost a century ago, forever imprinting them with high frugality. When they do spend money, frugal people are more likely to buy products than services. They buy store-bought clothes rather than patronizing a tailor, for example. Frugal homeowners-to-be are more likely to buy a stock house plan than commission a custom design. Today, if you have only services to sell, you may want to start thinking about packaging useful things you've done into products.
Smaller & Smarter
When those homeowners-to-be build, they're facing a banking industry that has changed dramatically. Many banks have sworn off real estate lending entirely, whereas those who are still making mortgage loans are much more conservative. This means that your clients have a much better chance of getting a smaller project financed… so long as you design it to be smart enough that your client prefers it over a larger, less intelligent design.
Younger & Greener
Your clients have also gotten younger. A decade ago, most custom design clients were Baby Boomers, but they are now beginning to move out of the home-building market as they age, and are being replaced with GenX and GenY. These generations are much more concerned with building and living sustainably. As a matter of fact, if you're a Boomer architect, you may well be viewed as part of the sustainability problem because Boomers have consumed more than any generation in human history, not only because we were so large, but because we were so hungry as well.
Patience, Generosity, and Connectedness
Those changes would be enough to rock any profession, but there's more. Business is currently undergoing a change that I believe will prove to be as great as the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago. For that quarter-millennium, the prime virtues of business have been better-faster-cheaper, or quality, speed, and economy, if you prefer. I believe that the new age that is now dawning may come to be known as the Age of the Idea, and it appears that the three prime virtues of this time we are now entering may become patience, generosity, and connectedness. So this isn't just about remaking our marketing… it's about remaking ourselves.
The New Tools
Most marketing methods architects have used for decades don't work so well anymore for two reasons: First, the market is leaner, and the old methods worked best when there were lots of jobs to go around. Second, and less obvious, is the fact that we've all been vaccinated by spam against wanting to hear anything about your business. We turn a deaf ear to sales pitches just as quickly as we hit the delete key on a spammy email. The good news is that new tools are emerging that work much better, and again, for two reasons: First, you can reach far more people with tools like blogging, tweeting, online communities, video, etc. than you can by playing a round of golf. And these tools reach the places that are heavily populated by your younger potential clients.
I firmly believe that even though the Great Recession has been architecture's bleakest epoch of my lifetime, it also has the potential to be a great transformational event that can change the profession for the better. At least for those who adapt and transform themselves. What do you think?
Wow, so true! Thank you for your insights, Steve. As a previous employee of a large Architecture firm, in the last few years I have created my own business and work towards my passion in sustainability. I have determined that I no longer need to accept projects that pursue only code-compliance. It is certainly a different world out there for us, for better and for worse.
As a structural engineer who works mostly for architects, I would say most of this is true. However, there are many buildings. both commercial and residential, that could be used with a little updating. Tired and worn finishes, wasteful heating and air conditioning, windows and doors that don't work and amenities that no self respecting Gen X, Y, Z'er would want. Yes, the contractors of the world could rip it all out and replace all of this with the latest whiz-bang technology, but wouldn't it be better if architects led the change, if landfills were not filled with old buildings, and we used what we have instead of complaining about it? Just a thought.
The entire profession is still enamored with the idea we should be driving the patterns for development, but the RE industries are still our biggest clients, and as a whole, they are still not quite there yet. Also, I've notices that the 'green and sustainable' drive is really being used in architecture as a vehicle for an unapologetic and stark contemporary aesthetic that doesn't necessarily work everywhere, nor in many instances, create places of of a memorable quality. In all reality, many of the final products appear to have a very 'cheap-y' feel. However, I do believe there are some changes that are finally coming to fore that have great potential; re-thinking why our building and zoning codes are so slavishly devoted to parking, street and design requirements that make cars and parking the dominant consideration, why setback lines are so insanely over-scaled, even in places near or adjacent to existing traditional, denser communities. Also, the discussions about 'density' need to be more rational, since the infrastructure we've already built could easily sustain a great deal more-dense development models without sacrificing quality-of-life, IF we can start to build more well-integrated live/work environments, and explain the intrinsic benefits to their host communities better. We really tend to do a terrible job of that. Also, most developers use their attorneys for this approach, and sometimes that is more a defense posture in hostile communities.
I started my career in '02, so I don't have your perspective. But I'm not sure we've lost trusting clients, we've just got savvier ones. WebMD is a great tool, but it doesn't replace real medical advice. I think that if we use the plethora of resources available to start conversations with clients, they will actually value our services even more.
For example, I've started using Pinterest with some clients. We can each "pin" ideas to their board with notes explaining how it's relevant. More importantly, it shows that I'm listening to them and thinking of them.
There will always be adaptive reuse. The built heritage of humanity will be depleted, by not completely destroyed or forgotten. And it's the essential purpose of architecture to effectively adapt with the undeniable knowledge of the existential threat to the benign Nature underlying civilization. Sure, there will be misdirections, and it will be ugly....but the first requirement is that we stop contributing to the carbon dioxide sink. We still add 90 million tons of greenhouse gasses every single DAY. We are right on trajectory, by 2150 latest, for eastern cities like Miami, literally, to be under the waves.
Here are seven big reasons why the profession of architecture has irreparably changed over the past decade. It's traumatic, but I believe architects who adapt well could actually find themselves in a much better place in a few years. What do you think?
Great article Steve! I totally agree about the 'age of idea' age we are entering. Could you please be more specific about the three new virtues "Patience, Generosity, and Connectedness". At a very emotional level it feels like you are pinpointing very interesting values here. But how will this replace better, faster and cheaper reasons we buy new(er) products in the first place.
A very nice, balanced and practical view of things. In fact, the best part is that whichever part of the world you be in, it still holds true. It is exactly the same situation here in India. The dates are different, but the progression of events is the same. I just hope that things change for the better soon!