“A lot of firms had to cut deeply and a lot of those people are not available any more. They gave a shot at the profession, but now don’t have a strong desire to return,” Kogan says. “As the markets recover, there’s going to be a scramble for what little talent there is. There is going to be not just a recruiting problem, but a retention problem.”
Couple this critical recruitment and retention challenge with the other major Rs—recession, a predicted downturn in architectural registration, and the pending Baby Boomer retirements—and architecture is in the midst of a significant transition, one that has implications for education, regulation, and practice. Some cutting-edge educators and firms have already responded with novel approaches to curricula, mentorship programs, and business management.
But many questions remain. How will the Millennials respond to the opportunities and challenges that they are inheriting—both in the profession and the world at large? How will they influence the practice of architecture? And, perhaps most important, without drastic changes to pedagogy, licensure, and firm management, is the profession prepared to capitalize on what comes next?
One need only travel to the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., where Ratley studied, for a peek at the revolutionary spirit that Howe and Strauss outline in their book. Here, a class called “Designing Practice,” developed by professors (and husband and wife) Keith Zawistowski, Assoc. AIA, and Marie Zawistowski, explores the future boundaries of the profession.
The Zawistowskis studied under Samuel Mockbee at the Rural Studio, where they built a house as a part of their coursework. The experience shaped their pedagogical approach. “We’re part of the first generation of educators who were educated in design/build,” says Marie, who turns 33 this year, putting her on the cusp of Millennial status. “Our perspective is drastically different because we know that our 21-year-old students are fully capable of making architecture. We know it because we experienced it ourselves.”
The Zawistowskis left the Rural Studio inspired to continue building. They co-founded the firm OnSite, but soon bumped up against the lengthy process of becoming registered architects in the U.S. “You could be 40 years old by the time you get to be a registered architect making buildings, and by then you have a family and a mortgage that sideline your ability to take risks,” says Keith, now 33, who is still completing his ARE exams to become licensed. Marie is registered in her native country of France.
So the couple rewrote the curriculum for the requisite professional practice course by compelling students to treat their impending work lives like a design challenge. Students not only learn the pragmatics of practice—contracts, legal documents, client management, and such—they must also draft business models based on their personal vision of the profession. “The premise of the course is that there is no one way to practice architecture,” Keith says. “Rather than us telling them what practice should be, we’re going to push them to test and shape a unique vision. What do you want your life to be? How do you want to deploy your architecture education? We are teaching students to think as creatively about practice as they do about design.”
Says Marie, “Many of them come up with business models that we’ve never thought about.” One student, for example, developed a model to franchise architectural service through branded storefronts aimed at enticing people to hire architects. “It’s like the Apple Store of architecture,” Marie says.
Another student, Chelsey Berg, proposed a firm that delivers architecture to developing countries. Berg moved to Denver after graduation last year to work with Habitat for Humanity, and she now uses her fluent Spanish to help with outreach in Latino communities. She makes just $12,000 a year and is on food stamps, but she won’t jump into a higher paying job at an architecture firm just for a paycheck.
Berg says that a firm’s portfolio will influence her future employment decisions, an economic choice her mother recently challenged. “My mom said: ‘You can’t tell me that you wouldn’t take a job because they don’t design what you want,’ ” Berg says. “And I replied that I don’t want to live my life designing things that I don’t believe in.”
This selectiveness (even in this economy) isn’t unique to Berg. Five years ago, human resource consultants Barbara Irwin and Cara Bobchek surveyed associates with up to seven years experience at AEC firms about their professional wants and goals. The results of this “Future Leaders Focus” survey showed that the most important factor for young architects when deciding where to work was the type of projects that the firm offered associates. Future career opportunities, company reputation, and training and development opportunities also ranked high, as did socially responsible design. A respondent quoted in the report summed it up this way: “In looking for a position, I’d look for the opportunity to positively and directly affect the health of the global environment.”
Once licensed, Berg envisions herself working on a graduate degree from an institution offering humanitarian programs, such as the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, a university-wide center that uses evidenced-based practices to improve the delivery of aid. An increasing number of academic institutions are now creating advanced degrees that straddle the lines of design disciplines and social sciences, and that cater to students interested in moving beyond theoretical case study to working directly with communities. At the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, for example, a new Masters in Social Design integrates design with civic engagement and includes students trained in architecture among its ranks.
These new academic paths for architecture students may lead to positions in nonprofits and community-based organizations, or to the creation of startups, rather than to jobs within traditional architecture firms. “I look at working for a firm—the classic definition of an architecture firm—only to get licensed and to get more experience,” Berg says. Eventually, she hopes to be the resident architect within a humanitarian organization, or to start her own nonprofit.
“Am I the rule or the exception to the rule?” Berg asks. “At this point, I don’t think there are rules anymore.”