Rachel Kapisak Jones

While architects seek to leave a positive imprint on the world, the world also constantly impacts the role and remit of architects. This year has seen the profession reflect on its place and power in society while ramping up its advocacy efforts on behalf of itself, its clients, and the planet.

There have been numerous factors impacting the work of architects in 2023. A moribund market for office construction; uncertain banking and financial markets; and a constricting housing market bringing consumers up against record real estate prices and scant supply have all contributed to architects’ business outcomes this year.

New office construction has declined precipitously, hitting lows not seen in a decade, according to a report by real estate research group JLL, continuing last year’s trend of renovations and redevelopments outpacing new construction. AIA itself is choosing adaptive reuse when reimagining its Washington, D.C., headquarters. The latest AIA Billings Index has reflected the challenging fundraising and financing market that development faces; billings have remained flat or softened, and as AIA chief economist Kermit Baker, hon. AIA, said in September, there’s “hesitance among clients to commit to new projects with a slump in newly signed design contracts.”

Baker also noted, “Though this pause has taken pressure off tight staffing conditions across the profession, there is considerable uncertainty over the direction of future activity.”

Shifting Urban (and Suburban) Landscapes

Even on the residential side, conditions have been far from the norm. Americans spent record amounts of money—$567 billion in 2022 alone, per Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies— renovating their houses. Paired with the increased interest in building more rental and accessory dwelling units, the still-tight housing market has dampened demand for new residential designs and created an affordability crisis among consumers, incentivizing more design-oriented solutions to drive affordability.

“As masterful problem solvers and community planners, architects have an influential voice when it comes to providing this quality housing,” wrote Emily Grandstaff-Rice, FAIA, 2023 AIA President, in her July/August Perspective column.

At a moment when the challenges of changing working patterns and office real estate have left some downtowns feeling empty and adrift, it was fitting that the 2023 AIA Gold Medal was presented to Carol Ross Barney, faia, a sensitive sculptor of urban landscapes. Since founding her solo practice in Chicago in 1981, she’s exemplified the architect’s role in reshaping cities, including visionary work on parks and transit infrastructure like train stations; a thoughtful design for a replacement for the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City; and a hometown career capstone, the Chicago Riverwalk, a new civic walkway that re-energized the city’s business district. In celebration of her career focus on well-designed public spaces for the community, or what she called “everyday buildings for everyday spaces,” she became the first living woman to be awarded the prize as an individual.

This year’s COTE Top Ten Awards also emphasized the importance of thoughtful design in urban settings by recognizing Confluence Park in San Antonio, Texas, designed by Lake|Flato Architects and Matsys; and the John W. Olver Transit Center in Greenfield, Mass., designed by Charles Rose Architects. Both projects set an example for what sustainable urban development can look like, now and in the future.

Equity Continues To Be a Sticking Point

Aside from an uncertain construction climate, one of the more challenging issues facing architects has been the demographics and structure of their own workplaces. The industry made strides in its progress toward equity this year, in addition to increasing focus on the social responsibilities of the profession around climate change, social and racial injustice, unjust labor practices, and rapidly changing new technologies. There have been significant increases in diversity among the under-35 segment of the industry—according to last year’s AIA Firm Survey Report, about 50% of emerging professionals in the architecture field are women and/or racially and ethnically diverse—and roughly two-thirds of respondents to a National Institute of Building Sciences survey, released in January, underscored the importance of increasing diversity in the field.

But overall diversity sector-wide hasn’t picked up significantly in recent years and, in some cases, lost ground. Per NCARB, 1.8% of registered architects are Black, 6% are Asian, 4% are Hispanic or Latino, and nearly 25% are women, all groups underrepresented in the profession. But NCARB, in partnership with the National Organization of Minority Architects, has released an aggressive action plan this past fall based on years of study and surveys.

“Action with intention will yield real results, which is what matters now to create the change we want to see as an industry,” Tiffany Mayhew, national program manager with NOMA, told reporter Daniel Roche in a September interview for The Architect’s Newspaper.

Architects have also continued to push for more labor equality; a failed union drive at Oslo, Norway-based Snøhetta this year, the vote for which organizers celebrated as an achievement in itself, as well as a successful push to unionize New York–based Sage and Coombe Architects, brought more attention to the industry’s working conditions and efforts to achieve more parity and balance. Organizers sought to “gain a collective voice in the future of our workplace and our profession,” according to an official statement from the Sage and Coombe union. After these votes, as well as a pair of high-profile union campaigns in 2022 that were successful (Bernheimer Architecture) and unsuccessful (SHoP), it’s clear working conditions will continue to be a key issue. This year’s AIA Compensation and Benefits Report found increasing feelings of financial precarity and the persistence of the problem of student debt on architects’ overall financial well-being.

“The reason it has taken architecture workers so long to begin unionizing is because we have traditionally refused to identify as workers—and, as a result, have failed to see the need for collective organization to improve our conditions,” wrote Chris Beck, an architect and writer at Bernheimer Architecture and a member of both the organizing and bargaining committees in the recently formed BA Union, in the June issue of Jacobin magazine. “Thankfully, architects are beginning to see the need to unionize to better their own conditions and [the conditions] of others.”

New Technology

On a more existential note, the massive hype and buzz around artificial intelligence and new generative design technologies has made many in the architecture world pause to consider how these new technologies might impact issues of labor, pay equality, and the job market. Data-driven, AI-powered design processes have already been embraced at marquee firms, such as London-based Zaha Hadid Architects, and have fueled a debate within the industry about whether these tools will free architects and designers from boring, repetitive tasks, leaving more time for community engagement and highlevel design, or devalue work and further stratify an economically precarious industry.

There already are widespread reports of talent shortages in the industry—the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the architecture profession will grow at a rate of 5% per year for roughly the next decade, with more than 8,000 annual openings—but also fears that the technology may inspire a cost-cutting race to the bottom in terms of fees.

This year, many architects have collaborated with local community groups and lobbied at the local level, taking up a call to be a citizen architect, an updated vision of an AIA prompt for more engagement around social and political issues, that writer Anjulie Rao gave voice to earlier this year in Architect magazine. For instance, across many states, architects have advocated for more accelerated efforts toward decarbonization; a movement to legalize single-stair buildings as a means to build more affordable structures was successful in many states, including California.

In addition, firms and practitioners have pushed for more environmental transparency across the profession and have introduced new data tools, like San Antonio, Texas-based Overland Partners’ Building EJ Tool that supports environmental justice efforts, to help shape how architects understand the impact of building emissions and embodied carbon. Sustainability standards, as well as tools to measure the forestry impact of wood sourcing, work hand-in-hand with larger efforts to encourage corporations to report their environmental impacts and climate risks.

Clean energy and building retrofits were given significant boosts by the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. Clean energy think tank RMI estimates the legislation’s $50 billion investment into clean energy technologies and improvements could be transformational, leading to millions more electrified buildings, heat pump installations, and clean energy retrofits, and getting the nation between 10% and 30% of the way toward goals set forth by the Biden administration to halve emissions by 2030.

In addition, there have been noticeable improvements in sustainable and less carbon-intensive design, though these advancements have still fallen short of what’s needed to meet climate goals. More projects have adopted new technologies and energy standards: According to data from AIA’s 2030 Commitment, more than 1,700 projects this year included renewable power; 707 all-electric buildings were constructed in the U.S. in 2022, a 135% increase from 2020; and 346 net-zero energy projects were completed, a 345% increase from 2018. Boston saw the opening of the world’s largest passive skyscraper, and mass timber continued to grow in popularity. Architecture firms have made more commitments to green, socially responsible design standards and practices. The AIA 2030 Commitment now counts 1,300 firms as signatories.

But the future requires more sustained and serious efforts. Nearly every one of the 110 million buildings in the United States will need to undergo some sort of electrification or energy retrofit by 2050 to meet future climate goals, according to the ICF Climate Center, and RMI data shows that building emissions have risen 5% since 2010. Architects have drawn numerous blueprints regarding the industry’s direction, commitment to environmental and social change, and embrace of technology and workers’ rights. Now, it seems, is the time to build the future in earnest. As Vincent Martinez, the president and COO of Architecture 2030, wrote in Architect’s May/ June issue, “now is the time for radical collaboration.”