An inventory of the last half-decade’s events might mystify even bona fide futurists: A recession that wiped out nearly 20 years of Americans’ wealth, the urgency of global warming, the flood of social media, and an Internet that’s accessible on a pocket-size touchscreen. What would Alvin Toffler, who popularized the term “information overload” in the 1970s, think about how we live and work today?

Times change, and the practice of architecture changes with them. In this industry moment poised between post-crash and comeback, it’s a good time to pause, look around, and ask how we’ll move forward. Will it be business as usual, or will the way we design and deliver housing look different? Global awareness is transformative, too. In a world where social and ecological systems seem increasingly tenuous, are we starting to rethink what home and shelter should mean?

A compacted economy, climate change, and emerging technologies are the game-changers going forward, and that means the concerns of architecture have multiplied at all kinds of scales. What follows, then, is a roundup of best guesses from leading practitioners, pundits, academics, and research-and-development types about how architects might busy themselves with the challenges ahead.


First, the forecasts. The top end of the market won’t change much. There will always be high-end clients hiring architects to design their houses, says Tom Fisher, Assoc. AIA, dean of the University of Minnesota College of Design. But it may be a smaller share in the future. Fisher sees increasing opportunity in renovations for aging boomers and people living in houses they can’t sell, and a long-lasting revival of multifamily rental buildings.

“The current Millennial generation is very wary of homeownership, period,” Fisher says. “They’ve watched their parents get stuck with houses. The banking industry, still such a mess, has made it difficult to get loans, and young people have huge college debts, so they won’t qualify. Many are paying the equivalent of almost a mortgage on college loans.”

Another trend worth monitoring is the move away from large-lot single-family homes to more intentional communities—a relatively common pattern in Europe—where family members and friends buy adjacent units. This kind of living arrangement appeals both to retiring boomers and Millenials, the two largest demographic groups. “They have a lot in common,” Fisher says. “Retiring people don’t want the maintenance of a big yard, and they want access to conveniences and healthcare. Millenials, too, want to live with each other and are moving from suburbs into cities.”

Live/work spaces are fairly common in urban enclaves nowadays, but the blending of domestic and work lives will eventually demand a different kind of house, Fisher says. Research suggests that by 2020, 40 percent of the U.S. workforce may be self-employed. What’s new is that people are turning their homes into mini-factories, using recent technologies such as 3D printing to fabricate products and then sell them online.

“Now the spare bedroom is turned into a production place, but over time this merging of living, working, and making will radically change what we think of as the house,” Fisher predicts. “This is how people lived in cities for thousands of years; fabrication happened in close quarters on every block. The industrial zone is a legacy of the 20th century and will gradually disappear in the new economy.”

If that seems drastic, consider Andrés Duany’s vision—albeit a long-distance one. It might be blue-sky thinking were it not based on such a dark premise: We lose the war on global warming. Without large developing countries such as China, India, and Russia obeying the rules, “we’re not going to make it, so we’ll have to adapt to the coming difficult times,” says Duany, FAIA, co-founder of Duany Plater-Zyberk in Miami. He’s been pitching something a little less clean and pure than Seaside: mixed-use communities with integrated tracts for small-scale food production, processing, and distribution; and solar panels to bridge the brownouts.

The point is, sustainability is sea level, he says, recalling the Panama prime minister who pretended to throw his cell phone out the window after listening to Duany tout a project’s environmental attributes. “He said, ‘Oh look, it’s bouncing off the head of one environmentalist and hitting another, and another.’ He was totally unimpressed because everyone is talking about sustainability now.”

Affordability leverages that equation, especially on market-rate homes. Nothing that isn’t cost-effective is important, because there isn’t one penny to waste, Duany declares. “You don’t start with design and then figure out how to meet the budget. You go the other way: to the mobile home market that delivers for $50 per square foot, and say, ‘I’m going to make the design better.’ We also need to have certified designs, like the auto industry does, that don’t have to go through individual inspections, because bureaucracy adds a huge amount of costs.”

Outside of wealthy circles, the possibility that tax reform might eliminate the mortgage interest deduction reinforces consumers’ reluctance to overspend on their homes. “We are far removed from the days when there was strong demand for home theaters and saunas,” AIA chief economist Kermit Baker, Hon. AIA, said in response to the latest AIA Home Design Trends Survey. This fiscal restraint does bring new opportunities. As systems thinkers who understand building technology, architects could provide useful services to builders, Baker says. Are there things they can design and fabricate off-site, such as kitchen and bath units, that would be easy to process and replace? “That’s the way the industry is going, but it means changing the way architects interact with builders,” he says.

Cracking the Codes

How much buildings really cost is a realm of research that’s not particularly poetic, but it has potentially huge ramifications for the new economy and the profession. “I don’t see projects in architecture magazines that bear any relationship to economic reality,” Duany says. “All sorts of budget numbers are offline, even for prefab.”

KieranTimberlake, in Philadelphia, has been researching ways to pinpoint not only first costs, but the financial load of owning a building over time, in terms of utility bills, upkeep, and capital replacement costs. Just as consumers are becoming more demanding about food labeling and the price of healthcare services, they’ll want to know what kind of home they’re buying and what their responsibilities are, says partner Stephen Kieran, FAIA.

“Environmental costs are something that younger consumers are starting to care about,” he says. “How much carbon is embodied in a home the day I buy it? What are the life cycle concerns I might have about the materials?” As building information modeling (BIM) becomes more sophisticated, architects are uniquely poised to add value by passing designs through streams of design-making that take such costs into account. For example, architects could fine-tune standard pattern-home designs for a specific location, reduce short- and long-term costs, and help developers with platting decisions. Publicized, those numbers would allow consumers to parse the differences between two seemingly similar houses with different orientations, envelope strategies, and materials.

“There’s a whole array of information that could become really generative for how we go about designing things,” Kieran says. “We don’t have the tools or the mindset to provide that yet, but we think it will be expected of us.”

While BIM has made huge inroads in parametric modeling, it still lacks the refinement and user-friendliness to fill in those information fields. But the data structure continues to evolve. More and more vendors are saying they want their products to be embedded in software such as Revit, and the ones who have a good story to tell will include their sustainability stats, says Erin Rae Hoffer, AIA, senior industry programs manager at Autodesk.

From Hoffer’s perspective, the solution is circular. “What we create are flexible tools, and people are going to use them to do all sorts of things we can’t always predict,” she says. “I think we’ll see more and more building owners and designers starting to specify a standard for how they want to track these things. It’s time-consuming to get a consensus and develop it between all parties. But if everyone said this is the most important thing, it would be achievable.”

“Solutions must come from both directions,” agrees Christopher Sharples, AIA, principal of SHoP Architects, which focuses on multistory buildings. Working in New York City, where construction costs are three times the national average, figuring out how to produce quality housing for a reasonable price is the big challenge, he says, whether it’s by using modular components or synthesizing design and construction.

An early BIM adopter, SHoP builds 3D construction models and writes its own fabrication scripts. It’s also tinkering with the idea of linking as-built models to maintenance calendars that could be marketed to clients with facilities staffs.

“Clicking on a ceiling finish calls up the manufacturer website and tells clients exactly what the material is made of, when it was installed, and that in two weeks they need to change some component,” Sharples says. And tying the model to an energy monitoring system does away with the notion that buildings are static conditions. “Layered into a model, these kinds of things would inform the next move with your building,” he says. “It’s the idea of open architecture—adding, upgrading, and swapping elements—which the aerospace industry has been doing for 15 years.”

While this delivery model seems distant for single-family homes, it’s not far away for other project types, Sharples predicts, particularly as younger facilities managers fill the ranks. “I’d say that in the next five years we will be on the other side of the bridge in terms of building modeling becoming a management and operational tool,” he says.

BIM and integrated project delivery—the transparent, collaborative effort that allows team members to share a project’s risks and rewards—are changing architecture, in general. Whether that’s also true for single-family homes, in particular, is uncertain, says Peggy Deamer, assistant dean at the Yale School of Architecture. “It takes an enlightened owner to enter into these relationships, so developers are doing this again and again, as opposed to a person building their country house. The software isn’t flexible for a one-off house, but that’s changing.”

Calvin Kam, AIA, LEED AP, director of industry programs at Stanford University’s Center for Integrated Facility Engineering and former chair of the AIA Technology in Architectural Practice Community, sees no reason why residential architects can’t eventually profit from this model at various scales. “IPD contracts can include bonus clauses for meeting budget, schedule, or building performance criteria, but, at a minimum, the high client satisfaction rate would help architects win jobs,” he says.

A Humanistic Approach

In the best of times, architects just had to be imaginative about how they spent clients’ money; now they have to figure out new ways of working. And sometimes the human touch trumps high-tech expertise. Lately, BSB Design, in West Des Moines, Iowa, has begun conducting in-depth market research to support production builders. In the housing crash, those clients lost programming staff, putting pressure on the architects to develop the numbers—how many houses, what price per square foot?

As demand picks up, the design pace is quickening, too. Big builders have purged their architectural staffs, so BSB is taking design on the road. “Speed is the most important thing for us, so we’re trying to compress the entire process by designing in clients’ offices—they want to see paper,” senior partner Stephen C. Moore says. “It’s a lot of pressure to produce on someone else’s turf, but we choose to be face-to-face because it’s the best way to make decisions quickly.”

Publicly funded work is another sphere where architects might find new relevance by working close to the ground. The SEED Network (Social, Economic, and Environmental Design) offers a model for how to generate successful projects by addressing a community’s critical challenges, at any scale or price point, and identifying others who can support the effort from a different point of view.

Stakeholder conversations encourage a creative response that wouldn’t happen in a planning office or by one architect talking to a client, says SEED co-founder Bryan Bell, and that approach puts architects in the driver’s seat. “You can go to the city and say, ‘I have a solution to this problem your residents are having. Are you interested in talking?’ You haven’t waited for the city to issue an RFP; you’re generating a project based on a discovery you made.”

Bell describes how the 2008 Durham Performing Arts Center building in North Carolina ignited the local economy, in part because Chapel Hill–based Szostak Design took a bottom-up approach, engaging the community in decisions as detailed as the amount of legroom between seats. “I know this is the way things are going,” says Bell, who runs Design Corps in Raleigh, N.C. “I can point to projects that are successful, look at the reasons they are, and discover this process, but it is extra work.”

Architects who are focused on the work that needs to be done in the world can see, if not the future, then at least a plausible version of it. New opportunities will arise, and housing eventually will be designed and delivered much more efficiently, perhaps in ways we can’t yet imagine.

“This is a really interesting time,” Kam says. “Architects should come up with creative solutions that not only answer what owners are asking for, but new ideas to enlighten them. But it will require a holistic pursuit,” working with manufacturers, community members, and professional organizations to make our voices heard.