Evelyn Lee, AIA, often says that “the profession is three recessions away from extinction,” but her half-hearted quip seems, of late, more like an omen. Past experiences in program management and business consulting have made the regional workplace manager at Newmark Knight Frank’s San Francisco office realize how architects’ capabilities beyond drawing buildings were unfamiliar to many people—including architects themselves. From leading focus groups to reorganizing workplaces and planning future operational and maintenance budgets, architects often do the work of highly paid consultants “for free,” Lee says, and they overlook these services’ potential to unmoor their practices from tempestuous construction cycles.

As chair of the 2017 AIA Young Architects Forum (YAF), Lee took her leadership prerogative and turned the quinquennial YAF summit into the Practice Innovation Lab, a three-day event that culminated with 10 six-member groups pitching new business models Shark-Tank style. Ideas included Design on Demand, an “Uber, but for architects”; post-occupancy information service MOM+DAD (Monitoring, Operations, and Maintenance + Design, Analytics, and Data); Daedalus, which pairs crowdsourced funding with crowdsourced design; and the event’s winner, JAMB Collective, a network that pools the resources of small and mid-size firms to offer the services and equipment that large firms can afford—“like a super AIA,” says Milan Jordan, Assoc. AIA, manager for the AIA’s Center for Emerging Professionals.

Evelyn Lee
Sergej Stoppel/LinesLab Evelyn Lee
Milan Jordan
Sergej Stoppel/LinesLab Milan Jordan

The draw of the Practice Innovation Lab—several of the 154 applicants had never participated in an AIA event—highlights the dissatisfaction many emerging architects feel about their career prospects. Lee suspects that many firms sense the changing tide, but not its urgency. Instead of looking for ways—and talent—to expand their menu of services for long-term success, she says, “they’re just trying to hire for the work they have on the table.”

Lee and Jordan hope to ride the wave of enthusiasm that followed the Practice Innovation Lab by promoting and repackaging the workshop at local and national AIA events. The Institute is taking note, Jordan says. The AIA recently created a Center for Practice that will, among other aims, “identify and advance areas of new business opportunities, new business models, new skills, and new markets” for architects. Lee remains cautious in her expectations. “It’s clear this is going to be a slow and painful process for the profession,” she says. “We need to keep the conversation going."

What's Next: Reprogramming Practice
Intro     The Polymath     The Original     The Incubator     The Capitalists
The Algorithm     The 800-Pound Gorilla     The Lab Rats     The Interloper
The Young and the Restless     The Prophet     The Career Counselors