Make Your Mark

The AIA’s 2014 Emerging Professionals summit takes place later this week. Between Friday to Sunday, 60 professionals from across the country, representing the AIA and the other collateral organizations, will gather in Albuquerque to discuss the future of the profession, in order to position us for the next 20 years of practice. Late last year, anyone interested in participating was invited to submit an essay answering the question “In 2033, what role are architects playing in society?” In honor of the summit, I’ve decided to share my submission here. (For another emerging professional’s response, click here.) Join the conversation at epsummit.mindmixer.com, and follow the Summit on Twitter at #2014EPSummit.

March 14, 2033: I find myself celebrating my 56th birthday with our company in the last stages of a corporate buyout. Next Monday, I will begin the last phase of my career, acting as a consultant for a global construction management entity that has chosen to incorporate our staff into their local Real Estate Development group. Our offices have shared a long history of collaboration — as a small general contractor, they built many of our designs, giving them a foothold in the industry that allowed their business to flourish as ours, ironically, continued to grow smaller — and out of respect, our firm was acquired for its skills in space planning, programming, and code analysis.

The last time I packed up my workstation – fifteen years ago, when we moved to a smaller, more efficient tenant space – was a cumbersome undertaking, but I’m finding it surprisingly easy this time around. Our fully-integrated building models are entirely cloud-based, with changes uploaded instantaneously to the field model in the construction trailer, making the clutter of paper documents a thing of the past. Most of our digital information was already housed on our new partner’s network, making my move to their office no more complicated than syncing my tablet. It’s a seamless transition, especially since we had already adopted the contractor’s document management process years ago, in the interests of a more integrated delivery system. Following their paradigm was more cost-effective than creating our own.

With no paper documents to sift through, the focus is mostly my personal belongings, including some well-worn books and my stamp — which, having been used only a handful of times, looks as pristine as the day that I received it nearly 30 years ago. Hermetically sealed in a small glass display case, a gift from my wife when I was named senior associate, the simple inscription upon it still rings true, figuratively if not literally: “Make your mark.” It’s been a museum piece, a marvel to the paraprofessionals in the office, not only because the idea of putting ink on paper seems as dirty as it does antiquated, but because the act itself no longer has any meaning. By accepting all of the risk on a building project, the construction manager’s virtual signature, digitally encoded into each document, has physically and legally replaced the architect’s stamp.

My college diploma is next to be packed, another relic from a time gone by. Ten years ago, when academia standardized a “licensure at graduation” model, the need for practical experience was eliminated. A formalized internship program vanished, leaving us with no established method of training. The sense of entitlement — that a credential need not be earned — crippled the profession, breeding an entire generation of talented designers with little technical ability; an architect’s license lost its value. The backlash, realized in a huge drop in enrollment, forced several universities to drop their architecture programs, including my own. With no carrot to strive for, the younger professionals that remained lost their competitive edge. Many sought more challenging (and lucrative) work elsewhere, leaving the mid-range professionals like me with fewer resources to draw upon. The clout associated with the term “architect” — that the AIA had fought so hard to protect, for as long as I can remember — crumbled from within. We had spent so much time and energy worrying about how we were being perceived outside of our insular culture, that we neglected to focus on what was happening inside of it.

My afternoon will be spent in the file storage room, an archaeological dig through record documents and yellowed rolls of paper. It’s strange to see the names of former senior principals on these documents, proof that they did indeed deal with the daily mechanics on projects in the same way that I have. Having known them solely in marketing and business development roles, seeing their signatures on RFIs and change orders strikes me as odd; they always seemed to exist in different realm, separated from the rest of us by strategic planning, budgets, and spreadsheets. They have long since retired, taking their professional relationships and business acumen with them, leaving the next generation of leaders to essentially reinvent the wheel. It’s no surprise that, when given the reins, many of us struggled, and some failed; when the phone stopped ringing, the lack of mentorship at all levels of development in the profession became painfully evident.

I set the lid in place, the last remains of my formal career in architecture neatly boxed, musing inwardly that it didn’t have to be this way. A profession full of creative, intelligent, passionate individuals, we had the ability to change the course of events twenty years ago. By placing appropriate value on licensure, while still embracing non-traditional paths in practice. By fostering open collaboration with our fellow professionals, on both sides of the design community. By establishing ourselves as progressive leaders of change instead of followers, rigidly holding on to outdated ways of doing things. Most importantly, by encouraging mentorship and succession planning. By strengthening the profession from the inside, so that we had nothing left to prove to those outside of it. Simple concepts, but difficult to implement. It wouldn’t have been easy, it would have taken a collective effort from all of us, but it would have been worth it. The contents of this box deserved it.

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3 thoughts on “Make Your Mark

  1. Great essay. The ‘Licensure at Graduation’ paragraph really gave me a chill (and not in a good way). I’d argue but I can’t say I disagree, let’s just hope your not right and you and the other 59 EP’s can find a way to make this NOT our future.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Andy… I was going for an extremist view of an alternate reality for our profession, in order to maximize my impact, but I have to admit that the final product was a little ‘darker’ than I expected. I’m anticipating that the discussions at the Summit will be much more positive and optimistic about our future. Please remember that the 60 attendees represent just a small fraction of the profession — it will take the efforts of ALL of us to enact positive change.

  2. Pingback: Interlude: a pair of pairs | rmb-design

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