Scenarios Shaping the Next Architect's Success

August 10, 2006 · by James P. Cramer

This new leader will be The Next Architect - the person (or firm) who is truly energized by what's ahead.

As projects become more complex, they involve many more team members. New delivery methods and technologies such as "building information modeling" are changing how design ideas are developed and tested and how information flows not only within the design team but also back and forth to the construction site. All of this presents a challenge and an opportunity - somebody needs to step up and take charge, organizing and managing the team so that it can perform to the best of its ability. This new leader will be The Next Architect - the person (or firm) who is truly energized by what's ahead.

Integrated, Collaborative Design

Owners, architects, engineers, consultants, and contractors will operate using a single technology platform that will both enable and require all disciplines to work interactively. Projects will be executed by integrated professional teams that openly share information and ideas. Project web sites will enable access to the evolving design on a 24-7 basis, greatly increasing speed. Design quality will be enriched because it will be the product of many trained minds working in concert. Efficiency and profitability will increase accordingly as well. The shift toward integrated, collaborative design will require new attitudes, procedures and protocols born of the information age.

Design-build Dominates

As owners seek more streamlined delivery of their projects, they will increasingly turn to design-build, contracting with a single entity to provide integrated design & construction services. This will encourage the traditionally factional and fractional design & construction industry to find new ways of collaborating. This shift places a big premium on critical mass (because larger firms will be needed to provide the services required) and also leadership (because these multi-disciplinary teams must be managed effectively). The shift to design-build will also substantially affect issues of risk management, since so many formerly competitive entities will be linked by a common contractual bond. Essentially, design-build is a return to the traditional role of the Master Builder.

Globalization Comes Home

Improvements in information technology, product manufacturing, shipping and transportation, pre-fabrication, off-site assembly of complex components, and the ability to work in a 24-7 environment essentially mean that traditional political borders are no longer a factor in design and construction. From cars to clothing, this phenomenon has already changed the way we get our goods - so why not buildings as well? Essentially, this means that all firms have the potential to practice globally - and that global firms can practice locally. The result will be greatly increased competition and downward pressure on fees, but at the same time, there will be a big premium paid for "branded" firms - those that provide highly special services and can convince the market that they have a unique value proposition.

Talent Shortage

While more students are entering design schools than ever before, fewer of them are pursuing traditional career paths upon graduation. As the baby boomer generation nears retirement, there are fewer younger and experienced staff ready to step up and take their place. Talent is hard to find, and getting harder all the time. This will put stress on traditional compensation patterns (since graduates of design schools can earn bigger salaries in other design-related industries). The good news is that industry is now seeing design as a strategic business value, and they are willing to pay for results. Tomorrow's successful firms must find a way to hire, train and retain the talent that they will need to drive their businesses.

BIM Technology Sets a New Standard

Building Information Modeling (BIM) essentially changes the "product" of design from one of lines on paper to an integrated data base. The date base not only describes the design attributes of a building, it can also incorporate other relevant data such as quantity take-offs, coordination of engineered systems, and cost. The data can be assembled in a variety of ways, including three-dimensional representations, so that the arcane system of "plans, sections, elevations" is no longer the primary means of communicating design intent. Thus, BIM technology is a much richer language, capable of conveying more meaning. It also demands a higher level of sophistication from its users, which now includes not only the traditional design leader (the architect), but the owner, engineers, and consultants as well. This changes the game for everyone.

Demographics is Destiny

The average age of the general population is rising. People are living longer, healthier and more productive lives. At the same time, each succeeding generation has defining characteristics. The post-war "baby boomers" are the largest, most prosperous cohort ever born, and as they near retirement age, they will have a huge impact on issues of economics, healthcare, and social policy. The last generation born before the onset of the "Digital Revolution," they will be succeeded by the Gen-Xers, the first generation of "knowledge workers." The empty-nester boomers are setting new trends by moving from the suburbs back into the cities, by embracing "integrated care" retirement communities, and by spending their retirement dollars on travel and entertainment. These demographic shifts have important implications for the design and construction industry.

Productivity and Performance

The digital revolution provides ways for designers to be far more productive than ever before. Using 3-D and 4-D technology to create realistic computer renderings, we now have the ability to study multiple design options in a fraction of the time that it once took.
Computer-driven technology can create physical models as well. This means that the time and effort once consumed by drafting can be devoted to the more creative aspects of the profession. Architects will get paid to think more than they get paid to draw. The traditional focus on process (from schematic design, to design development, to construction documentation, to construction administration) will shift to a new focus on outcome. Results matter, and this is what clients want more than anything else. Productivity is the foundation for a new value proposition in design.

The Power of Branding

Every firm, regardless of size, location, or market focus, has a "brand" of some kind. The brand is the culmination of the promises made - both implicit and explicit - about what the firm stands for, what it does, and how it delivers. In a sense, the brand is the firm's culture made manifest. Tomorrow's successful firms will understand and exploit this phenomenon. They are confident that they know what they are doing, how they are doing it, and why. They will find ways to differentiate themselves, by both product and process, and clearly communicate their "value propositions" to the market at large. Strategic branding is the best antidote to the trend toward commoditization in the design professions.

Fast Architecture

Speed matters. Clients have known this for a long time, because speed is a strategic value (and hence a necessity) in their businesses. How long does good design take? This is an uncomfortable question for architects, who are accustomed to marinating and meditating design ideas until they are "just right." Smart firms understand that speed is not necessarily the enemy of quality - that sometimes faster is better. Through the use of new technologies and management techniques, they are finding ways of greatly accelerating the pace of the design process, which is another way of saying that they are producing more value in a shorter amount of time. Clients are demanding it.

Designing the "Design Experience"

Clients are increasingly aware that it's the "design experience" that really matters. How do people feel when they walk through a space? How does the "emotional content" of a building affect efficiency and productivity? Can the experience of a great retail environment drive higher sales? Or can the experience of a hospital stay be designed to promote healthier outcomes for patients and greater professional satisfaction for staff? Every individual's experience in a built environment is triggered by architecture and design, and studies have shown that there is a very strong "ROI" (return on investment) from good design. Customers don't just buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks - they are paying for the experience as well. Successful firms are excited about delivering unique and exceptional experiences for clients and users alike.

Going Green

There's no denying that "green design" has become a powerful cultural issue in a remarkably short period of time. However, it's still more of a label than a thoroughly-understood discipline. Techniques such as "biomimicry" are still in their infancy. The confluence of smart business, clever engineering, and pragmatic use of natural resources holds great promise for making a better world. In concert with leaders in business, government, and the academy, architects are uniquely trained to play a leading role in advancing the cause of sustainable design. New Technology Visions is essentially covered in "Integrated Design" and "BIM Technology"

Lifecycle Design

A brand-new building starts changing from the moment the ribbon is cut. People move in and immediately begin adapting it to their own unique needs. As the people change, so does the building. Equipment wears out and needs replacement. Finishes and furniture need to be renovated and refreshed. The exterior requires both short-term and long-term maintenance - everything from washing the windows to replacing the roof. Who better than the original design team to care for the structure over its useful life? "Life-cycle design" will create new ways of providing services and new streams of professional fees. Clients will pay for this because they understand that taking care of their buildings is a smart investment - it costs them less, by far, than benign neglect. Facility managers, maintenance and restoration experts, commissioning consultants, and utility companies all understand this. Why not architects?

High Definition Value

Architects are not in the business of selling "lines on paper" - they are in the business of creating design value for their clients. For a lawyer, the value of a legal brief is in the thinking, not the typing, and they know how to communicate the value of that brief to their clients. The same is true in design - or it ought to be. In addition to their graphic skills, designers need a language that can clearly express the worth of what they do, and in terms that are appreciated by the client world: no mystery, no fog, no missed expectations. Design goes far beyond aesthetics, and so metrics matter. Whether it's in terms of higher utilization rates, assistance with approvals processes, managing accelerated schedules, lowering capital cost, or designing for more efficient life-cycle cost, architects have a lot of influence on the outcome. All of it is part of intelligent design.


Clients respond to confidence. They like to deal with people who are knowledgeable, capable and creative - people who exhibit a "can do" attitude at all times. After all, design is one of the few professions in which there are always more answers than questions. A positive attitude is a resource, just like time or money, and it has a palpable effect on the design process. Successful designers avoid pessimism and cynicism because it's hugely counter-productive, and this extends to their staff, their consultants, and even their clients. Design success is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we expect good results rather than failure, we're much more likely to find what we seek.

The product of thousands of interviews and discussions with architects, engineers, consultants, and clients about emerging problems, questions, and ideas that continue to challenge the profession, The Next Architect, a new book by James P. Cramer and Scott Simpson, explores how fundamental roles and responsibilities of the architect and the client are evolving. The Next Architect is now available from the Östberg Library of Design Management and Greenway Communications.

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