Opening Remarks from the Co-Moderator of the Design Futures Council Leadership Summit on the Business of Design.

Good Afternoon, and it is my pleasure to act as co-chair with Nicole Dosso of SOM for this Leadership Summit. As Jim has said, we have a great outline of presentations over the next two days and the subject of this gathering, the business of design is of great interest to all of us. I know that we will come away from this summit with an enhanced focus on design and the importance of business in our design efforts.

Each and every one of us in this room is extremely interested in the future of our profession, and the business of design is what connects all of us. What are the opportunities that lie ahead, and what are the challenges for our firms and the profession? Are we still in a period of expansion or are we overbuilding and headed into another cycle of slow or flat growth? An article in the New York Times yesterday said that at least here in New York, the market for high-end residences in tall towers has reached a saturation point and it is likely that prices for the units will drop. With prices reaching $100 million, I do not think that it is a surprise to anyone. Yet many new high-rise residential projects are under design.

The market for low- and middle-income housing here in New York remains strong, but despite the efforts of our mayor and our design and construction industry, the progress in this area is minimal. Why? Because the cost to build such housing here is high and the return is minimal. What can be done to address the need here and in other urban areas across the nation? I hope that we can explore this topic during our days together.

Our profession is directly impacted by local and worldwide events. What does the recent downturn in the stock market say about our future? Is the Federal Reserve Bank about to increase lending rates? What is the impact of this action? Or are we just facing a small bump in the road and that the path ahead for our profession is bright?

How will the downturn in China affect our efforts worldwide? How long will the downturn last? My friends in China are telling me of staff reductions and slowdowns. At the same time, I hear of increased opportunities in Africa and other developing countries. Ours is a global profession with American architects working on every continent. As the global population grows ­our profession needs to also grow in order to meet the challenges and needs of new generations.

Where are we going? How can we predict the future of the design profession and our business? Are there any clues that we can count on?

At a recent meeting of the AIA Large Firm Roundtable attended by approximately 45 CEOs of the largest global firms, those gathered including many of you in this room indicated that the outlook remains positive.

As we look to the future, I would like to begin our conversation with a look to the past. I would like to start with the glass house, completed in New Haven in 1949. The clarity and simplicity of Philip Johnson’s pavilion looks as crisp today as it did decades ago. The modern movement has included such masterpieces such as the Lever House and the Barcelona Pavilion and the Seagram Building, among others.

We can look at the federal Design Excellence Program and particularly the U.S. courthouses in New York and Los Angeles and places in between. Ed Feiner’s leadership brought design quality to the federal building program. And we can look at the recent airport designs across the world including the Denver airport where it is evident that design matters.

There are many others that excite us and describe quality. Each of you has a long list of designs that you respect and admire. What do these buildings have in common? What can we draw from these projects and many others constructed in the last seven decades? Design of the highest quality is what connects these projects. To put it simply, design matters and the business of design relies on design of the highest quality.

Great design is great for business and many in the design, development, and construction fields also believe this to be true. Well known developers including Gerald Hines and Tishman Speyer here in New York have made successful business models out of selling and renting quality design because tenants are interested in quality and are willing to pay for it. And in the public arena, museum directors and trustees know that iconic designs of quality attracts both patrons and the public to see both art and architecture.

This is also true for concert halls, such as the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and others. Good design is also important in the federal and state building programs. Think back to the days of the construction of federal post offices in the thirties and forties. Design was embraced by the public in a way that is not so common today. We need to work to help the public understand the value of design. We must be careful that work in the public sector does not succumb to the mantra of cheaper and faster. This approach is not acceptable. We must serve the public with buildings that are engaging, safe, sustainable, and efficient while not compromising design quality.

What will the future bring? What can we expect? We have seen remarkable changes in our profession and the way we do business. Looking back to the time I began my career, I recall joining I.M. Pei & Partners in 1975 and seeing people working with ink on linen. One architect late in his career was wearing sleeve protectors as he worked on drawings. And we moved through using ink on Mylar, pencil on Mylar, and then to a pin bar overlay process, and finally to computer aided drafting. And to sophisticated modeling programs like Revit and grasshopper and other programs with insect names. On to computer renderings and fly-throughs of buildings. Models are now being prepared using 3D printers and building components are being produced using the 3D printing processes. What a remarkable change in forty years!

Our business of design has changed dramatically and for the better. We are designing and visualizing our designs in ways that tell our clients a better story of architecture. These new methods help us work better and faster and in a more integrated way with engineers and consultants. Yet, I argue that the design process is dominated by design thinking. How does a building respond to the program and the environment in which it is built? The inspiration does not come from computers. They assist with the process and make the designs better.

But quality design comes from the ideas that architects and their teams generate. This is the business of design.

Keeping up with technology is a full time occupation. Research in our academic institutions is a primary focus. What are the new building technologies of the future? I found an article yesterday through Facebook that described the installation of a new glass product for the headquarters of Permasteelisa that was able to impact the heat gain in a building by as many as 10 degrees. Through computer programs, this impact could be adjusted depending on outside environmental conditions. And we have seen glass that is being used on facades that can generate energy. Our world and the design and construction industry is rapidly changing!

And we are seeing the use of robots both in the field and in factories producing building components. I recently saw a demonstration of spray-on insulation being installed by a robot in a crawl space. We are also seeing a movement to design build and building using a public private partnership, P3 that many are using to minimize the outlay of public funds for capital construction and using a long term leasing model.

So, what can we conclude about the business of design? Design of the highest quality is critical to the future of our profession. It is what drives students to become architects. Quality design has a responsibility to enrich our cities though careful design of public spaces that are accessible to all. And quality design is what makes the places where we live, work, play, and worship enhance our lives each and every day. Our continued dedication to the highest quality of design is critical to the business of design. Without it, we will not have business or a profession.


George H. Miller, managing partner of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners Architects, has worked on numerous projects worldwide since 1977. The New York State chapter of the American Institute of Architects recently recognized Miller with its highest honor, the Kideney Gold Medal Award. He is a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council.