Building design professionals are among the first to suffer in a downturn and the last to make a comeback. Because of this, some people leave the profession. But no one has to.

Recessions in 1973, ’82, ’87, ’91, ’97, 2001, and now ’08. Does it seem like they get progressively more frequent? Do they now appear to be the norm, with prosperity being a temporary situation? Has stability become an outdated phenomenon? Has economic uncertainty affected our performance? Has everything-due-yesterday rendered us too stressed to do anything today? Has fear replaced hope?

Nope. Media thrive on reminding us of the dismal state of our economy … and lives. Few reports are apt to point out the opportunities and choices we still have, and still fewer to offer any real solutions. We are left with self-doubt, anxiety, and the critical question:

What is wrong with my profession, and when will it improve? When will the (good) jobs return?

This article offers advice to those seeking work in the construction design professions, particularly architects and interior designers. When job hunting, accept that the process will not be linear. Also know that there is no walk-in perfect design job. The key is to find a potentially promising employer, get on board, and then grow into the position. The cast of characters involved, employers and otherwise, is worthy of a novel; no one will make it easy for you. Those new to the design professions are the most at risk; however, they are also in the best state to land a job because the number of positions available to recent graduates is usually highest.

Building designers are the storm watchers of the construction industry: They see foul weather first. Architecture and most other building design professions are at the front end in the construction process, and so are among the first to suffer in a downturn and the last to make a comeback. Jobs can be scarce for long periods — too long for practitioners to wait for their return. Unemployed designers may look at colleagues who have jobs and see a parallel world that is almost within reach but still too far to grasp. In this situation, some people despair. Some leave the profession. But no one has to.

The keys to successful job hunting are numerous, but the most important are perseverance, flexibility, and knowing where to look both now and later. What about talent and intelligence? They are assumed.

Getting Started

Before doing job research or forwarding resumés, put yourself in the right mindset. This entails:

  • A positive, realistic attitude
  • Freeing your mind of distractions
  • Knowing yourself (goals, strengths, and weaknesses), which is sometimes called “self-branding”
  • Being organized, including financially
  • Re-establishing contacts

If you have been job hunting for a while without success, perhaps it is time to review you mindset. There is a job for you, but you need perseverance, patience, and flexibility to find it.

Employers and Their Mindsets

The major categories of design employers are:

  • Private firms whose principal business is design
  • Corporations whose primary business is not design
  • Government (federal, state, and local)

Jobs with private firms are generally the most sought after but also the most tenuous; workloads can experience rapid, wild swings. As a result, design professionals working in private firms are frequently the first to suffer. Within this group, however, multidisciplinary firms (architecture/engineering, engineering/architecture, and architecture/engineering/construction) can be more resistant to sudden changes in market than firms focused strictly on architecture or interior design.

If private jobs aren’t to be had, try the corporate route. Many corporations, including those that outsource design work, maintain their own design staff. Since these corporations serve as their own design client, the work stream is more stable and continuous than what’s generally found in private firms. Granted, it may also be somewhat less design-oriented. A common umbrella term for this work is facilities management. As a bonus, if you’re interested in seeing the world, there may be better opportunities for foreign assignment.

Or take Uncle Sam at his word. Government employers are still the most stable and often the last to suffer hardship and layoffs. Fiscal crises in various states notwithstanding, taxes remain the most reliable source of construction funding. The money for public construction projects is encumbered in advance and more difficult to reallocate or abandon than it is in the private sector. Projects go ahead, timely or not. The downside is that the work is usually the least design-oriented and the most repetitious. Still, the corporate and public sectors can provide some of the best job opportunities, especially for minorities and women, during hard times. And let’s not forget benefits. Take a bold approach: Ignore announcements of hiring freezes and send your resumé anyway.

School vs. Work

Sadly, employers remain at odds with education, particularly in the case of recent grads. Design schools — if not all schools — teach us to think outside the box. Conceptual theory and imagination are the seeds of good design, from which a superior reality flows. Architects emerge with essential analytical skills and environmental sensitivity. And they can use computers to fabricate glorious cyber-complexes, underwater cities, and second-generation prairie housing. All this mind expansion is grand.

Unfortunately, most employers want none of it. “Did you finish the egress study yet?” “What is the floor occupancy, and how many toilets do we need?” “What is the square footage of the northeast quadrant of the site?” “Have you checked the ADA requirements for a judge’s bench?” “Make me five copies of the specs, and ship them to Mumbai.”

This is what you should be prepared for. Why? The worse the market, the more nitty-gritty the work. Are you up for it?

Those with work/study experience (such as internships) can be the most conflicted of all, having gone back and forth between theory and reality. During times like these, it’s usually best to concentrate on what was learned on the job.

Opportunities

Pre-fab housing, systems building, new towns: Remember hearing about those? All “tried and true” and predicted in the 20th century to represent the construction world of tomorrow. Yet none really took hold. What does the future have in store for us now?

Hardship for some equals opportunities for others. When owners can’t afford to build new, many choose to renovate or pursue adaptive re-use, and they will need designers for this work. The motion picture business does well during recessions, so what about movie theaters? What provides cheap thrills for a financially pinched public? Museums, parks, pools, beaches — even casinos — all serve as retreats during downturns and can experience higher traffic. Result: New or upgraded facilities are needed.

Have you followed the government’s economic recovery plan, a.k.a., the Stimulus Package? Bundles of federal money are pouring into transportation infrastructure, technology, green energy, education, and health care. A variety of such projects will require new facilities. States are also getting their stimulus share and will spend some of it on new building initiatives. States, counties, and municipalities generally allocate construction funding to judicial, correctional, cultural and recreational, housing, and environmental facilities. I expect that health care will lead the pack.

Stimulus money will have to be spent quickly, so there is a lot of incentive for public agencies to jump-start their projects. Indicators of who is spending on what and where can be found in trade journals. Newsletters published by local chapters of trade and professional organizations are also sources of information. Additional online sources include Commerce Business Daily, Bid Clerk, and Construction Data Co.

Job Searching

Professional interest groups, such as the American Institute of Architects, the American Society of Landscape Architects, and the American Society of Interior Designers sponsor dedicated job listings for their members and others in the field. Their job-related information is almost exclusively oriented to designers and should be among the first resources used in a job search.

Other job sites include:

Archinect Jobs

Architect Jobs Online

Architectural Record Career Center

e-Architect Job Board

Interior Design Job Zone

InteriorDesignJobs.com

International Interior Design Association Career Center

Occupations

There is much more to building design than drawings and models. Every job does not entail sitting in front of a computer and plugging in CAD data. While schools rarely touch on the ancillary aspects of the design and construction process, there are a multitude of positions in them requiring design expertise — and a lot that offer better compensation than more traditional roles. Let’s look at some less-common, uncommon, and unheard of areas.

Architecture. Most types of building design services fall into one of the following categories:

  • New construction and additions
  • Renovation and rehabilitation
  • Adaptive reuse
  • Historic preservation

Within these, architects are offering broader services in order to attract a greater range of clientele, including:

  • Pre-design services (potential site evaluation, feasibility and preliminary studies, programming, schedules and budgets, and zoning analysis)
  • Design services (surveying, conceptual and schematic design, design development, working drawings/detailing, technical specifications, construction cost estimating, code analysis and violations remediation, and value engineering and planning)
  • Construction services (bidding, building permit acquisition, construction supervision, submittal review and requests for information, executing change orders, punchlist and certificates of occupancy, and contract review)

Interior design. A building shell can only be constructed once, but interiors can be rebuilt any number of times. During downturns, interior design can actually present more job opportunities than new construction. And architects can do it. It is often the lead discipline in existing building projects, especially where minimal M/E/P upgrades are required. Tasks are as follows:

  • Programming
  • Facilities planning and management
  • Space planning
  • Furnishing and fixture planning and design
  • Lighting design
  • Finish selection
  • Specifications
  • Purchasing
  • Cost estimating
  • Construction supervision           

Corporate design and facilities management. This has become one of the largest sectors of the design job market and entails work performed in-house by designers employed by corporate and institutional groups. And there are as many types of design tasks among them as there are types of companies. Some common areas requiring designers, particularly planners, are office, retail, high-tech (electronic, lab), medical, industrial (plants), energy, and scholastic.

Facilities managers interface with administration and facilities planners, assist with future staffing projections and accompanying facility requirements, determine who gets what equipment, and establish project schedules and budgets.

Facilities planners start with given current and future staffing requirements and support functions for certain tasks and then establish a design program considering space requirements, FF&E (furniture, fixtures, and equipment) needs, and necessary new mechanical/electrical/plumbing infrastructure. These requirements are then treated as a construction assignment with attendant plans and details, which can be outsourced or done in-house.

Planning and sitework. All new construction begins with planning. Where geographic planning in socio-economic and political fields leaves off, designers take up the mantle with physical planning: urban, regional, and site. Urban and regional planning generally considers the current and future needs of relatively large areas or multiple lots. Site planning deals with the current needs at a site and may or may not be part of a larger plan. Sitework consists of the improvements that must be made to a site in order to best provide for the structure to be built on it (often starting with a big ditch).

Professionals needed for these tasks include architects, landscape architects, geotechnical, civil and structural engineers, and land surveyors. Specific tasks include:

  • Surface site planning
  • Sub-grade planning
  • Roadways, driveways, and ramps
  • Circulative and decorative paving
  • Landscaping
  • Site lighting and security
  • Underground infrastructure (e.g., ventilation for parking)
  • Site amenities (e.g., benches, fountains, artwork)

Construction supervision and construction management. These have become the new old faithfuls of the industry, particularly construction management. Construction supervision is performed by the building contractor staff. The construction manager works for the owner as the representative in an administrative capacity, assuring that the project is built properly, on time, and within budget. Designers are employed in both of these areas, and both work together. Best of all, they frequently earn more than their counterparts in design firms. Either can be field- or office-based. The downside: They must be ready to check their design sensibilities at the door. The following tasks will keep these people busy and the job on track:

  • Scheduling
  • Coordination among project participants (designer, contractor, owner)
  • Cost estimating
  • Change orders
  • Information distribution
  • Compliance with construction documents
  • Submission and approval of payments
  • Legal support and defense (e.g., for claims and extras)

Code analysis. This may not sound like design work. As with many other tasks in the design cycle, however, it must be performed, and it is generally done by designers. Such analyses often play an early and significant role in the design of large, complex, and public projects entailing new construction or major renovation and those with multiple uses and occupancies. Buildings have become so complicated that many design offices have simply given up trying to address all their legal requirements. As a result, this field has come into its own as an independent consulting service to designers, generally as a subcontractor. These practitioners establish:

  • Building occupancies (overall and individual spaces)
  • Fire rating requirements
  • Egress requirements
  • OSHA and ADA/ABA requirements
  • Controlled inspections and testing
  • Energy conservation requirements

Environmental and sustainable design. This is the area of the moment, in part because there are almost no clients left who are indifferent to sustainable design and energy minimization. Indeed, many large and public clients have their own internal experts to monitor design consultants. Most require some sort of LEED certification, whether it be for the designer, the building, or both. And most are not willing to part with extra greenbacks to go green — a challenge in itself.

Environmental science performs analyses of water, air, and light quality, as well as noise, odor, mold, and hazardous materials abatement. Designers must know how to preserve and make the most of the former while preventing or eliminating the latter. They must know which natural resources (used for construction products) are environmentally friendly, regenerate quickly, and are most cost-effectively recycled. And they must know which building materials and systems are best suited for a given region. They may also need to know government programs that regulate and reward green building design.

If you are not working or otherwise have spare time, getting LEED certification can be a worthwhile pursuit and a feather in your cap; it looks good on a resumé.

Manufacturer’s representative. Product manufacturers complete the owner-designer-contractor loop and are key players in building design and construction. Their front-of-house staff — salespeople and technical reps — are the people designers contact when they have questions about a product. Contractors contact them when they are bidding on a project and need estimates. Owners ask for them after seeing or reading about new products. In any case, they cover a lot of bases. They may even perform quality control inspections of a product’s installation at job sites (including instructing laborers) and performing assessments after completion.

If your interests are more toward the technical (physics and chemistry, anyone?) and you like meeting new people — not to mention earning lucrative commissions — this is an area worth considering.

Real estate development. Despite the stigma of the phrase among many designers, this area, with housing included, represents their largest market. It fluctuates with the economy but is ever-present and ever-controlling. Who has more political pull than a developer? Who can influence a neighborhood more than a developer? Who builds more? Go ahead and grumble, but make the most of it. And some of it is genuinely good.

Many developer clients have the leasing or sale of a building in mind when they commission it. As a result, designers must assist in making a property as rentable or sellable (not to mention usable) as possible. What can they do to be relevant? Their professional expertise includes the ability to:

  • Evaluate a potential building site
  • Program, conceptualize, and envision a project
  • Generate computer graphics and flythroughs
  • Evaluate existing properties
  • Perform physical surveys for plans, information briefs, and feasibility studies
  • Translate other groups’ design documents for a developer’s evaluation
  • Understand operations and maintenance requirements
  • Assist with financial evaluations and applications
  • Perform preliminary cost estimates
  • LEED analysis

Design-build. After environmental design, this area is probably the next fastest growing aspect of the profession and now readily supplants the heretofore more common design-bid-build process. It is also referred to a single-source responsibility or as alternate project delivery. In any case, owners’ unyielding desire for faster, better, cheaper has brought about a process that, at least theoretically, streamlines building by combining the major players into fewer groups or even one whole. The owner is also the designer. Or the contractor is also the designer. Or one entity does everything. Greater centralized control will lead to more efficient and cost-effective construction — and quicker profits.

Here is what design-builders can do:

  • Involve the builder immediately instead of at the end of the design phase
  • Assure more designer involvement and control in the construction process
  • Project a more accurate construction cost earlier in the project
  • Reduce design time with simplified construction documents and submittals
  • Establish an earlier and reduced work schedule (particularly on new construction projects)
  • Lower financing costs for the owner (as expediters)
  • Help end the fractious relationship between designer, builder, and owner

Designers have not yet bought into this process as leaders; they generally work for the contractor. This is OK but has not led to significant improvements in their product or profit. This will change when they take the reins and become overseers of contractors or double as contractors themselves. The recession presents an ideal opportunity for bold designers to fill this void and get themselves into the business end of projects.

Other areas. Still searching for your niche? Consider:

  • Stage and set design
  • Exhibit planning and design
  • Model building
  • Specialized graphics, including presentation rendering and computer animation (for video entertainment, Web sites, real estate offerings) Software design                           
  • Architectural photography
  • Industrial design (product design for FF&E)
  • Academia
  • Professional writing

Location Location etc.

Why do you live where you do?

A. Job

B. Family and friends

C. Climate and natural setting

D. Cultural offerings

E. Habit

If you answered E, then maybe it’s time to think about A. Flexibility during the job hunt includes mobility to go where the action is. There may be nothing available for designers in parts of the country — even in good times. The design professions are getting progressively more clustered. Just as job seekers follow employers, employers follow clients. And many clients prefer their design consultants close at hand. Therefore, job seekers should follow both employers and prospective clients. 

Your construction trends research should reveal some noticeable client activity — is there a geographic pattern? Look for patterns, including international trends. Some may surprise you.

Global Design and Culture

Do you know who Robert de Luzarches is? How about William of Sens? What did Sinan do? What is the difference between Beaux Arts and Second Empire styles? Or the difference between a king closer and a queen closer? What’s the weight of a cubic foot of concrete? Is limestone sedimentary or metamorphic? How many acres are in a hectare? How many centimeters in a foot?

Knowing multiple aspects of the profession, including history, trivia, and construction terminology can impress job interviewers, especially if it relates to their projects. So can knowing something about global culture and practice. Know the UAE from the EU. Know your prefectures from your departments. With so many firms going after international work, appearing cosmopolitan is frequently a plus, even if you’ve never ventured outside your realm.

And Finally

A few helpful tidbits to observe while waiting for Godot and Associates to make an offer:

  • Hold on to your cash.
  • Postpone elective surgery or treatments if not covered by insurance.
  • Look for cheaper homeowners, life, and car insurance.
  • Minimize dry cleaning.
  • Lose weight. Look good for job interviews.
  • Quit smoking. Breathe better for job interviews.
  • Sleep more. Be well rested for job interviews.
  • Exercise. Walk to the store (or interview?) and back.
  • Eat better, and learn to cook.
  • Read more, including trade publications and Tony Hillerman.
  • If underemployed, enjoy your free time. (Look around for cheap thrills such as day and weekend trips, take in local museums, galleries, and exhibits.)

And heed the words of Superman actor Christopher Reeve, who, after suffering a cervical spinal injury that paralyzed him from the neck down, became an activist, movie director, and political lobbyist: “I think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”

David W. Patterson is a registered architect and the author of the book Getting a Job in Architecture and Design. A graduate of The Catholic University of America, Patterson has worked in design for 30 years on projects in the United States and abroad for private, corporate, and civil service employers.