Today’s visionary firms are growing their services and expanding their value proposition. They understand that it is good design ideas (in form and process) that are in truth turning the AEC industry on its head.

For the last three years many sectors of the economy have not been firing on all cylinders. As a result, firms have had to downsize their staff. One question we hear frequently is, “When is this slowdown likely to rebound?” That is not, however, precisely the right question. We believe that it is not just a short-term slowdown—but also a structural shift taking place on a global scale.

This shift will affect how buildings are designed and manufactured and it will disrupt traditional design and build practices in the United States. Recent DesignIntelligence surveys have included written responses that predict that the 700,000 strong architects of China will gear up to export their services in the future.

Traditional service firms and contractors have been laying off workers in the last few years in a bid for efficiency. But in the short and long term there is something historic and fundamentally different about to occur in the A/E/C marketplace. For some, the recent downturn may not be cyclical at all.

Some of the slow, basic, and inefficient processes that are used to design and create buildings are becoming obsolete. And the jobs associated with these processes aren’t liable to come back when the economy recovers.

The task of designing buildings is increasingly being assumed by more efficient CAD programs and more sophisticated management processes. Today’s visionary firms are growing their services and expanding their value proposition. They understand that it is good design ideas (in form and process) that are in truth turning the AEC industry on its head. This includes U.S. architecture and design jobs as well as modular building manufacturing jobs moving offshore. Predictions from the U.S. Department of Labor and Forrester Research forecast the following number of lost jobs as a result:

ART & DESIGN
2000
818

2005
6,000

2010
14,000

ARCHITECTURE
2000
3,498

2005
32,000

2010
83,000

Yes, this has been coming for years. But it was only a decade ago that there were still debates at national association conventions about whether firms should embrace new technology and CAD systems. And remember the anti-trust debates? Now, the economic slowdown is actually opening competitive space for a tidal wave that could bring forward broad changes at historic levels. Some of you are now outsourcing CAD work to India and China while others are watching to see what happens next.

You can argue that we are losing careers by moving design production jobs to lower-cost areas. Others will say that off loading CAD work will save money and bring dollars to the bottom line, making firms more competitive. For some, this means more focus on innovation and the most enjoyable areas of professional practice.

Over 1.5 million traditional jobs (mostly in manufacturing) have moved abroad since 1993. Some of this shift has sent work to Mexico but much has gone to East Asia, Taiwan, and China. Between now and 2013 there will be approximately 95,000 positions in architecture and design lost to lower-cost markets. On top of this is the “Designed in China” export phenomena that is also predicted to disrupt professional delivery systems in the United States. Some paradigms are dying—others are being born this very day.

—James P. Cramer