Ten thoughts on the future of practice

Ten thoughts on how Architectural profession may be impacted, and potentially transformed, as a result.
The duration and depth of the downturn will determine the potency of the ideas suggested.

In February of this year, I gave a short talk to our Yale students about the economy and their employment prospects, suggesting that while all indicators remained strong and jobs were plentiful, it had been quite some time since our last downturn. Having seen several during my career I suggested that they would likely see a recession sometime in theirs, but cast doubt on whether we’d ever see anything as serious as 2008. If only…

It’s too early to be making nuanced arguments about the future, as we face down what is undoubtedly going to be a much more serious situation in the second half of 2020. So, here are ten first thoughts about how our profession may be impacted, and potentially transformed, as a result. Choose two or three as prompts to consider the future once the crisis has passed.

1. Economics: While there are mixed reports of how hard a recession might hit the industry, it’s already clear that certain building types, particularly retail and commercial office, will fall off the profession’s radar for several years while overall the AEC sector contracts across the board. Another wave of fierce fee competition, as surviving firms fight for contracts, will ensue. Can some firms fight above the fray?

2. Demographics: If the downturn lasts more than a year, another “lost generation” of students, taking their considerable design and thinking talents into an environment that values “design thinking,” will leave the profession never to return. If the 2008 recession eliminated some of the older Baby Boomers who were unable to grasp technology and keep their firms alive, the last of the Boomers may find themselves with the same fate. But with retirement portfolios largely destroyed, will there be hangers-on?

3. Jobs: New jobs, not many. Firms will trim their excesses and dead weight, and may do some strategic replacement, meaning when the upturn comes there’s a shortage of talent, as firms don’t have the reserves to keep staff despite the very high costs of replacement. Will the talent be there to be hired? Remote work may be a desirable option to improve work-life balance.

4. Technology: The last recession saw the profession’s transition from CAD to BIM. Eleven years later there is a much larger array of tools available: big data, analytics, reality capture, computational design, machine learning (to name a few) and lots of “BuildTech” development. Some practices will embrace these tools to redefine their capabilities; others, like many in 2008, will use new technologies (like BIM) toward very old ends (making better drawings).

5. Practice methods: As the entirety of practice has demonstrated an ability to work digitally and remotely, talent networks for firms will widen beyond locale, and intensified data-based processes and deliverable will (for firms willing to experiment further) open opportunities to create new value through digital service like analytics, digital fabrication, and augmented reality/experience.

6. Practice structure: Most practices moved their work seamlessly out of the office and to their respective homes, showing that a physical office may not be essential to running a firm. A new generation of younger, digitally-facile practices, with workers and talent distributed globally, will emerge to compete with traditional incumbents. They’ll be lithe, flexible, less subject to economic dynamics, and won’t know each other as well. The design version of the “gig” economy may emerge, focused less on full projects, and more on discrete tasks.

7. Construction: Between health concerns, immigration, supply stream instability and pricing pressures, builders will turn strongly to automation on the site and prefabrication off it. The necessary tools and processes require digital infrastructure unsuited to traditional drawing and builders will find it, either from their architects or elsewhere. Government funding of projects may drive digital protocols as a requirement, and the industry would be forced toward standards, finally, as a result.

8. Talent: “Survival of the fittest” suggests that some of the best firms of this decade will emerge from the crucible of the crisis, and today’s students will watch carefully from the academic sidelines, preparing themselves for the new realities of the recovery and demanding from their educators what they think is important to prepare them for the workplace. The survivors will define that talent agenda, which is likely to be a heady mix of technological prowess, ability to collaborate directly and remotely, and flexible work style and technique.

9. Space: Some of the ineffable priorities of design will give way to more epidemiological considerations: how does this space perform in a pandemic? Are occupants more or less healthy? Can it be cleaned? Can it perform, technically, spatially, and aesthetically under new rules of interaction and social distance?

10. The City: Cities have been hardest by COVID-19, calling into question the challenges of proximity and density. If social distancing and “home stay” are regular strategies to manage pandemic, the changing nature of urban space—and the potential revival of the more spacious suburbs—are opportunities for architects to rethink and redefine fundamentals of living.

There’s little doubt the post-COVID-19 world will look different—politically, economically and architecturally—than it looked in February. The duration and depth of the downturn will determine the potency of the ideas suggested above. Firm leaders are best prepared when they spend some of their current efforts managing through turbulent times toward that future, whatever it might be.

Phil Bernstein, FAIA, is an associate dean and senior lecturer at the Yale School of Architecture and a former vice president at Autodesk. He spent most of his practice career at Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects. His book Architecture Design Data: Practice Competency in the Era of Computation, was published by Birkhauser in 2018. This article was originally published at the request of the AIA Connecticut.