The End of Architecture as We Knew It

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one lit attic window overlooks a Paris street as the city skyline leans heavily against the glowing Halloween underbelly of a cloudy night sky

   Architecture has changed irreparably in the past decade, but those who know how to adapt just might find themselves in a far better place in a few years. It has now been 8 years since construction peaked in 2005, nearly 6 years since the subprime meltdown, and close to 5 years since the big meltdown that really kicked off the Great Recession.

The End of Experienced Employees

neon-lit Paris flatiron building serves as backdrop for young men walking across glistening cobblestones after a rain

   Today, it appears that construction is finally beginning to pick back up, but it's too late for architecture as we knew it. More than half of the people working in architectural offices in 2005 aren't there anymore. Some are still unemployed, some have gone in business for themselves, but many have left the profession. And when people leave architecture, they rarely come back for three reasons: an architecture degree prepares you to do so many other things, it's such a stressful profession, and the pay is usually significantly lower than other professions like law and medicine. So if you're a firm owner, your former employees are likely either gone for good, or have started their own firms and are competing with you for work. So you can't simply gear back up with the same experienced people you once had.

The End of Trusting Clients

classic art nouveau sign lights entrance to Paris metro, framing a view to stone apartments lining the street beyond

   During the past 8 years that we've essentially been out of business, our clients have changed in several ways. A decade ago, clients were much more likely to accept the expert opinion of an architect. Now, they've all learned to Google. Just ask doctors about their experience with patients who know WebMD for a look at what a web-searching clientele means to another profession.

The New Frugality

dark Paris cobbled street glistens under the orange glow of occasional street lamps

   Your one-time clients have become much more frugal over the past 8 years, and because the construction crash has now lasted twice as long as it takes to get a college degree, this new frugality is likely to stick. Just look at how the Great Depression transformed a generation of Americans almost a century ago, forever imprinting them with high frugality. When they do spend money, frugal people are more likely to buy products than services. They buy store-bought clothes rather than patronizing a tailor, for example. Frugal homeowners-to-be are more likely to buy a stock house plan than commission a custom design. Today, if you have only services to sell, you may want to start thinking about packaging useful things you've done into products.

Smaller & Smarter

two people diverge along a narrow Paris cobbled street as a car approaches

   When those homeowners-to-be build, they're facing a banking industry that has changed dramatically. Many banks have sworn off real estate lending entirely, whereas those who are still making mortgage loans are much more conservative. This means that your clients have a much better chance of getting a smaller project financed… so long as you design it to be smart enough that your client prefers it over a larger, less intelligent design.

Younger & Greener

solitary Paris storefront with tables and chairs set just outside, with dinner long over

   Your clients have also gotten younger. A decade ago, most custom design clients were Baby Boomers, but they are now beginning to move out of the home-building market as they age, and are being replaced with GenX and GenY. These generations are much more concerned with building and living sustainably. As a matter of fact, if you're a Boomer architect, you may well be viewed as part of the sustainability problem because Boomers have consumed more than any generation in human history, not only because we were so large, but because we were so hungry as well.

Patience, Generosity, and Connectedness

   Those changes would be enough to rock any profession, but there's more. Business is currently undergoing a change that I believe will prove to be as great as the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago. For that quarter-millennium, the prime virtues of business have been better-faster-cheaper, or quality, speed, and economy, if you prefer. I believe that the new age that is now dawning may come to be known as the Age of the Idea, and it appears that the three prime virtues of this time we are now entering may become patience, generosity, and connectedness. So this isn't just about remaking our marketing… it's about remaking ourselves.

The New Tools

restaurants and bars line vibrant Paris street, drying after a rain

   Most marketing methods architects have used for decades don't work so well anymore for two reasons: First, the market is leaner, and the old methods worked best when there were lots of jobs to go around. Second, and less obvious, is the fact that we've all been vaccinated by spam against wanting to hear anything about your business. We turn a deaf ear to sales pitches just as quickly as we hit the delete key on a spammy email. The good news is that new tools are emerging that work much better, and again, for two reasons: First, you can reach far more people with tools like blogging, tweeting, online communities, video, etc. than you can by playing a round of golf. And these tools reach the places that are heavily populated by your younger potential clients.

   I firmly believe that even though the Great Recession has been architecture's bleakest epoch of my lifetime, it also has the potential to be a great transformational event that can change the profession for the better. At least for those who adapt and transform themselves. What do you think?

   ~Steve Mouzon

© The Guild Foundation 2013