James P. Cramer Roundtable Discussion, UNM School of Architecture and Planning

(Crossposted at Carolyn’s Blog)

“While you can’t afford to be in denial about the recession, you don’t want to fully participate in it, either,” reminds DesignIntelligence Founding EditorJames P. Cramer. Cramer co-chairs the Design Futures Council, an interdisciplinary network of design, product, and construction leaders who explore global trends and challenges.

Cramer visited the UNM School of Architecture and Planning recently to lead a discussion around the theme “What Does the Future Look Like and What Are We Going to Do about It?” for  architects, planners and others. Roger Schluntz, dean of the school, invited local professionals from his Council for Design and Planning Excellence to participate.

“Short-term constructive paranoia is for the long-term good,” Cramer said. He indicated that architects and others will have to work harder in the next 10 years than the last 10 years. “Think of it,” he said, “The Yellow Pages, video stores, film cameras, checks, analog televisions and ash trees (because of the borer), have disappeared.”

Next generation tools will be very different and play a pivotal role in determining the winners and losers in these professions, he said. The time calls for using survival skills, expanding entrepreneurship to battle the emotional and financial depressions, Cramer  said.   “As the economy improves, the profession will be different and it will attract different kinds of people,” he said.

Cramer presented some of his “25 Trends Transforming Architecture and Design,” featured in the January/February 2010 issue of DesignIntelligence.

  • Effective leadership –  individuals with strong human skills, willing to make the hard decisions necessary to remain relevant and healthy
  • Meritocracy — results-based compensation will find favor in the leading organizations
  • Disproportionate emphasis on customer service — design firms need to find new ways to add value to their product, become devoted to the clients’ well-being
  • Improve professional ethical standards
  • Establish long-term policies of values and behaviors that trump the commitment not just to be better, but “going for the Olympic team” better

Cramer cautioned against being an unprofessional “chronic victim,” but rather think about and act upon being the “inventor of our own success instead of the victim of circumstance.”

Change isn’t always comfortable, but it’s real. He said that leaders emerge to take advantage of those changes. The cycle begins with denial, moves to resistance, which in turn encourages explorations — of technology, the market, the economy what is being changed, and finally commitment to a new form of practice. “This takes us to interesting territory,” he said.

“We are the people we’ve been waiting for. Leadership is defined when challenges are the greatest,” Cramer said. He notes that the recession isn’t an indicator of the future of the profession, but rather reveals its vulnerability and wasteful practices.

Bill Sabatini, UNM graduate of the master’s of architecture program in 1979, is currently the lead design principal for Dekker Perich Sabatini Architects, where he manages specialized design projects for large corporate administrative facilities, higher education and health care.

Sabatini asked, “How do we position ourselves for the world post poor economy?” He added that the public perception of architects has eroded over the past 25 years. “Public clients don’t value what we do as a profession,” he said.

Cramer pointed out that new construction is about 1 percent of all the design and construction work done in the US. “Most professionals want to experts in a very specific area rather than working in the 99 percent of the work that’s out there — remodel, retrofitting, energy redesign. You’re at a scale disadvantage,” he said.  He added that firms need to demonstrate that they are doing a wide-range of interesting projects in order to bring in talented professionals.

Albert Moore, principal, Albert Moore and Associate Architects, in Santa Fe, specializes in residential, commercial and municipal facility design. He posits, “Architecture is the habitat for all human social systems: health, education and government. Those social systems are in a decline in the US. How can we respond to a moving target? We need to prepare for a shift in consciousness and maybe even encourage it along. We need to diversify — take our design and creative skills and apply them to refine social systems.”

Moore also said that if those social systems are retooled, demonstrating their interconnectedness, then it would eliminate their burdensome hierarchies that are set to demolish them.

Cramer said that the government — often as client — views designers as technicians rather than as the Renaissance people they are. He added that he still sees the glass “half full.”

Among Cramer’s list of 25 trends is the potential loss of another generation of talent, as was seen in the 1990s when many young architects and engineers left the profession from a lack of available positions. They never returned to the profession. Emily Brudenell, a 2008 master’s in architecture graduate , is an intern at Hartman + Majewski Design Firm, where she specializes in GSA/Federal development projects.  Brudenell said that she is seeing many of her former classmates going into industrial and furniture design, or developing online design businesses, because they can’t be employed as architects.

The consensus was that with a 3.4 percent increase in the need for architects each year, getting architects licensed is still critical. The Intern Development Program set out by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards dictates that to gain licensure as an architect, one must be employed as such. That body needs to address the vacuum of positions and the desire on the part of recent graduates to acquire the license.

Cramer said that a Los Angeles firm is taking the ambitious step of annually going after the top 30 architecture students coming out of school. Geraldine Forbes Isais, director, UNM architecture program, said that the new students aren’t really “practice ready,” despite having great expertise in new skills and possessing new ideas. Cramer isn’t so sure…

Cramer thinks that good design isn’t going away because of tight budgets. “We can still be creative, beautiful and sustainable,” he said.

The conversation turned to another one of Cramer’s trends: “Will Contractors Eat Architects’ Lunch?’ With many contractors already turning toward design-build, they are aggressively growing their in-house design services.  The discussion turned toward BIM — which had me flummoxed for a bit, until someone actually defined it as “building information modeling,” the detailed drawings the contractors worked from. Architects don’t think they’re paid enough to do them — or maybe do them in a detailed sense — and contractors need information not always provided by the architect’s BIM. Those drawings include all the systems for the building as well as the design.

Moore said that contractors make changes to the BIM that need architect’s approval and they don’t always get it. “A building is an integrated system of subsystems. To change the details without the architect’s approval can compromise the entire system. The building can fail,” he said.

Clients don’t also value the architect’s work or want to pay for it.

Robert Mallory, president of Southwest Noise Control, a firm providing soundproofing materials for new buildings, said, “Excellence in design work influences human thought and the beings themselves.”

Sabatini added, “Health and welfare is improved by the physical environment.”

Cramer noted that evidence-based design is an approach to design that give importance to design features that impact health, well-being, mood, and safety, as well as stress and safety. The approach focused on the relations between the quality and features of the environment.

Cramer challenged the professionals to look at the strategies they employ in the current context and then look at strategies to be relevant for a new context.

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