Practice 2.0: Championing the young architect’s career, a lesson from technology startups

ICON's 20 Young Architects, photo via anarchitecture

By David Fano and Steve Sanderson, edited by Julie Quon

A well-known and often cited truism of architecture notes that forty (as in years) is considered young for an architect and most don’t start hitting their stride until they’re seventy. This may partially explain why well-known architects seem to live forever… they’re simply too busy to die. What is often omitted from this narrative is how the architects spent the first twenty (or so) years of their careers as freshly minted graduates prior to being recognized by their peers in the profession as “making it”.

If you approach any architect about their early-career experience in the profession you will get slightly different versions of the same story. They are all, in essence, about paying your dues.

  1. Taking a low-paying position for an A or B-list architect, where the compensation for long hours is the privilege of anonymous design on important projects, and in return a few hours are spent outside of the studio (usually with a group of similarly indebted classmates) on open design competitions that pay trifle stipends.
  2. Taking a low-paying adjunct teaching position, ideally in a design studio, where compensation for long hours is the privilege of working on your design interests with students in order to become a part of the elite tastemakers and to one day be shortlisted for an exclusive cultural competition.
  3. Taking a slightly better paying position with a corporate firm and spending your hours outside of work designing kitchens and bathrooms for wealthy friends and family with hopes that their social reach is broad enough to lead to additional commissions that will one day be substantial enough to make a living.
  4. Taking a slightly better paying position with a corporate firm and slogging through the incredibly tedious intern development and professional registration process in order to move up the corporate hierarchy. The goal is to eventually become a principal or partner with an established firm or even break off on your own with some of the established firm’s clients.

In each of these scenarios, the only path to a significant commission is to spend the few hours outside of these paying jobs in the pursuit of establishing credibility and reputation through exposure in architectural publications. In any case, it seems that around the age of forty is when all of this hard work finally begins to pay off with consistent commissions. For the vast majority that never succeed by following these models, there is usually a ‘pivot’ (in startup terms, a change in approach) that leads to a stable corporate position, a full-time teaching post, or an exit from the profession altogether (we did the latter, see Fed’s post). The difficulty of ‘being’ an architect is branded about in schools (oftentimes by people with little to no actual experience in the field) as a source of pride, a perverse hazing ritual intended to weed out all but the most dedicated adherents to the ideals of architecture as a pure form of expression, a rationale which further reinforces architecture as an intellectual pursuit for the privileged (that topic is for another post).

Mark Zuckerberg, Person of the Year 2010

Contrast this with the technology startup community, which has almost the opposite arrangement. It’s rare to hear about a successful mainstream startup whose founders are older than 25. Two graduate students started Google, Facebook by a college sophomore, Groupon by a graduate school dropout and the list goes on. While these success stories only represent a tiny fraction of the much broader startup scene (most of which never see the light of day), the drive, work ethic, naiveté and lack of external commitments (financial, social, etc…) of these young founders has led many venture capitalists (who invest in startups for living) to shy away from startups founded by people over 30.

The costs and accessibility to the technology needed to start one of these companies are being lowered each day through the creation of development frameworks and tools, like Ruby on Rails, Apache, mySQL, etc. Tools like these enable a group of founders with a good idea, some solid technical and design skills, and the ability to shamelessly self-promote and endure repeated rejection and setbacks, to launch a product with little to no more investment beyond their sweat.

Techstars, a NY-based incubator

These conditions have led to an explosion in the tech startup world of incubators/accelerators. Companies usually made up of experienced entrepreneurs and VCs that go beyond the role of simply investing in a promising young startup will now provide a physical space, access to experienced entrepreneurs and technologists, constant feedback and assessment, exposure to media and network of advisors, and at times a token financial investment in order to get the startup off of the ground. At the end of this incubation process most startups leave with a solid product and business model, but most importantly they leave with an impressive set of connections and the blessing of some of the most influential people in the startup world. You can imagine the success rate for companies like this is much higher than your standard, off the street startups and in some ways benefit from one of more of these factors, just not within a formal incubator.

Now, taking this model and applying it to the architectural profession may not be as big of a stretch as it might initially sound. The profession already has a model for this incubation process under the Intern Development Program (IDP), where a recent architecture graduate is expected to document and submit hours indicating that they have performed a broad range of tasks in a professional office under the direct supervision of a seasoned architect, or mentor. As any young architect will tell you, this system is irrevocably flawed. You leave school without many of the practical skills necessary to work on many aspects required by the IDP and many firms are managed in a way that makes it difficult for a young architect to work on multiple stages of a project. Typically, young architects are assigned to one particular phase (either design or documentation) and they will remain there as long as they are willing to tolerate it. In the best scenarios this process is expected to take three years to complete and requires substantial fees to maintain and submit. It is a huge barrier and disincentive to becoming a licensed professional and we haven’t even approached the subject of registration exams. Truth be told, you’re lucky if you’re licensed to practice architecture seven years after completing your five (or six, or seven) year professional degree.

The major problem with this process (in addition to the issues described above) is that it does not give young architects the tools and experience needed to run their own practices, mainly because it’s managed by someone that needs your labor – not additional competition in the marketplace. The other fundamental flaw of this process is that it continues the misplaced emphasis from school on individual development, instead of looking at the practice of architecture as it truly is: a complex collection of many individuals with distinct strengths and interests, each with its own importance and value to the profession.

So, what if NCARB, and by extension the AIA, focused on encouraging the development of young architects through a structured incubation process that would provide an alternative way for young architects to meet their professional requirements, while at the same time giving them the skills and exposure needed to get their practices off the ground. This process could provide a solution to the “architect’s career beginning at forty” problem as described above. Most importantly, it would provide a clear way to combat the mass exodus from the profession that is happening as a result of the recession and will continue to happen, due to revelations like the much discussed Georgetown University study (here and here).

Here’s how it could work:

  • Reallocate funding supporting ideas competitions, prizes and fellowships for single recipients and a portion of the funds for professional development for young architects, toward an incubator fund.
  • Distribute these funds to local AIA chapters based on market demand to seed new architectural practices. These funds will be used to provide startup capital and salaries for the first six months of operation while in the incubator program.
  • Potential applicants are screened based on a competitive process that requires young practices (no single practitioners) to apply based on a project that they have won or an RFQ that they intend to pursue that will lead to a real commission.
  • Selected firms will be chosen through the submission of a business plan and a portfolio that demonstrates a balance between design, technical, management, leadership and communication skills.
  • The incubator will provide a shared workspace for selected firms, potentially leased from or donated by a sponsoring firm. This would include desks, a conference/meeting room and access to printers and the web. A major vendor (we’re looking at you, Autodesk) could provide the software.
  • The local chapter will provide access to mentors from established firms (fulfilling a portion of their public service requirements) that provide critical advice and recommendations on various aspects of establishing and managing an architectural practice.
  • Mentors may assume greater responsibility within promising new practices in order to help them win or deliver more complex projects, in exchange for equity.
  • Incubated firms and their projects are given access to an amazing network of collaborators and their work would be featured prominently in press and publications.

We would be willing to invest our time in a program like this by volunteering at the AIA New York chapter. Would you or the principals of your firm contribute? How do you think we can pull this off?  Please post your thoughts or questions in the comments, and let’s see how far we can take this.

Cite: CASE, CASE. "Practice 2.0: Championing the young architect’s career, a lesson from technology startups" 30 Jan 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 23 Nov 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=203841>
  • John

    …while others seem to just burst onto the scene; no dues paid, with energy and overt-confidence carrying them through life. So it seems, there are indeed other options than 1, 2, 3 or 4.

    We are living in a boundless world, where established hierarchy has never been so questioned. Shoot for the stars, and fulfill your dreams.

    • 9th

      LOL. Oh my, someone drank the kool-aid while obsessing over motivational posters. While its commendable to dream and have that confidence and inner fire, dealing with the reality of the situation is much more important. Architects and the field in general has been stuck in quick sand for some time, and its only getting worse. Its time to get real, understand the fundamental problems, and make incremental changes to swing the field back into a positive industry.

      1 in a million architects are even close to this dreamy other option you speak of. And of those, its rarely because they have certain qualities that make them special compared to their 999,999 other peers. The majority of the time its because of a complex, vast, uncontrollable, and partially lucky set of circumstances beyond the person’s grasp that sets the stage for such things to happen.

      • SecondRate

        Or daddy has a lot of cash! Renzo Piano, Todd Williams, Etc….

    • Bruce

      It helps to be born ino money, or marry into it.

    • Ian

      I agree with you fully here. I feel that we are reaching an age where product and skill will speak louder than established hierarchy. People are finally beginning to realize that its not an issue of who you are but rather of what you are capable of.

  • http://www.derfoto.com Fred Castillo

    “In any case, it seems that around the age of forty is when all of this hard work finally begins to pay off with consistent commissions.”

    LOL…Love that. Almost every Architect/ Designer I know is unemployed, working as Security Guards or has gotten out of the profession. As a “Design Professional” we are the first to be hit during a recession. The cost of an Architectural education is out of control. When I attended SCI Arc is was $7000 a semester (1990′s) now it is $14000 not including any expenses or housing! Oh and one other thing school doesn’t tell you is that you will be making about $24000 a year if you’re lucky….#bittermuch?

  • Benjamin Hale

    From across the pond I really enjoyed this article, I think it is also timely, for young architects all over the world it is a time of alot of doom and gloom, especially if you are looking for a job at the moment. It is sometimes hard to pick yourself up and find the drive. But what have you really got to lose? In the UK the process to accreditation is much the same as the AIA process, there seems little room for young architects wish to enter the market place straight from University, and often have this idea beaten out of them early on. I have tried to remain positive and on embarking on my part 2 I find it hard to imagine myself setting up my own practice in the early years, mainly because I would suffer from a lack of guidance and would probably make mistakes. There needs to be better teaching, forced onto the schools by our professional bodies in order to prepare us for an even more competitive marketplace when the economies on both side of the atlantic begin competing with the asian and middle eastern markets.

    ben from architecture as urban catalyst

    http://architectureasurbancatalyst.blogspot.com/

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  • Dblane

    Great article. Glad someone is addressing a profession that is outdated with its practices. It is a profession that is deteriorating because of how young interns are treated, taken advantage of through poor wages, long hours, and with little upward advancement. The idea that a fresh graduate must be a slave to his master because it is part of the process is naive and outdated. Some suggest to even volunteer to work for an A or B listed firm because the experience would greatly outweigh the monetary reward?!? It is ideas like this that are leading to interns abandoning ship and pursuing other careers. Unless leaders like the AIA and NCARB change their way of thinking soon, the architectural profession will have a gapping wound that will not heal for quite some time.

  • Ben

    Great article and I wish this idea would advance further. Many architecture students have great ideas once they graduate and by mimicking the “tech startup model” you could develop your own project and find clients very early on through the incubation process.

  • archi

    Interesting article. But what’s wrong with single practicioners?

    • David Fano

      Nothing at all. I actually think technology is making that more and more of a viable option.

      • archi

        So why “Potential applicants are screened based on a competitive process that requires young practices (no single practitioners) to apply based on a project that they have won or an RFQ that they intend to pursue that will lead to a real commission.”?

      • David Fano

        Fair point… I guess we figured sole practitioners have it figured out ;) Joking aside, hiring people and managing a firm is a difficult task that I think this type of mentor network could address. I would see that as a key objective of a program like this, so that would rule out anyone that intended to run a practice alone. So… Not a criticism of being a sole practitioner, just not the audience we were targeting when we wrote this. Hope that makes sense :)

  • JohnS

    This is a great analysis of the current state of the architecture field and young architects trying to find their place in it. And I think there are many lessons that can be learned from the tech start up world, so the proposed changes are an interesting interpretation of how to apply those lessons. There is, however, one glaring flaw.

    The start-up world and especially the Angels, VCs, and incubators are driven chiefly by the promise of making a lot of money off of the start-ups they invest in / accelerate. They do not expect that every investment will have a large ROI, but they do what they do in order to hunt for that 30x-40x return start-up. And they do this because tech, esp of the online software kind, is the industry making more than a substantial amount of money.

    Unfortunately, architecture firms of any size, do not make a lot of money. Between (1) the way the field is yoked in with developers, insurance companies, contractors, and government authorities, (2) the time and effort it takes to see a project through, and (3) the level of compensation accepted for our services in a market that is very much client controlled to the point we’re cannibalizing ourselves, where is there a financially sound reason for any of the proposed changes? Why would any company, investor, and/or professional organization (AIA) contribute their resources to such a program when the return, if there is ANY, will be so small? We can’t just expect an egalitarian fervor to sweep the industry especially in the current conditions, ie Survival mode.

    I think it would be absolutely fantastic if there were incubator style programs for young architects/firms, but before that can come about, or perhaps in parallel, sweeping changes need to occur to the established industry to make that dream viable and persistent. And that is a much more difficult challenge.

    • David Fano

      Thanks John!, I’d argue the AIA’s return should not be financial. It’s aiding in the development of the Architecture ecosystem and the profession as a whole. So if they can contribute to helping build sustainable practices, then I would argue that is the 30x ROI. Another approach I have thought about is a strategic investment from larger AE firms with the potential to acquire the talent (Acquihire) or run it like a Skunk Works. Either way i agree, a proper Y-Combinator-esque / Tech Stars model does not directly apply.

      • JohnS

        I certainly think the AIA and NCARB have the necessary infrastructure existing to take on the role as you describe it after some major functional changes. I like the idea as well with them playing the manager / mentor role for the start-up architecture firms, facilitating the day in & out operations of such a scheme. Since their role now and in this potential scheme is still as a professional organization aimed at improving the industry their return would be implicit in strengthening the industry as a whole and gaining more members who are succeeding moreso than before. Their financial return at minimum would at most be to cover the costs of this new role plus a little more. Your Skunk Works reference is an interesting one and bears more thought.

        But that still doesn’t deal with the very real and very practical matter of where does the initial seed funding come from. The resources needed to grow beginning arch firms into profitable and sustainable practices will be very large. Value needs to be found somewhere and returned to those putting it in or else this whole scheme is DOA. How does the equity play out in the arch industry? Any valuation of an architecture firm is going to be laughably low simply because the profit potential in the industry is one of the lowest of any sector, especially for new to mid age firms.

        bigbubba and Ed’s comments both reveal important and crucial issues that need to be addressed. Bottom line, the architecture field needs to figure out a way to take the reigns back and start making money befitting the time, risk, and expertise put in….without cannibalizing itself on the bottom, where all the new architects reside. Once or while that is happening, the potential for newer firms to be more profitable will rise and then it will be easier to convince those with the money to actually fund them at an appropriate amount.

  • Ed

    JohnS says it well-the comparison between a tech start up and an architecture firm is simply not possible to do, one has the promise of making enormous profit (and that is after all usually its sole reason to be) the latter makes pennies in comparison to virtually any other start up.
    The profession is flawed. There are many factors-not the least of which is the looting of any aspect of design not nailed down (and nailed down) by dozens of competing “design professionals”, especially in residential design-where most start ups begin. A client can have a contractor provide plans if uner a certain size, hire an interior designer to help with details, a kitchen designer for the kitchen and an interior decorator for materials, and on and on. The profession we should be looking at for lessons is the legal one: they have drawn themselves so deeply into the social contract that if lawyers were architects, you couldnt change a light bulb without calling the AIA. We have allowed ourselves to be superfluous, and an un-needed luxury.

    • http://dimak1999.blogspot.com/ Dima

      Well, yes you cannot compare some most successful tech start-ups with the architectural ones, but not all the successful tech start-ups are making money like facebook or groupon etc. That is not really the point – there is not outside investor capital needed needed for that.
      Coming back to the question of who is making how much – there is an vast amount of opportunities for architectural firms to become way more profitable than what they are at this point – as long as they make that first step towards the rethinking these old skool “well established” ways of running an arch office (at least to embrace certain existing technologies that make arch processes/firms so much leaner and more effective and efficient). Just like in majorities of other industries there is a bunch of new “niches” that constantly open up, therefore potential for new significant profits. It’s just the matter of being able to see opportunities beyond “traditional” architectural practice model.

  • http://dimak1999.blogspot.com/ Dima

    I think another additional way to get AIA and NCARB interested would be that eventually some/most of these young start-ups would become profitable, so the initial investment by the “officials” has to be reinvested by a profitable start-up into their local chapter that took care of them in the beginnings, so this way potentially it would be more difficult to drain the “incubator fund”. Interesting, so this way the best young up-and-coming architects would be forced to support the best selection/most proactive out of the pool of architectural students.
    We need fresh blood in AIA and NCARB, those that see what kind of hole this industry gradually has gotten into.

    • David Fano

      I like that idea!

  • Anthony

    I completely see the value in what is being suggested. I feel regulating bodies like NCARB and the AIA fail to recognize the entrepreneurial spirit of the times and do not do enough to support the innovative spirit of young professionals.

  • http://www.wix.com/sarafian/portfolio JS

    This article is dead on. I signed up for IDP a few years ago, and its clearly intentionally flawed to prolong the process of licensing, anyone will tell you that. But the problem is that the young architects do not have a voice in the AIA. Also shouldn’t the big name architects hurt the profession as a whole by offering low salaries, because they can find anyone they want to work for their name. In turn they can offer cheaper fees that are more competitive, but the value of architecture as a service is diminished. The architecture community needs to organize around something other than the AIA (which seems to protect only the interests of corporate firms.)

    • David Fano

      Why do you think that is? Is it an issue with AIAs? Maybe there could be free membership until you get licensed to keep the relationship after your schooling? I’ll keep thinking about this :)

  • Dan

    One fact about this idea is problematic. Tech startups are not held to the higher standard of overseeing the public health, safety, and welfare of the built environment. They can make up their own rules and operate under their parameters. You should try convincing your local architectural licensing examiners board the validity of this idea and see how far you can sell it.

    • David Fano

      The idea is to help young firm learn to deal with just that problem. Tech startups need to learn to make money… Architecture firms need to learn how to deliver buildings. I think you are taking the reference to literally.

  • Nathan

    oh dear. tech start ups… or internet companies… are vastly different from architectural practices. primarily, the tech field deals with limitless resources at a fixed, almost inexpensive cost. beams and bolts cost much more than bandwidth. secondly investment is readily available, particularly because websites potentially make money, most buildings do not. thirldy successful architecture takes time and rarely can be altered. internet start ups can explode quickly and collapse quicker, ie. “the internet bubble”, which thankfully practices do rarely. ideas cannot supplant business fundamentals.

  • A

    *zoinks we were just discussing this in our very outdated Professional Practices class. Our latest version if the AIA business model chart doesn’t even consider the not for profit model -was it page 98? Why are they teaching (from the AIA book- ) clearly failed business models? Looking for the positive in it, I think your suggestions are great places to begin the discussion.