Practice 2.0: The Elephant in the Room*

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By Steve Sanderson

The following article is an edited transcript from a presentation that Steve gave at the Intersections: Building Interdisciplinary Pedagogy | Building Integrated Practice symposium organized by the New York City College of Technology.

I’m happy to see so many familiar faces and honored to be included with such an esteemed panel. In fact I feel a bit under-qualified. If my Google searches serve me well, all of my fellow panelists have both undergraduate and advanced degrees in architecture and have held noted academic positions for several years. I, on the other hand, pursued a “non-traditional” path into the industry by first studying interior design then industrial design to doing one year of a MArch program and finally receiving a ME from John’s program at Stevens.

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My total teaching experience amounts to a meager five semesters as a part-time faculty member. I have instinctively maintained a critical distance from formal architectural training, possibly because I enjoy sleep too much. So unfortunately I don’t have a lot amazing student work to present, in fact I don’t have any. But don’t worry; I have images – some of which are related to my talk. So now that I’ve put that out there, I will assume the role that I find myself in frequently: like Brad Pitt, I am a non-architect, architect.

I love architecture. I collected architectural books and publications all throughout undergrad. I became obsessed with SHoP Architects my senior year of college and personally arranged for Gregg Pasquarelli to lecture at Virginia Tech. After one year of architecture school at UCLA, I got an internship at SHoP and never looked back. I realized that I loved architecture, but that I didn’t love architecture school. A few years later, I also discovered that I didn’t love working as an architect, instead my love of architecture gave way to a love for the complex processes that must come together in order for good architecture to exist. Three years ago I left SHoP to start CASE and never looked back. I’m going to leave it to Dave actually talk about what we do, but trust me, it’s awesome.

My experience in practice has shown, and I think few here would argue that the design and construction of buildings is an inherently interdisciplinary process. Yet it is striking to me the extent that architectural education perceives this process differently. I would go so far to say that most professional architecture programs are anti-interdisciplinary and many of the icons that these programs are preparing us to emulate see themselves in much the same light.

Gary Cooper as Howard Roark in the film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

I’m not a historian but I’ll go out on a limb to say that this gap between practice and the academy is probably as old as the profession itself. Yet given the degree that the profession has been impacted by the recession, the increased cost and insecurity of higher education in general and the changing expectations of students, this separation has been brought into sharp relief. Students leaving architecture schools this Spring will be competing in a field that, according the AIA’s Chief Economist, has shed 60,000 jobs since late 2007.

Last month, the Architectural Billings Index dropped below 50 points indicating a reduced demand for architectural services. These are sector-wide problems that architects arguably have very little control over but what is most shocking is the extent to which architecture schools are ignoring that these problems even exist.

Case in point, when Georgetown University released a study in January noting that architecture majors had the highest levels of unemployment of any college major*2, not a single architectural dean or department head objected or offered proof to the contrary in any media outlet that I’m aware of.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/for-college-grads-where-the-jobs-are/2012/01/03/gIQA43KCZP_graphic.html

Cornell University published an article in the college newspaper, quoting current students and recent graduates that painted an even bleaker picture. According to a 2011 survey, approximately 40% of recent Architecture, Art & Planning graduates were neither employed nor enrolled in graduate school, twice the University average. This is particularly alarming considering Cornell’s undergraduate program is ranked #1 in the DesignIntelligence 2012 Best Architecture and Design Schools survey.

In fact, the only direct response came from the founder of a boutique PR firm, who having never attended or taught at an architecture school, also noted the lack of response from a typically vocal community. Maybe she realized how bad this was looking to all the non-architects.

Interestingly, both articles come to more-or-less the same conclusion: in order to maintain competitive advantage in a fast changing global economy, architects must master an even broader skill set becoming as one practitioner states, “multi thinkers and multi-tasked, so that they will be ready for the contemporary world we live and work in.”

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In both cases the solution was to find work in adjacent fields like urban design, planning, real estate, construction management, interior design, product design, and graphic design. Therefore according to these articles, not only are architecture graduates expected to grasp the complexities of their own discipline; they must stretch themselves even further by expanding into related design disciplines, all of which have their own degree programs minting fresh graduates each year.

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This advice is even more revealing when the article goes on to state that, in addition to becoming “multi-thinkers” young architects will need to respond to the “tall-order ability to master new technologies, stay abreast of emerging design thinking, properly learn and practice administration and management, while simultaneously growing business.” Of course all of this will be accomplished within a curriculum that devotes 65 out of 176 credit hours to design studios, and as anyone that has gone to architecture school or taught a lowly seminar can attest to, these studios consume 99% of the intellectual bandwidth and waking hours of architecture students.

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This much is understandable: design studios are the focal point of all architecture curriculums, regardless of pedagogy or pedigree. All recognition, reward and social systems are built around design studios. One could argue that the design studio is the defining characteristic of architectural education: all other activities are viewed in support of or subordinate to it.

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The problem with this model is that if given a choice not everyone could, should, or would be designers. This isn’t news to anyone that has worked in an office. The type of design encountered in architectural studios comprises an incredibly small percentage of the day-to-day activity of architectural practices with most estimates I’ve seen placing time spent designing at less than 5% (if at all). The rest of that time is spent on all of the other stuff that isn’t mentioned or formally taught in architecture school: project management, contract negotiation, technical reviews, specifications, pursuing new business, etc… Each of these activities (and many more not mentioned) are essential to the architectural profession and require very different skill sets, interests and backgrounds to do well, yet nearly everyone that finds themselves in these positions have been filtered through the same design-centric education.

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Recently there has been an increase in the number of alternative building-focused advanced degree programs that have sprouted up to address this gap: John’s program at Stevens, Auburn University’s Integrated Design + Construction program, IIT’s Master of Integrated Building Delivery and a smattering of other programs here and abroad. Many of these programs are doing quite well and addressing a clear need in the industry in addition to attracting more paying students seeking to differentiate themselves from the masses. But the issue is that none of these programs lead to professional architecture degrees, with most, if not all, requiring architectural degrees to be considered.

Furthermore, the professional architecture degree is the minimum qualification for nearly all jobs in the field and a requirement for professional licensure in most States (NY being a notable exception, but good luck getting that first job and completing your IDP hours). So if you’re interested in a non-design-focused architectural career or other specialized forms of practice within the building industry, like façade consulting or project management or BIM consulting, you must first complete a degree that is primarily geared toward making you a designer before investing more money in an advanced degree, or run the risk of never even getting a chance.

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This has been quite a long build up to what should be a painfully obvious solution. What do I think building interdisciplinary pedagogy should look like? Well it would probably look a lot like John’s program or Auburn’s program or City Tech’s Architectural Technology program, but with one significant difference: all of these programs would lead to professional architecture degrees. The traditional professional architecture degree that exists around the world would remain as well, retaining its focus on design, but it would no longer exclusively control entry to the field. Interestingly, this shift wouldn’t need to change the path to professional registration or even change the NAAB requirements to any great extent; it would just need to change the way the programs and accreditation teams choose to implement and interpret them.

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Architecture does not need to dilute itself by expanding into marginally related design disciplines in order to find relevancy and work. As mentioned above there are a huge range of opportunities if we just focus on buildings alone. By expanding the definition of architectural education to accurately reflect the complexity and richness of practice, we can simultaneously broaden the range of students attracted to the field and deepen the skill-level and professionalism of those leaving the academy. It is really the only way that I feel that architecture can rise to the challenges that will require even more interdisciplinary solutions in the coming years.

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One final note, CASE was recently awarded an Honorable Mention in the AIA TAP BIM Award, for “highlighting latest trends in design and technology in the building industry.” Although we authored all of the materials, prepared the submission and paid the entry fee, we could never get the AIA to understand that a BIM award might require a BIM Consultant, despite our numerous attempts to do so. So when Dave went down to the convention last month we were not surprised to see that we were given the role of “Associate Architect” on the project. The great irony in all of this being that the AIA spends huge sums of money protecting the use of that label, yet here we are on an AIA award, with not a single licensed architect in our company.

Who knows, maybe the AIA is more forward thinking than I give them credit? Maybe they realized that what CASE does will be considered architecture in the near future.

* This title makes reference/pays homage to an observation by Guy Horton, whose The Indicator column has been hugely influential in my thinking about these topics in general and this talk specifically. If you haven’t read his work before, you’re missing out.
*2 13.9% for undergraduate and 7.7% for graduate, which are higher than arts, humanities and social science majors

Cite: CASE, CASE. "Practice 2.0: The Elephant in the Room*" 13 Jun 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 19 Dec 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=244251>
  • Sam

    Excellent article. Give less power to artsy theoretical architectural education and focus on useable functional skills:
    -BIM
    -Business management
    -Building technology (methods and materials)
    -Environmental design

    • http://shindesignworks.com SDW

      Sadly, Sam…

      Architectural qualities are nothing to do with ‘BIM’ and ‘Management’ except ‘Building technology’.

      You can build a Best buy ware house with latest BIM technology with business management skills but it wouldn’t necessarily become a good architecture…

      I see everyday, latest BIM process designed buildings with appaling design quality and so outdated spatial concept.

      Can you see? It’s not a simple issue.
      I personally think those areas not necessarily related with design should be separated from ‘Architecture course’ and become like ‘Engineering’? course… not sure though…

      • Sam

        I think “perfect” architecture is a balance between technology and art.

        I see a lot of artsy architects who do not want to be hindered by real materials, building codes, heat loss and gains, power consumption, anything that is not hand drafting and business or HR management.

        If we were able to give architect stamps to the people who study these fields, I think we would have a better built world.

        I’m not saying that art has no place in architecture, I’m just saying that they do not fully understand the world that needs to be shaped outside our their, sometimes close minded, visions.

  • Andrew

    I have an M.Arch, and I work in a design field unrelated to architecture…so thank god I got to spend so much time in studio cultivating a method for approaching design problems, thinking, finding myself within a creative process, etc. What a waste three years would have been if I had to learn BIM, or had to make all my studio projects carbon neutral.

    The path to a licensed architect has two educational components: architecture school and an internship. Architecture school should focus the student on finding themselves as a designer, a creative problem-solver, introducing technical concepts so the student knows the physical limitations of architecture so to challenge them. He or she won’t be able to do this as an intern…instead, he or she will be working in BIM. Doing door schedules. Technical drawings.

    Learn to think in architecture school. Learn BIM as an intern.

    • Sam

      Most firms don’t have the time to train their old employees on BIM, why would they train newbies on BIM?

      I see a lot a architectural grad come in the office and they have no skills in CAD or BIM, they are pretty much useless. It takes about 4-5 years until they can be of some use, that just seems like a waste of time.

      You don’t work in architecture, I’m talking about a program that prepares you for the real world of architecture, not the generic world of designing.

  • Steve Sanderson

    Hey guys,

    Thanks for the comments. Just to clarify, this is not about BIM and it’s a shame that the profession is viewed in these polarized terms (artsy vs technical drawing, academy vs practice). I’m simply stating that the practice of architecture is sufficiently complex enough to justify a great variety of educational opportunities. Keep’em coming!