As the economy staggers through the pre-dawn streets of a slow and agonizing “recovery” – some economists including Robert Reich argue we are not in a recovery – it is important to remember what has been learned.
As far as architecture is concerned, the lessons learned were the same ones as in prior recessions. Maybe this time architects will not suffer from amnesia or lapse into denial when billings tick up once again. It is easy to forget how difficult things have been. People tend to just want to move on and not dwell on the past. Psychologically, people seem to just want the economy to be in a recovery – even if there is evidence to support that it is not necessarily at that stage yet. Recession this, recession that. Everybody is tired of hearing about it. I’m tired of writing about it! But it is still a reality that affects the ranks of our chosen profession. No one has been immune. Professionals at all levels of experience, whether licensed or un-licensed, domestic or international, healthcare or commercial have been impacted.
More after the break.
I would love to say that when the recession is over I will stop writing about it, but that would be wishful thinking. In truth, I will continue to write about aspects of recessionary economics and architecture because recession thinking will be an important part of an actual recovery as well as preparing for the next one—which, again, should be hitting around 2021, give or take.
The first point is to recognize that recessions will happen as part of the “natural laws” of economics. They are part of the cyclical reality of global economies based on competition, uneven wealth distribution and allocation, and complex market mechanisms. For this reason, architects should learn as much about them as possible and identify the specific ways in which they affect the profession. This might seem obvious, but unless this type of analysis is carried out recessions will simply be perceived as macro-economic forces that lay waste on a large scale. They do in fact do this, but there are myriad smaller and more subtle forces operating within the dark matter of a recession. It helps to identify what they are and how they relate to architecture in particular.
Here are some questions that can serve as a starting point:
Is your strategic plan projected to incorporate the next recession? If you as a firm or individual are thinking this is too far out to plan for now, you would be mistaken. This is precisely the time to plan for the next one. Where do you want to be as a firm, as an architect in five to ten years?
How did your business strategy adjust during the current recession? Did you have a business strategy in the first place? What worked and what didn’t work? Do you have the knowledge you need to adapt? If you aren’t sure, seek out a consultant-strategist and start talking about it.
What areas of your practice were most impacted by the recession? Staffing is a primary target. Many firms have to lay people off. Is this the only strategy for dealing with staffing issues? Some firms engage in the practice of staff swapping. If work gets a little thin in one office some staff can make up hours by filling in at another office that needs the help. What if this approach were formalized into an alliance between local firms? Though firms compete against one another for projects, the architecture community as a whole is actually very close-knit and collegial. This often gets forgotten when a recession hits. A recession is when this community counts most. There are times when it would be in the interest of the profession to engage in cooperative and mutually-supportive business practices. Of course if all the firms in a city get hit significantly enough then the staff-swapping model wouldn’t prevent layoffs. In all likelihood, however, there is a good chance that this model could at least significantly limit the layoff casualties. Another approach is to make sure your staff is stable and secure when times are good. Pay them as well as you can and give them bonuses as able. The stronger they are economically, the more productive and focused they can be for you. Also, if it becomes necessary to reduce hours or salaries during a recession, employees will be in better positions to deal with this and more willing to make shared sacrifices.
Where is your firm currently most vulnerable? Is it a particular market sector? Are you diversified enough? Even healthcare took a significant hit in some offices. Do you need to become more versed in international practice? If you want to head in this direction, it will probably take you about five to ten years to get overseas work up and running. Think long-term for this but start investing now.
As an individual practitioner, are you in a strong position? If you are in architecture there is high probability that you are never completely safe from a recession. Again, all levels of experience were (and are being still) affected. If you are unlicensed, however, now would be a good time to make that a priority so you have more credentials and can potentially be worth more to your firm. Identify where you are strong and weak. Skills and expertise that can distinguish you from the masses include technical expertise, international know-how, fluency in foreign languages, deep knowledge of sustainable design, being good with numbers. Unique experience counts for a lot. How can you stand out?
Is your experience narrow or broad? If you have been working on one type of project in a certain market-sector for many years you might want to branch out if given the opportunity. Possessing broader experience that crosses markets and disciplines makes you more adaptable. In this way, you will be less vulnerable if an entire sector is hit severely. More options are better and it helps when you can sell yourself as someone who can work in many different contexts and roles as needed.
This is just a starting point. We are in the conceptual phase. So, before we get too comfortable with the idea of “recovery” let’s make sure we stay focused on fixing what went wrong. After all, we have about ten years until the next recession. It’s inevitable. But how we deal with it is not.
New book out soon! ‘The Real Architect’s Handbook: Things I Didn’t Learn in Architecture School’, by Sherin Wing and Guy Horton.