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.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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).

    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.

    Mark Zuckerberg, Person of the Year 2010

    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.

    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.

    Techstars, a NY-based 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.

    About this author
    Cite: CASE. "Practice 2.0: Championing the young architect's career, a lesson from technology startups" 30 Jan 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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