Please. Stop the Reinvention Talk.

You may have seen the latest in the Reinvention Discussion – it’s an article on the DesignIntelligence website by James P. Cramer, called “Competing for the Future.” It starts out by intoning “Beware the unimaginative and the Luddites who portend the end of the profession, and open your mind to a future of relevant possibilities.” 1

Please.  Stop the Reinvention Talk, or do a better job of convincing me that the profession of architecture must be completely reinvented.  I am willing to listen, but I’d like to hear ideas that are more concrete than those I’ve read so far.

I am not a Luddite.  I am not unimaginative.  I am probably a cynic, but I do offer solutions (skip to the bottom for solutions).  The profession of architecture needs revitalization, not reinvention.  

Owners (the people who need buildings built) still have the same needs they have always had; owners need some entity to listen to and interpret their needs and ideas for their buildings, and to translate those needs and ideas into instructions to build the buildings.  Although technology has changed many things in the last several centuries, this particular need of owners has not changed.

Architects are the people who are best qualified to interpret the needs of owners and turn them into models, perspective drawings, diagrams, and plans that help owners explore and confirm their needs.  Architects have been the people who are best qualified to produce the drawings and specifications that serve as the instructions to build these buildings.  Notice that there are two parts to this; these are two of the fundamental components of being an architect.

Architects are no longer the only people fulfilling the needs above.  Owners are relying less and less on architects for all their needs (programming, master planning, schematic design concepts, placemaking, design development, construction documentation, guidance during bidding or negotiation with a contractor, and construction contract administration).

Some architects are not able to effectively meet these needs.  Other entities have stepped in to fill the voids.  (These others include, but are not limited to, “placemakers,” green building consultants, and Construction Managers.) 

We architects don’t need to reinvent ourselves as something else, and try to sell owners on something new that they may not need or want.

If we architects want more work, we must do a better job of meeting the needs that owners already have, that we used to meet, and no longer do. 

Owners’ needs haven’t changed – the profession of architecture has.  We have stopped being able to most effectively meet all of the needs of owners.  Some may argue that owners have additional needs, over what they used to have.  Some will argue that buildings are more complicated than they used to be, and we need more help.  These things are true.  But architects can get that help from consultants and keep it all under the umbrella of the design team – we don’t have to get that help from the contractor part of the team.  We have to prove our value to owners, and they will stop looking elsewhere for the services that we have traditionally provided.    

The Construction Specifications Institute can help architects meet the all the needs of owners that architects used to meet.  As I’ve mentioned here before, CSI’s Construction Documents Technologist program is a good start.  The CDT program can help architects develop a better understanding of the construction process, better construction contract administration skills, better construction documentation abilities, and better means of communication with the contractor on projects.  This is basic stuff, people.  This is stuff that architects used to consider to be of primary importance… and then they didn’t… and then other people started doing the work that architects used to do…



1.  Here’s that article on the DesignIntelligence website: 


10 thoughts on “Please. Stop the Reinvention Talk.

  1. Cramer’s article is a silly bunch of consulting mumbo jumbo. But if this is what is passing for “Design Intelligence” in the profession, we are in real trouble.

  2. “…we must do a better job of meeting the needs that owners already have, that we used to meet, and no longer do. Owners’ needs haven’t changed…”

    True, their needs have not changed, but their attitude has. Owners are now far too likely to sue their architects for any perceived failure. This attitude, combined with the skyrocketing costs of construction AND litigation, have forced architects to simplify their risk by limiting their services. We no longer are the Master Builder, because that entity can be too easily sued out of existence. I lament this condition, but it is not without merit. Ultimately, the Owners lose, because they are now paying far more fees to far too many people who are all desperately trying to be responsible for as little as possible. This results in less collaboration, less teamwork, reduced quality, increased risk of litigation, delays, etc…. It is lamentable, but the Owners have done it to themselves.

    • Actually the amount of suits involving architects don’t amount to a hill of beans compared with the risks and litigation that involves the contractor. The notion that it is the Owners who have become needlessly litigious is a easy story to sell. In my view, this is a good myth for architects to tell themselves. In point of fact, owners and their risk management teams are much more knowledgeable about the real issues at stake and the problems associated with a culture of litigation and are trying explicitly to find ways to decrease the overall costs. This can only happen if they find mechanisms by which parties are willing to take on the responsibility/risk of really delivering the outcomes owners want and need to pay a requisite higher amount to those willing to bear the risk. Architects have abandoned this and replaced it with a desperate craving for cultural prestige. The market for the latter is not only tiny, but rarely concerns itself with delivering real value. The real question would be why don’t architects work to find ways to bear the risks and make more money?

      The anecdotal vilification of various parties that confirms one’s own bias should be avoided. It is common knowledge in the construction industry that architects have virtually no knowledge of the risk issues in construction. This is not at all surprising given the complete absence of any real education about risk and the culture of blaming a “benighted society” of money-grubbing contractors and oh-so-easily duped owners for not recognizing the architect’s immense value to society. This is the tired old myth that is taught in architecture school about the unappreciated artists that give so much for society and are never recognized. Architects have for some inexplicable reason decided that a profession based on greater knowledge is inconvenient and should be replaced with a profession based on minimal knowledge of the hard sciences and actual critical thinking. It is in the realm of critical thinking that secifiers are the real masters since they must always be skeptical of themsleves, and the common solution. Only with skepticism comes any critical thinking. I do not share the confidence that architects are educated in any of the big picture ideas enough to be helpful either in the real world or in difficult conversations about ethics and aesthetics becasue architects lack the capacity for skepticism and are rewarded for the opposite. There are good architects out there (I am blessed to know a number of these) but the exceptions cannot make the profession. By its very nature a profession is judged by the expectaion in qualtiy of the “average” practitioner.

      For everyone in the profession that talks collaboration and openness to ideas, I would suggest that architects learn about real estate, economics, insurance, pro formas, and real risk issues. It is hard to collaborate when you have little idea what the other guy knows or thinks. Anyone reading a self-help book can go on about collaboration, etc. It takes real courage to look skeptically at ones own assumptions. One assumption to start with for architects would be: how exactly is it that architects have special powers to see the nature of reality and what society should be when they are trained so perfunctorily in the sciences and the humanities. In fact, the even deeper question is how can anyone, no matter how much they “think” or “do” can come to know the nature of reality or the proper future path of society. Architecture is not the master profession anymore than medicine or business or law. It should avoid the common mistakes made in these other professions of assuming the status of the proper lens to see the world.

      A couple of courses doesn’t a scholar make, let alone someone who can tell others about the nature of society and the future form of the built environment.

      In my view, this sort of self-pity in the profession doesn’t help anyone. It has for me the eerie and familiar form of the apocalyptic tone often employed in previous professional twilights such as the painters lament against photography or Freudian psychiatry against the coming of a psychiatric treatment based on neurophysiology. If architecture doesn’t want to follow in the path of these earlier “disciplines,” it should demand more from itself and the profession, not less. In this case less is not more, more is more and a hell of a lot harder to pull off. Architecture is at a crossroads, just as chiropractic was several years ago when they had to decide if the path to follow was to acknowledge medical reality or to hew to the ideology of the “spinal alignment” as the true solution of medical problems. I hope architecture is now mature enough to refocus on the sobering reality of creating a profession, like medicine to which it is often compared, that is both a science and an art form.

  3. Liz: I just read Sheldon’s blog post (per Nathan’s comment above) and largely agree with his statements as well as yours. On the other hand, while it may be a reality that it is a select group of architects who actually design, I still think the unique skills associated with a design education give all architects an advantage. More to the point, it is the problem-solving, synthesizing, and big-picture view we bring to projects that may be our greatest assets. I’d hate to see us abandon wholesale those core competencies in favor of other essential skill sets out of fear that we’re losing relevancy or market share.

    I also agree with what Annie Nominous says (gee, I wonder if that’s a real name!). I may be pollyann-ish and prone to spouting more “mumbo-jumbo” than a management consultant, but I do hope owners (and everyone else) come to realize that increased collaboration, more teamwork, and a wilingness to explore new ideas can lead to better buildings, improved quality, and a much reduced need for litigation.

    I’ve jumped into the ring with this debate; read my blog post here:

    • All, Randy’s post (link above) is great. Below, I’ve copied my comment on his post:


      This is a really excellent post.

      The problem-solving aspect of our profession is the reason I wanted to become an architect. (I was weak in the artistic facet and weak in the technical facet… and have gravitated to the technical side in mid-career, as a spec writer.)

      Architects are the best qualified people to be the “critical thinkers about the built environment” (as you put it so well). We are supposed to be able to see the “small pictures” and the “big pictures” – most of us know the details of how buildings get put together, and also consider urban and regional planning issues when we design individual buildings. Both aspects (the “forest” and the “trees”) are important to the built environment.

      AND – we can’t effectively communicate our solutions unless we have some background in critical thinking. Some people are lucky to have been raised in thoughtful households, in which they grew up naturally discussing, arguing, listening to, and considering new ideas. Others are lucky to have been required to take college classes in sociology or philosophy or theology or really good literature classes. (I was lucky in the second way – I’m hoping my kids will be lucky in both ways.)

      Critical thinking abilities seem to be disappearing as people voluntarily get their news from more and more concentrated and polarized sources, and fewer universities emphasize a liberal arts education (in favor of more concentrated, career-focused courses).

      I’m getting off track here… but thanks for jumping into the discussion!

  4. Although this statement may be another oversimplified, knowledge is power in the real world! Most owners couldn’t care less about the juxtaposition of this to that or the dichotomy of something else in relationship to the whosy-whatsit! What owners care about is having a functional, well designed, cost effective building to fulfill their needs (or at least the majority of them), now and for many years to come.

    I agree with much of what has been said. Why should owners take the practioners of architecture seriously when it seems we can’t accomplish anything without a seemingly endless list of consultants? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not say we should design our own structural or mechanical or electrical systems. But for God’s sake people, when architects need code consultants, elevator consultants, building envelope consultants and others to consult on what used to be core competencies of an architect, it’s not hard to see why owners do not hold our profession in very high esteem! Why should they? And why should we wonder why they want us to compete for work based on fees?

    And of course as others have discussed, the schools of Architecture seem to fail miserably at preparing graduates to enter the real world with any real relevant skills. But they sure can design a pretty building that Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Larry Ellison combined couldn’t afford to build! They can also expound ad nauseum about some obscure architectural style from the 16th century that they have incorporated into the details of the entrance, but have no idea how it can be built, let alone formulate half of a phrase about what materials would be used to build it. I think I had learned more about building science, construction and materials & methods after the second semester of my Canadian college education in architectural technology than most university educated Masters of Architecture grads do after 6 or 7 years of post-secondary education. Granted, I still had a lot to learn after graduation, but my learning curve was much shorter than that of any architecture grad I have ever worked with.

    Why else do our colleagues come running to us “grudging curmedgeons” (a term for us rational specifiers borrowed from the much appreciated aforementioned Mr. Wolfe) whenever their butts are in the fire? Because we have the knowledge to pull it out before it gets totally burnt to a crisp! Why do they listen to us when we point out the flaws in their details? Why do they call the consultants when we point out glaring coordination errors? Because we concern ourselves with looking at the whole project, not just the “pretty bits”. We have to in order to perform our jobs well and to the best of our abilities.

    The devil is indeed in the details. Knowledge is power!!!

    Now all we have to do is convince the rest of our profession that this is in fact true and resolve the issue.

  5. Pingback: Revitalization + Reinvention « AIA-SWO's 2012 site (BETA)

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