contributed by Neil Bletsch [registered architect / LEED AP / visionary]
[March 09, 2010] Let me preface this letter by listing some of my qualifications. I’ve been a registered architect since 1984, I’m a LEED AP, and I’ve had my own practice for ten years. I’ve worked on tiny additions to homes and run projects with budgets that ran close to nine figures. This is not your run-of-the-mill recession. In our industry it’s a depression. The AIA [The American Institute of Architects] refuses to acknowledge that fully 50% of the people who design buildings and their components are out of work, with even more reduced to part-time employment and lost benefits. Yet the AIA does nothing to try to get Washington to create any kind of stimulus that would jumpstart this economy. Lest we all forget, we’re the group that gets the economy rolling by getting homes, schools, hospitals and every other building type initiated. Or do we”
Homes” We’ve given up that responsibility to numerous other occupations over the years – probably because the AIA never fully realized the size or implications of this market, yet many of us have earned our living from this very building type. When was the last time you saw an architect even MENTIONED on any of the home-remodeling shows”
Industrial buildings” We’ve let engineers be able to do this building type.
Renovations” Just about anyone can get a permit in most parts of the country with a hand-drawn sketch or by completing an application.
Interiors” Pretty much anyone can do these as well.
Big multi-building complexes” We’re right there touting our capabilities for a building type that represents a fraction of the overall building budget in the nation.
The remaining building types” Let’s see… We lost the antitrust lawsuit years ago, and we’ve let fees steadily erode, yet scope of services have increased vastly. We’re responsible for accessibility, energy and resource usage, and must learn about some of the most complex computer applications on the planet, yet do we have fee parity with other professions”
It’s about time we stop being compared to engineers and landscape architects and see how we fare compared to physicians, attorneys business managers and accountants: those professions that have a similar affect on our society as a whole.
This profession is broken – severely broken. Yet we have no one to blame but ourselves.
I propose that we take this economic slowdown as a perfect opportunity to rebuild, beginning with the education that leads to entering the profession, as well as what it takes to remain and flourish once we get here. Require that everyone take several business courses at the collegiate level and continuing education of one to two hours annually.
The AIA is blessed with its own economic staff, something no other profession (to my knowledge) has. Let’s use this valuable resource not to track billings – which are somewhat of an indicator of the profession’s health – but also to track RECEIPTS, so we can get a true representation of the state of affairs.
Let’s track employment – a crucial indicator of the health of the profession and the economy overall. Based upon numbers we have collected in the Dallas-Fort Worth area (which is typically one of, if not THE highest employment base in the nation), unemployment here is roughly 50%, not 8 or 17% as reported in the media. Make firms that report data to you back up these numbers with accurate, audited statements.
You have a full time economist, yet we do not have salary parity with any other profession. The perception by the general public (and probably Congress) is that we do. If you’re going to track billing, at least compare it to the Consumer Price Index so that we can at least see where we stack up compared to the overall economy.
Educate the public why it’s in their best interest to have an architect lead every project. Allow firms to pay decent wages and eliminate the sweatshop mentality that exists among many firms. Develop better compensation packages and you’ll probably see a higher caliber of recruit entering design schools as well. Those people are going in droves to other industries where the earning potential is far greater.
Lobby your neighbors in Washington to institute a program not unlike the WPA [Work Projects Administration] that was a direct result of the last great economic hardship faced by this great land of ours. Public perception would certainly improve, as would our infrastructure, transportation, education and everything else we do on a daily basis.
Invent new models for cities and suburbs. Encourage new zoning models that allow for live-work-play spaces. Utilize crumbling center city proximity as an advantage rather than a deficit. Take the blight and replace it as has been done in the south Bronx.
Find some forward thinking people and get them in front of the administration and push for changes in policy and don’t relent until the goals have been met.
Instead of having our resources channeled overseas, focus the talent here where it is desperately needed.
Architecture has become a commodity item. Please see the article regarding I.M. Pei’s Goldman Sachs World Headquarters – where you remind the reader that Pei, as the grandfather of the profession, earns less than the average Goldman Sachs employee. In fact, most real estate brokers earn more than we do for selling our work – a sad commentary on our society’s perception of value.
Acknowledge that 80-90% of your prospective members work in firms of three or fewer people. $763.00 is a ridiculous amount to ask someone to pay to join ANY professional organization – especially one that does not put any additional income in his or her coffers. Ask anyone who is a member, and they’ll give you one of two reasons that they stay a member: for the ability to submit for design awards or that the building trades give you more respect. I just received a dues notice from AISC [American Institute of Steel Construction], and they’ve actually DROPPED dues from $205 to $153.75 due to the current crisis in or industry.
STOP touting the “lower your fee to get into a new type of work mentality” and instead focus on what your expertise can lend to an untried building type with a fresh new approach. We’re strapped enough without giving away services. When I want to work pro bono let me decide when and on what type projects.
Don’t make me compete for work when my associates are pulling the financial rug out from under my feet. I don’t know of a doctor who charges less to offer a new service, and quite frankly – I’d run if one offered a discount. While we’re on the subject – how do physicians publish a “usual and customary” set of fees for every procedure, yet we are taken before the courts in an antitrust lawsuit (which we lost) for publishing a recommended fee schedule”
Stop catering solely to large firms’ interests (which we’ve always figured was most likely because they contribute dues – the format for which is in dire need of restructuring). AIA is the only profession that requires owners to pay fees based upon the number of registered professionals – or at least they did back when I was a member in the 1980’s.
You have watched and sat idly by as designers, draftspersons and others have taken the lion’s share of residential design from us without even so much as a whimper. Campaign for legislation that would require an architect’s seal – not an engineer’s or interior designer’s, on every new and remodeled residence throughout the country.
Before I get off my podium, let me touch on sustainability. We’ve sorely missed the boat, especially in this part of the country [North Texas], where for the most part, we take abundant cheap energy for granted. Recycling is almost non-existent, and excesses abound from 70mph freeways to single pane glazing in speculative retail development.
Lobby to MANDATE energy efficiency as that’s the only way it’s going to become mainstream in this disposable society. LEED is a great beginning, but personally I’d almost welcome an allowable energy allotment per capita; how I get there is my business. If I choose to ignore it, I pay for my excesses.
Perhaps if these measures start to get implemented, we will all see the VALUE of having a professional organization and rejoin” Perhaps then you might not need to furlough staff and lay off 22 people and instead add to employment as well”
Neil Bletsch, RA, LEED AP
EDITOR’S NOTE: The views expressed in this opinion are those of Neil Bletsch. If you would like to respond to Neil, you may either email us at email@example.com or post a comment on P&C’s Facebook Page.