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Architects opine on economy, Industry, civic responsibility

Architects Opine On Economy, Industry, Civic Responsibility

"Architects really are the canaries in the coal mine, when it comes to the economy" -- Greg Meeder, CBC program chair.

"Architects really are the canaries in the coal mine, when it comes to the economy" -- Greg Meeder, CBC program chair.

by ROB McMANAMY | Oct 20, 2015

For a city as proud of its architecture as Chicago is, it really is saying something to sense that the design profession is getting unusual amounts of attention this fall. Two weeks ago, the Chicago Architecture Biennial launched its three-month-long celebration of "The State of the Art of Architecture", and just this past weekend, BuiltWorlds, itself, was honored to be a stop for Open House Chicago, the Chicago Architecture Foundation's annual 48-hour whirlwind tour of 200 notable local structures.

Before all that even started, however, the Chicago Building Congress convened a more focused event, ostensibly on the economy, but it offered insights arguably even more relevant to the AEC community. Of course, the theme of CBC's fall luncheon, Economic Summit: The Architect's Perspective, may have initially struck some as incongruous.

Architects? Aren't they the team members who always want to spend more money on every project, regardless of the bottom line? Au contraire! That's just a stereotype put forth by those penny-pinching, miserly contractors obsessed with bottom lines and razor-thin margins.

Ok, well, those terms evoke another stereotype that may or may not be true. But event moderator, construction attorney Greg Meeder reminded the audience why we all would do well to listen to what designers have to say. As the team members usually closest to the project owner, "architects really are the canaries in the coal mine, when it comes to economy," he said.

Serious, but optimistic: From left, Gensler's Johnson, SCB's Lahey, and JGMA's Moreno. (Photos by Barb Krause, CBC)

Serious, but optimistic: From left, Gensler's Johnson, SCB's Lahey, and JGMA's Moreno. (Photos by Barb Krause, CBC)

"Actually, we usually send our interns in," dead-panned panelist Lamar Johnson, Midwest managing director for San Francisco-based design giant Gensler. "Overall, we're currently faced with that persistent question: Is the glass half empty or half full? I will say this, though. Chicago currently has a lower debt rating than Detroit. So we have to take this seriously and fix our pension problems." 

By "this", Johnson was referring to the ongoing impasse between the governor and the legislature that has now left the State of Illinois without an operating budget for months.

Still, as sobering as that fact is, the state budget standoff represented virtually the only discordant note in an otherwise optimistic discussion of an industry that still finds itself surging on a national upswing of investment and development. (Afterward, one recent business development hire for a large commercial builder based outside Chicago told me that he had just been let go. The reason? "They said they already had too much work, so they didn't need more business development in the field!" he confided.)

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 one recent hire told me he had just been let go by his firm. Why? "They said they already had too much work, so they didn't need more business development in the field!"

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In apparent agreement that the national economy seems on a steady course for now, the architects panel often found itself discussing broader topics like population, millennial work force trends and the demographics of future cities. "The urbanization of America has really been a boon for our profession," noted John Lahey, president and chairman of architect Solomon Cordwell Buenz. "People everywhere want 24-hour cities now, places to be all day long, and that's a long-term phenomenon that will benefit our industry. We see this in Chicago, San Francisco, Austin, Denver. People are moving back into cities and they are looking for that balance of live-work-play."

As a result, urban neighborhoods and apartments "are now all about community and interaction," noted Lahey. "In the past, the emphasis used to be on privacy. Now, it's really about lifestyle."

Perkins + Will's Berndt

Perkins + Will's Berndt

That sense of community even applies to project teams, where "more and more owners want that team now," added Gina Berndt, managing director of Perkins + Will. "So, we are actually seeing more design-build work, which is indicative of those partnerships." 

Of course, there are still limits, both real and imagined, within those closer contractual relationships. "Giving up design is really impossible for a designer, even in a design-build situation," noted Ann Beha, FAIA, principal with Boston-based Ann Beha Architects

Boston's Ann Beha

Boston's Ann Beha

One reason design-build may not always seem natural, she explained, is that  designers have historically been taught to take the broader view, beyond any one project. "We do have an obligation to think about what we are leaving behind with the work that we do," Beha contended. Her advice to current and future practitioners? "Be responsible," she said.

And be good to yourself, too, Johnson added. "Fees are compressing nowadays, so we have to challenge ourselves to see the value that we provide, and frankly, ask for more," he said. 

And if design-build, single-source contracts continue to grow, "we have to be willing to give our designs away, as long as we are able to get a cut of the value that we create," he said. And that will make architects involved more in the entire process. "When we get skin in the game, I am intensely aware of how it's going," noted Johnson.

Young people today will work as hard as any that I have ever seen. But they won’t work as hard if you don’t treat them well.
— John Lahey, chairman, SCB

Of course, sometimes there are too many parties who believe they have skin in the game when the process might really benefit more from their absence. Enter politics. After all, this is Chicago.

"You meet the owner's objectives, you are pleased, and everything seems on track, and then an alderman gets involved," said Juan Moreno, president and founder of Juan Gabriel Moreno Architects (JGMA). "The amount of [expletive deleted] that we have to go through sometimes to get a design approved and a project built is a real problem. Something is wrong with that system."

Despite its deep roots in the industrial growth of cities worldwide, such monkey business (see the history of graft, bribes, kickbacks, mob, etc.) will need to go away if the mammoth needs of tomorrow's swollen urban metropolises are to be met. So our industry will need to adapt if it is to attract and retain the talent level that these challenges will require.

"Young people today will work as hard as any that I have ever seen," noted Lahey. "But they won't work as hard if you don't treat them well. So it's really our culture that has changed more than anything, and many young, emerging companies now work that way."

And those new hires increasingly care more about issues like sustainability and life-work balance. Inherently, that would indicate that they are also less litigious and more collaborative. Which begs the question: Has this golden age of collaboration in which we now dwell not really been fathered by technology, after all? Instead, is it really just evidence of a more evolved next generation of our species?

Hmm, with more bad news flooding our media now than ever before, those really are some surprisingly encouraging questions to be asking. 

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