Who Needs An Architect, Anyway?

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Southeast False Creek is designed as a mixed-use community with a focus on residential housing – the 2010 Olympic Village is at its core. Photo by John Murphy.

Southeast False Creek in Vancouver is designed as a mixed-use community with a focus on residential housing – the 2010 Olympic Village is at its core. Photo by John Murphy.

On Jan. 5, 2012, there appeared an article in the New York Times written by Catherine Rampell that is often seen as the day enrollment dipped in collegiate architecture degree enrollments around the U.S.  Cause and effect? I will let you be the judge. However, I am going to take this opportunity to voice my objection to the overindulgent presentation of survey results to the possible detriment of higher education production of future architects, and arguably therefore the future built environment.  The article in question blatantly states:

… Don’t major in architecture.

Since the Times’ article was published, according to the National Architectural Accrediting Board website, national architecture enrollments in pre-professional programs have dropped 8.5 percent, and first time enrolled students in accredited professional programs dropped 12 percent between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 academic years.  While there are other variables influencing decisions on whether or not to enroll in a discipline, many would contend that there has been some negative response in enrollment attributable to the Times’ article.  Be that as it may, let’s look at “the rest of the story.”

Is there a need for architects?  Well, according to a study by Virginia Tech University’s Professor Arthur C. Nelson that was published by the Brookings Institution on Dec. 10, 2004:

In 2030, about half of the buildings in which Americans live, work, and shop will have been built after 2000.  Most US states and metropolitan areas have some idea as to the amount of growth they expect over the next several decades, based on estimates of projected demographic, household, market and industry trends.

What does that mean exactly? Well, assuming a simple linear relationship from a baseline of 2000, by 2030 another Chicago will be built, another San Antonio will be built, another Los Angeles will be built, another New York City will be built, etc. Reinforcing this statistical forecast, a City of San Antonio Planning Department presentation several years ago stated that the population in San Antonio is projected to increase by over a million people by the year 2030.

That sounds like need to me.

And yet, some people will ask, why do we need architects to address this need?  Why not let engineers lead the way?  How about planners?  One has to understand the contributions and actual education and training of an engineer versus an architect to properly develop an opinion on this issue. In addition, while urban planners also play a large role in many aspects of the future built environment need, the architect is truly the most prepared person to lead in a context of designing an individual property within the context of the overall built environment.

A much valued and needed engineer – and I have many respected friends who are engineers – is trained to design certain aspects of the built environment (eg. civil structures, electrical systems, mechanical systems, electronic systems, biomedical systems, etc.). However, an architect is trained in a much more broad-based set of relevant global considerations.  An architect is by and large a broad-based problem solver.  Many people believe that an architect simply designs for aesthetics.  Sometimes, designers push the envelope with aesthetics, and many times it is effective.  

Manchester Civil Justice Centre. Designed by architectural firm Denton Corker Marshall. Photo by John Murphy.

Manchester Civil Justice Centre. Designed by architectural firm Denton Corker Marshall. Photo by John Murphy.

However, throughout a design process an architect should be considering many things beyond sheer aesthetics:

  • Appropriate placement in a natural setting
  • Urban fabric
  • Historic significance/preservation
  • Social norms
  • Cultural considerations
  • Traffic flow (vehicle, pedestrian, and alternative transportation)
  • Future population changes
  • Projected future change of use/adaptability
  • Local materials
  • Dwindling water supplies
  • Maintainability
  • Electrical service capacity
  • Weather
  • Environmental quality
  • Technological advances in building systems
  • Structural applications of materials
  • Life safety
  • Environmental systems
  • Natural stressors (seismic, hurricane/wind loading, snow loads, etc.)
  • Local craft capabilities

And, yes:

  • Sustainability

Nelson’s forecast is only for 2030. What about the ramifications of how we design today upon those occupying the planet after 2030? How we grow our built environment must be led in a way that considers many variables, but, most importantly, we must grow in a sustainable way.

That sounds like need to me.

Creekside cabin in Lake District, United Kingdom. Photo by John Murphy.

Creekside cabin in Lake District, United Kingdom. Photo by John Murphy.

So, where do architects get the necessary education and training to serve our future needs as indicated above? There was a time many years ago when, like other disciplines, there were set apprenticeship processes for one to become an architect and/or master. Before the early 19th century we see the discipline of architecture by and large reserved for the aristocrats.

It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that some US colleges began to include architecture programs, and not until the early 20th century that testing for licensure was instituted by states.  These collegiate programs, referred to in the Times’ article as those in which one should not enroll, are the pipelines for this future profession.  Yet, as is normally the case, there is a learning period after college graduation which the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards refers to as the Intern Development Plan, which is a period during which upcoming architects are mentored and further trained in all the areas of responsibility associated with the profession.

View from atop St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Photo by John Murphy.

View of Paternoster Square, redeveloped in 2003, from atop St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Photo by John Murphy.

So, saying that we do not need people in our college programs based upon employment statistics from 2009-10 census data (remember the economic dark days of 2009?) as was the case in the Times’ article would seem to be an overly simplistic and short-sighted view of societal needs.  Yes, the market in 2009 was down and existing architects were being laid off in many areas. However, true need in a context of six to seven years out (college with IDP) should be considered before advising young prospective college students regarding career choices.

Perhaps our existing architecture students should be thanking the author of the Times’ article.

According to supply and demand theories, cohorts of architecture students beginning in 2013 and 2014 should see increased opportunities upon graduation and entering the profession in five to six years due to an anticipated unmet need for architectural services. Many collegiate architectural programs in the U.S. today have strong community engagement, service learning components to reinforce the role, and assistance that the architecture profession provides to the community and society at large.  Every person on the planet has live, work, and play needs that involve the built environment.  That sounds like need to me.

So, who needs an architect?

You do. I do. We do.

Sustainable design: LEED Gold certified building in Auburn, Alabama. Photo by John Murphy.

Sustainable design: LEED Gold certified building in Auburn, Alabama. Photo by John Murphy.

*Featured/top image: Southeast False Creek in Vancouver is designed as a mixed-use community with a focus on residential housing – the 2010 Olympic Village is at its core. Photo by John Murphy.

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3 thoughts on “Who Needs An Architect, Anyway?

  1. I definitely agree with all the points made in this article.
    Too many boring and frequently ugly buildings are being built. Too few are built for sustainability. Too few have sustainable and aesthetically pleasing landscaping.

  2. This sustainable design fad must end with a different movement that emphasizes geological and geophysical engineering concepts and utilize other technological advancements to create structures that conform to changing landscapes and adapt to changing climates.

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