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The End of the Architecture Firm? August 27, 2011

Posted by randydeutsch in BIM, IPD, software architects, survival, technology.
Tags: , , , ,

I don’t often mention my work in building information modeling and integrated project delivery in this blog.

Because that is what my other blog is for.

But this, I felt, is just too important not to mention.

Next week my BIM book finally ships.

What’s important is that In the book is a series of in-depth interviews with some serious VIPs in our industry discussing BIM and the collaborative work processes enabled by the technology.

One of my interviews is with Kristine K. Fallon FAIA of Kristine Fallon Associates, providing information technology consulting and services related to design and construction.

In the interview, I asked her three questions about her current concerns:

  • One about her business.
  • One about the construction industry.
  • And one about the architecture profession.

Her responses to the first two questions were insightful and intelligent.

Her response to the question concerning the architecture profession blew me away.

Completely took me by surprise.

And stopped me cold.

Let’s start with question one:

What would you say is the #1 concern for you and your business right now?

Kristine K. Fallon (KF): To be on the leading edge of the technology curve. We work very hard to be ahead of the rest of the industry. There’s no real roadmap for doing that. I worry about whether we’re identifying good technology directions and quickly galloping up the learning curve and getting good at these technologies before they’re in big demand. I actually have an incredibly vast, international network of contacts. A lot of the leading edge stuff isn’t particularly published – it’s in people’s heads or buried somewhere. Not stuff you can Google. So you have to go to the people. That’s why I am so active in so many organizations. That and staying in touch with people – it’s something I got used to doing very early in my career.

What would you say is the #1 concern for the construction industry as whole?

KF: I see the potential for the agglomeration – for the contractors getting absorbed into a couple big firms. That said – for all my championing of change – I enjoy the industry as it is. I love the fact that you work with different people, personalities and teams. I find that really invigorating.

What would you say is the #1 concern for the architecture profession?

KF: There’s a good chance that the architecture firm will go away. At this point, in England, I hear that the architects mostly work for the contractors. At that point – why have a firm? What is the role of the architecture firm? There’s certain training, skills, capabilities and qualities that architects do bring that engineers and contractors don’t bring. There’s a role for those skills and capabilities. As for being able to rely on the architect’s model for construction documents – if architects drag their feet for much longer about that, people will find a way to do without architecture firms. Because it’s just such a stupid waste of time. People will perceive firms as adding absolutely no value. You want an architect on your team somewhere to come up with creative ideas and solve problems. But why would you need an architecture firm?

[The full interview – it’s a great interview – can be found in Chapter 3 of my new book, BIM and Integrated Design.]

Now it is your turn:

Do you agree that there’s a good chance that the architecture firm will go away?

What is the purpose of having an architecture firm today, as opposed to independent architects?

Do you believe that architecture firms continue to provide value? If so, what kind?

And how is this value different from the value an independent architect brings to a team or project?

Please let me know by leaving a comment.



1. Tara Imani, AIA, CSI (@Parthenon1) - August 27, 2011

Hi Randy,
Excellent blogpost once again. I held on to every word Kristine Fallon, FAIA, had to say. I think she made an important distinction in her response to your third question- that while she foresees a continued need for architects’ skills, not necessarily a sustained need for architecture firms.

Collective sigh of relief from all of us who feel uniquely wired to be architects. It’s refreshing to be reminded of the specific skills architects bring to the project compared to engineers and contractors.

You’d asked if we think there will be a need for firms? Yes, I do. Why? Because, as an architect, I need a sounding board of like-minded fellow architects with which to share and bounce ideas. I don’t think we work well in a vacuum. Unlike artists, we function best in a collaborative studio, imho.

If traditional firms give way to the huge conglomerates, I think the powers that be may find architects will be most productive and effective working in ateliers, or mini design studios.

That’s my two cents.

Looking forward to reading others’ responses and to buying your book.

P.S. I spent the day organizing my home office and my husband helped me hang some arch’l renderings I’d done years ago in high school. It was fun. Last night, I’d been reading Suburban Sprawl and thinking back on the history of recent architectural education, thought and practice. I wonder how firms will keep up with the rapidly changing technology Ms. Fallon speaks of. Our profession seems somewhat apathetic and unprepared- or unwilling- to act fast enough.

randydeutsch - August 28, 2011

Thanks Tara. The need for firms as a “sounding board of like-minded fellow architects” to bounce ideas off of is a great insight.

2. JOHN EYNON. - August 28, 2011

HI Randy

A comment from across the pond!

There is a lot of navel gazing going on over here about architects, but then again its been going on for years.

Currently probably most our larger scale work is delivered through contractor led teams, but i think thats as much to do with market forces as with customer drivers. People know they can get a really good deal at the moment and put all the risk on the contractor – give it 12 months the pendulum will start to swing back!

But I think this isn’t just about architects – the beauty of iBIM is that when we’ve fully worked it through as an industry, the traditional roles will blur and change. The tribal boundaries will shift because they have to, for survival.

A fully integrated BIM solution could enable new players to enter the market.

I think we will see much more emphasis on solutions for customers, and the facilitators to enable those solutions.

This new breed of facilitators will come from all sorts of backgrounds.
Even entrepreneurs with no history in the industry. With the right iBIM and supply chain, lots of things are possible.

And one more thing, this will go even further, transforming education for the built environment – the cost of education now,the relevance of courses, and the oversupply of graduates who take 5 years to become effective, will put this under focus. The educational establishments and the institutes will come under increasing pressure for change.

I think something has to give, and I dont think it will take too long!



randydeutsch - August 28, 2011

Excellent point, John, about our traditional roles changing with our perceived (and real) boundaries blurring.

I also like what you have to say about the “new breed of facilitators” and hope to post on this very point in the near future. Thanks for visiting and chiming in!

3. Joshua Lloyd - August 28, 2011

Not many people see the value in an architecture firms or architects anymore. They are always trying to find ways to get their project done without one, no matter the size of the project. If the traditional architecture firm is going to survive, it needs to offer more services. I have been saying for years, we need to take back the role of master builder.

I also hate to say it, but we did this to ourselves long ago. As a profession the architecture industry did not communicate to the general public the importance of an architects role. When a potential client wants to have something built, architects should be the first thing on their mind. However it is not, they contact contractors first, at that point we are a team player, not a team leader.

randydeutsch - August 28, 2011

I agree that many clients see working with an architecture firm as a necessary evil. But these very clients often look for ways to work-around architects as well.

As for the architect-as-master-builder, I and several others discuss both sides of the argument in my book, and come to a pretty powerful answer for the profession


4. Anne Whitacre - August 28, 2011

I think a lot of the need for architects comes down to the quality of the relationship between client and architect. Firms often talk about how much work they have to market for and how much work is based on long term client relationships. In some firms, that long-term work can be 70% (or more) of the office work load. An architect does other things than “just design buildings” (or remodels) — they can help with property analysis; reconfigure existing space; help project useability trends in space; provide geographic analysis; help promote a client brand. When part of the client brand is that they always use Calatrava or SOM or ZGF as part of their design process, then the selection of the contractor becomes secondary.
I have often said that the production of the project manual is the “least important thing” that I do — its the conversations about bid strategy and construction process that is my real service. From the design side, I would also suggest that the design documents are the “least important” aspect of the architectural profession and that the analysis that goes into those documents is the true service the owner is paying for. Contractors don’t perform those services — at least not yet.

randydeutsch - August 28, 2011

Thanks Anne. It sounds like everything you describe can be performed by individual design professionals – whether designers or not.

Based on what you describe, do you feel there is a need for firms per se?

Anne Whitacre - August 28, 2011

Didn’t the AIA once say that some large percentage of “member firms” were 5 people or fewer?
I think it depends on the service you’re providing whether you need a “firm” or not. Very few people have the full complement of skills in order to do the tasks that I described — and that is even less possible if you are dealing with a client in multiple locations. I think when you scale up the project size, there simply isn’t any way for a project to be done by anything but a firm. The tasks become too specialized and the scope of work too large for any one person to do everything on a project.
I like large, complicated projects, and part of that means that they have to be done by large complicated teams of people with specialized design and technical skills. The logistics of putting out a large architectural project are much different than the logistics of performing the same construction project. And, I have found that the best of these projects works when the contractor and the architect (teams) understand that they bring different skills to the table and those skills are not the same but that they reinforce each other.
Like any other team, these work the best when the people are together on a regular basis, understand how to work with teach other, and also to push each other to do better work. A single person is always limited by the things they know and know how to do. Firms can maximize someone past those limitations and make easier to push past them.

5. Bruce Bondy - August 28, 2011

I look forward to having your book in my hands. I suspect you discuss this topic at length.

Close to 20 years ago I went to a lecture by Frank Gehry at the Art Institute of Chicago. He told a story about working in Japan. The client was enthralled with his “napkin sketches”. As construction was completed he was surprised to realize that they were done ahead of schedule and the project was slightly under budget. He went to Japan for the final punch list walk through and he couldn’t find ANYTHING wrong. The builder then asked him if they could sit down with him and review their list of suggestions as to how his design could be improved in the future. As Gehry described the system in Japan (and forgive me, I’m not an architect) the construction documents were prepared by the builder’s in house architects. This certainly was a different model than the American system.

I have to believe that the more successful firms will be those that find a way to integrate and align engineering, architecture, and construction management. Who will lead those efforts?

randydeutsch - August 28, 2011

Great story – I had not heard that before. Thank you for sharing.

And as for your excellent question: “Who will lead those efforts?”

While I do address this very question in my book, if it is to be the architect who is going to lead, now is the time to step up.

6. Anne Whitacre - August 28, 2011

And if I may bring up Gehry again, it was clear while working for him, that he thought it was important the that architect be “the adult” on the project team — that is, the person who guided the effort, integrated the efforts of the owner and contractor, and helped push the project to completion. One thing that office did (which I never saw anyone else do) is that they scrutinized the contractor’s numbers, did an extraordinary amount of research about construction techniques, researched change orders and contractor questions and met them at the table. That was the first office I ever worked for that didn’t “fold” when the contractor tried to change something on the job. we rejected probably as many change order requests as we accepted. Contractors often have the upper hand on projects because they control the dollars on the projects. Architects can claim their case at the table by controlling the information — and that means being ahead of the project, not always trailing the project completion.

randydeutsch - August 29, 2011

Fabulous insights Anne. Thank you!

Reminds me of the saying, “trust, but verify.” By scrutinizing the data the architect controls the information. Beautifully put.

Robin Willcox - September 4, 2011

Would you elaborate on that research process a bit? As a recent grad, it would be a useful skill for me to develop and bring to a firm. Where would you go to research construction techniques – books? other projects by that contractor? It is especially interesting that that experience came from Gehry’s office – I had the impression his work often required new construction technology, where there wouldn’t be easy precedents to explore….

7. Ramone (@fishandchips47) - August 29, 2011

fyi tongue in cheek post – in mid 90’s Fluor Daniel Wright ran an in-house workshop titled “What do Architects do?”for their own department. Over in HVAC we thought it a darned good question lol

8. Rea Jackson - August 31, 2011

I understand here in Chicago there was a seminar conducted by AIAChicago last week that has been asking similar questions. I did not attend however a close friend of mine did and the bottom line seemed to be the following:
1) Most small shops are now (d)evolving to one or two man operations where everything is outsourced including the drawings. The architect only ‘manages’ the process – the office has gone bye bye as overhead has needed to go bye bye as well.
2) General consensus is if you as a firm are hanging on by a thread or you currently find yourself outta work best to find something else to do as the market will not be ‘normal’ again and the work load is to remain depressed until at least 2017!!!
3)Everything is being processed electronically now – the reason so much is now outsourced.
Hope this helps.

9. John Robison - September 2, 2011

I haven’t had a chance to read all the comments but I’m sure this is bound to be a great discussion!

Randy, this is the direction our conversation was heading when wrapping up your “Overcoming real and perceived obstacles to IPD” at the RTC a few months ago. Remember that? Things were really starting to heat up over the topic and I completely agree with CF on this one.

Can’t wait to come back to this when I have a few minutes and see where the conversation takes us…

randydeutsch - September 2, 2011

Hey John,

I do remember the post-presentation discussion being pretty heated. Blogs generally are much safer environments for discussing cross-disciplinary topics such as this ; )

That said – you had some pretty compelling points to make. Perhaps this would be a good place on to clear the air, so to speak? Fire away…

Thanks for stopping by and for chiming-in,


10. Roland A Arriaga AIA (@Archi_Di) - September 2, 2011

I completely agree with architects taking control of the construction process after design. It is what it is and most beneficial for both the architect and client. Let us not forget – that is why we were called “master builders” 150 years ago. It’s time to reclaim our position in the industry.

11. randydeutsch - September 2, 2011

Thank you for all of your comments – all very enlightening. Would love to see this discussion continue perhaps in a wider venue.

For LinkedIn ARCHITECT group members, there is a pretty heated discussion taking place that references this blog post.

You can find it here http://www.linkedin.com/groupItem?view=&gid=1507177&type=member&item=68135327&qid=dc1294be-2453-43b6-bb8c-639b8e167ef1&trk=group_most_popular-0-b-cmr&goback=%2Egmp_1507177

12. Architects 2Zebras Top 10 Posts for 2011 « Architects 2Zebras - December 31, 2011

[…] The End of the Architecture Firm? […]

13. David Scheer - September 5, 2012

As architects we need to be clear about what we bring to the design and construction process. Everybody is creative in some way and everybody solves problems. Architects are unique in that we learn to consider such things as esthetics, history and social effects of the built environment in our design work. We bring a different set of values to building (although we are prone to hiding our light under a bushel), without which it becomes a purely technical and financial exercise. Many are fine with that, and BIM (as implemented so far) nudges us in that direction. As architects, we must first clarify for ourselves what we do and then find ways of making others care about it. BIM, IPD and other developments in the building industry are changing the ground under our feet so that the traditional supports of the value of architecture will not serve us any more. We need to understand these changes and find ways to bring our values to the process so that they will be effective in the new environment. This is an enormous challenge, the likes of which we have never faced before. We will have to get outside of our comfort zone. One key problem is that we no longer understand our tools. So far, we have been passive consumers. We need to understand them in depth, which means that some of us, at least, will have to delve into programming so as to be able to adapt the tools to our specific needs and have informed conversations with software developers. There are many other issues to confront
As far as the future of the firm goes, architects need to maintain their autonomy to be effective. The one with the gold makes the rules- if we work for contractors, they will dictate how we work. That may be a practical solution from an owner’s perspective, but it will promote the idea that design is quantitative optimization. Good luck creating architecture under those rules.

14. architect - November 3, 2012

the future : architecture without clients

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