Thursday, June 14, 2012

5 Things that Architects can learn from Doctors and Lawyers

It's no secret that Architecture is generally thought of as a noble profession.  Along with the idea that you get to create buildings out of thin air is also the responsibility of maintaining a professional license.  Many people consider being an Architect as being on par with Doctors and Lawyers when it comes to stature and salary.  Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.  For years Architects have been engaging in deplorable behavior and the profession has suffered.  During the most recent recession, Architecture had one of the highest unemployment rates among all service professions.  In 2011, the New York Times said that Architecture graduates had the highest unemployment rate above any other field.  Doctors and Lawyers weren't even in the top 50.  So what can we learn from these other professions?  Here's a few of my own observations:

1- Architects need to specialize - If you were drafting a contract to buy a company, you would hire a corporate attorney.  If you were getting a divorce, you would hire a divorce attorney.  It's pretty simple.  Each of these areas of practice have specific skill sets that require attention to details.  Architecture is no different.  Designing a hospital is completely different than designing a fast food restaurant.  Unfortunately, most Architects will take any job that comes their way regardless of their skill set.  This results in more competition (which lowers overall wages) and lower quality buildings.   If Architects focused on a smaller group of practice areas then they could afford to focus on quality and details.  The best Architects of our time are the ones who are really good at a select group of building types. 

2- Architects should focus on regional practice - You won't see many doctors travelling from state to state to do surgeries.  It's not to say that they couldn't (they would have to get licensed by the board of each state).  It's mostly because they don't have to.  They charge enough money for their skills to stay within a fixed region.  Many doctors have affiliations with one or two hospitals that allow them to conduct business on their turf.  They don't have affiliations with 40 hospitals or try to make money on volume.  Architects who become known in a certain region or area tend to become a known entity and therefore have a large referral base.  Trying to practice in too many states or regions often results in producing generic buildings that have no sense of place and therefore devalue local real estate.

3- Architects should refer projects to other Architects - At one point or another everyone has gotten a referral from a doctor to go to a specialist.  Imagine if you specialized in designing pool houses and every time another Architect had a pool house in their project, they called you up?  It would never happen in the Architecture profession.  But it happens every day in the legal and medical professions.   Many of the best firms often partner with other firms that specialize or are local to a project instead of trying to do everything themselves.  Instead of cutting our fees to win every job, we could be sharing the work and raising the wages for everyone.  Which leads me to my next issue.

4- Architects should not be lowering their fees to get work - Recently my dentist told me that I needed a crown and it would be $1200.  I called another dentist and they told me it was also $1200.  Having a pricing standard ensures both a quality of care and guarantee of wage.  My dentist drives a new Mercedes while I have a 6 year old pick up truck.  I think they have the right idea.

5- Architects should be stand their ground with clients - I don't think there is a doctor around that would let a patient operate on themselves.  Most court cases I've seen have the lawyers doing the talking while the client sits by and watches.  Unfortunately in Architecture, many of our clients want to drive.  And of course we let them in the spirit of collaboration.  And while that can be productive in some situations, the bottom line is that you are the licensed professional and it's your name on the line.  At some point Architects need to stand up for themselves and take the reigns back on a project.   If we never do this as a profession, we will continue to end up with developer driven buildings that devalue our communities.  

The unfortunate part about all this is that it will take a uniform effort to make the profession better.  It's all or nothing when it comes to reform that works.  This kind of thing would be perfect for the AIA to work on.  After all, if Architects are specializing in certain areas (and referring work they aren't good at) it means they are doing better work.  And if they are doing better work, then the values in communities start to rise.  If the values in communities start to rise it means that people have more assets.  If people have more assets, they can spend more.  If they can spend more then we can charge more for our services.  And if we can charge more for our services then we can take on fewer projects and do better work.  It's a circle that Doctors and Lawyers know well.  So why don't Architects do it?