Designing Our Way Forward

I recently reviewed some of the documentation we produced last year while searching for a new team member for our design firm. As part of the exercise, we asked our shortlisted candidates to submit questions to us, and we shared our answers with all candidates during that phase of the search (which they found refreshing and interesting).

One of the questions put to us was about the downturn of 08 and 09, and how we saw ourselves going forward as a firm. In rereading it this week, I find our answer as apt as ever, so I thought I’d share it.

The recent uncertainty of our economy affected everyone …….

what would you say are the significant strengths, challenges, opportunities

and threats your firm faces within the next five years

and what strategic plans have been set to address them?

My answer at the time, and even now, is this.

I believe the strength we have, as a profession and particularly as a design firm, is our ability to think strategically and see possibilities for relationships and integration that others may not see. Others are trained differently, and often concentrate on a linear, causal linking of things rather than striving for non-linear, integrated relationships. I think the future is bright for our profession, and for design as a way of creating solutions. To succeed, however, we must pursue the opportunities where they arise, and expand the types of projects and situations where our skills can be brought to bear. Since our firm enjoys learning in all its forms, I think we are suited to this.

Our indebted and unsustainable society needs solutions that are integrated, that balance priorities rather than accomplish them individually, and that can make 3 out of 1 and 1 more than ever. Our resources will get scarcer and we will realize that wasteful solutions in whatever field, and solutions that simply pass along problems to others, no longer be sustained. I think we are well-placed to use our skills, as long as they can be appreciated in the marketplace for the value they have. Everyone values product, but great processes are not always supported willingly. We have to make a living to be able to continue offering service.

Architects love what they do, and price themselves very cheaply. We often fight over the work and undercut one another on fees. We really enjoy and believe in what we do, so sometimes we give it away. That’s an enormous problem. The profession often overpromises and constantly overdelivers on important project issues that the client may not even be aware of, while potentially underdelivering on some significant and obvious issues. Think of how consumers buy a house. It’s not usually for the great (or not so great) but unseen construction. It’s often for the skin deep finishes. The appearance of quality can be different from real, longlasting value, but the architect has to deliver them both. Our project role is very central and we are often imposed upon by all sides in the construction equation, from contractor to owner to authority to technical subconsultants. Economic downturns cause everyone in the project chain to cut things even closer to the bone, and cause clients to look for the cheapest way forward in the short term. Those two actions don’t make for longlasting, sustainable buildings and cities of quality.

Our strategy is to consistently seek opportunities (whether in building projects, urban projects, development, or even object and graphic design) that allow us to demonstrate the value of “thinking better, to build better, to enjoy the benefits”. Our clients work hard, and appreciate the indepth understanding that they get from rolling up their sleeves alongside us. The pool of activities that architects are involved with is so small that we are better off pursuing projects at the pool’s edge, and enlarging the pool, than fighting over the contents of the present pool. Our strategies are hopefully tuned to do that.

What are your experiences in the face of these challenges? We’d love your feedback.

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