Are Architects Selling Out to Survive?

architect cat

I recently responded to a comment by Anne where she complained,

“…between 12 consultants, the architect sort of figured out the basic shape of the building, and then selected the paint color and showed the interior walls. The roofing consultant, curtainwall consultant, landscape consultant, acoustician, engineers….did the actual building. I’m not entirely sure what the architect did on that job.”


I responded to her by defending architects, and stating that the level of responsibility on large projects exceeds simple design aesthetics by requiring extra diligence to coordinate the respective collaborative components of all consultants. However, upon self-reflection I cannot defend the actions of all architect drones. Architect drones are the reason why developers and contractors “design” the majority of the built environment. Architects design 5% of all structures,1 but only a fraction of that 5% is even thoughtfully designed. Perhaps Frank Gehry was right and “98% of what gets built today is shit.” Unfortunately, many practicing architects are contributing to that 98%.

I went to architecture school with a person who often took pictures of ugly houses and poorly designed objects. He once was taking a picture of an unsightly designed house, when the owner came out and questioned why he was taking pictures. I looked up to people like this, people who continuously wanted a better-built environment. He didn’t care what other people thought; he would tote his camera around his neck, pulling the car over at a whim’s notice to document the design environment. 

However, this guy took a job with a nondescript longstanding architect firm who continuously produces large-scale buildings lacking any design aesthetics.2 Perhaps it was the economy, and he was just happy getting a job, but he adores his current employer and is committed to a senior position within the firm.

Millennials enter the workforce with wide-eyes and believe they can change the world. But after a month of drafting commercial toilet room elevations does one’s creative energy instantly switch from saving the world, to saving the Bonsai in the corner office? 

I have another architecture friend whom began his illustrious career working at a “firm” whose only client was a mattress chain.3 All the stores were implemented inside existing malls; thus the majority of his job involved dealing with municipality code reviews.

As this particular friend honed his craft, he took a “better” job at a competing “firm” and now only works for a client who is a national discount shoe retail chain, doing the exact same mundane job. And he still has never designed anything inspiring.

When did this become architecture?

Architects are slowly becoming irrelevant by their own hand by increasingly shirking responsibilities. Most municipalities currently require an architectural stamp for all commercial projects, but I can foretell a near future where developers will bypass these legally mandated developmental restrictions, thereby further diminishing the relevance of many architects. 

Currently, many projects that require an architect are mostly devoid of innovative thought. These projects, such as schools, hospitals, or military compounds, solely require an architect for overall consultant coordination.4 I can see a new professional degree offered at Universities: Consultant Coordinator. The Consultant Coordinator would “coordinate” all of the consultant drawings; input these drawings and the relevant IBC code information into Revit. And Presto! Hospital designed! With only an architect needed to dictate the radius of interior corners in relationship to happiness levels.5

Architects are no longer regarded as the world’s “master builders”, and we need to start taking back responsibilities to contribute to a better-built environment. Architects need to stop bowing down to a client’s “wants”, but rather design solutions to a client’s “desires.”

The general population views themselves as hobby architects. They think they can just as easily clip images of spaces/materials, and only need an architect to “draft” those pieces together. However, architecture isn’t a product. It’s a service. Architecture is not a Build-A-Bear business. If architects only pieced pre-selected components together, then what is the need of hiring an architect? You would just need to go to the Build-A-House kiosk in the mall, and leave half an hour later with a finished product.

Steve Jobs famously said,

“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

-Steve Jobs


Steve jobs was right, but only within the narrow range of inspirational business models. Architects need to exist within this realm, where creative and talented teams of architects build processes that become demanded. Otherwise, architecture will not survive, unless you want to become a Consultant Coordinator. 


1 This is probably a made up statistic by myself.
2 I would know, after spending 4 years in a prison high school they designed.
3 I don’t want to reveal the name of the mattress chain, but it started with an S.
4 OK. Maybe not solely.
5 The interior designer would even pick the paint colors, not the architect.


  1. The recession seems to have made timid creatures of us Architects within the construction business, and I think you’re correct in that a lot of us have grabbed a job at for the sake of full-time employment and, potentially, at the expense of creative opportunity.

    The ‘Consultant Coordinator’ role is actually one which we could easily stray into forever, and it is something I am personally afraid of. I am good at my job, but I don’t want to look back in 10 years and realise I am just like one of the friends you’ve described.

    So it would be interesting to hear exactly how you propose to avoid this. You talk about designing to client’s “desires” rather than “wants”, but are they not the same thing? And how do we as a profession impose ourselves in such a way that Architects are demanded, when there are now so many specialist consultants who are more than happy to absorb a portion of the client’s fee with a higher level of expertise in their field than we have?

    It’s a competitive industry; what can we timid Architects actually do about it?

    • brady ernst

      Great points Dan,
      The recession has made architects timid, and this has put many younger architects seeking job stability to be happy with just having a paying job. I do not know how to adequately address this, but for the long-term success of the profession – architects need to become more demanded. I view a client’s wants as being a list of programming elements (12′ ceilings throughout, certain square footage of closet space), that architects simply comply to, add previously used construction details, and grab their construction document fee. However, if architects can become bolder, and build to what a client actually desires (bountiful daylit spaces bringing exterior to the interior, perfectly designed spaces to store and display their craft beer hobby), then architects will become THE valued expert, whose opinions enrich people’s lives by perfectly addressing one’s needs, instead of just being a consultant drafting what they want.

      • I see.

        What you’re describing as designing to client’s “desires” is what we imagined we would be doing as professionals when we were at school, right? So on first glance it’s surprising that we aren’t performing in this way. But I guess maybe it just comes down to having to work that bit harder, for no extra pay. Those of us who are at the start of our careers might be more inclined to provide that quality, tailor-made service, but I reckon (from watching numerous senior people around me) it gets easier to just sit back and tick the “want” boxes when you’re energy wanes, or when your priorities are diverted.

        The most inspirational experienced Architects I have worked with/for are those who are not happy when they have simply met the client’s brief, but drive the design further to make something special. These few people clearly still see the value in providing an exceptional service, and they seem to do alright for themselves. Perhaps it’s worth baring in mind, for those of us who are all to aware of our disproportionate Work-rate:Salary ratios, that maybe years of excellent work come back around and repay you if you keep it up.

        • brady ernst

          Hopefully, if architects start creating more remarkable architecture, then higher fees and higher demand for architects will increase in tandem.

    • brady ernst

      Fantastic insight Rich,
      You made me revisit this Ted Talk, and I still find Joshua Prince-Ramus to have many compelling arguments.
      Investing in remarkable architecture will manifest itself in uplifting the profession, and only then will we improve the built environment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *