What ‘The Future of The Professions’ Reveals About the Future of Architecture

Daniel Davis – 13 November 2019

Blue-collar manufacturing jobs are often the focus of stories about globalization, automation, digitization, and technological advances, but The Future of the Professions takes a different angle, turning its attention to the fate of white-collar industries. Written by the father and son duo of Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind, the pair argue that technology is incrementally dismantling traditional professions, leaving professionals with an uncertain future – architects included.

In the field of architecture, there is no shortage of keynote speakers, professors, Linkedin ‘thought leaders,’ authors, first-year students, venture capitalists, and Autodesk sales executives that are willing to pontificate about the future of the profession*. Most of these musing assume that the architecture industry is an idiosyncratic profession driven from the inside – to predict where it is moving, they look at the cutting edge of the profession and project forwards. The brilliance of The Future of the Professions is that the Susskinds don’t study one industry in isolation. Instead, they look at all the professions together. In essence they argue that if you want to understand the future of architecture, you need to understand what is happening to the other professions since they face similar challenges (such as automation, disintermediation, and shrinking budgets) and some are already adapting, providing a set of likely outcomes for other professions in parallel circumstances.

The result is a book that ties together several ideas that architects have been discussing in recent years (such as the impact of data, the rise of specialists, the diminishing power of licensure), and situates them in a cohesive, overall theory of the professions.

The challenge of the book is that it tries to do everything. It talks to architects while also speaking to doctors and lawyers, it mixes practical advice with bookish theory, and it sometimes feels caught between being commercially successful and academically rigorous. Appeasing these audiences can make the book feel long in places, which is unfortunate because it’s the best book I’ve read this year and should be required reading for any professional practice class or architectural leader.

As I was reading The Future of the Professions, I often contemplated how these overall trends applied to the specifics of the architecture industry. I ended up taking many notes that drew links between the book’s macro patterns and the architecture industry’s specific circumstances.

The following is an expanded version of these notes. The themes are taken directly from the third chapter of The Future of the Professions, titled ‘Patterns Across the Profession’ (which is the real meat of the book). I’ve recast these general trends to look specifically at how they relate to the past and future of the architecture industry. Since the themes come from a general perspective, they don’t capture every trend in the architecture industry (notably, concepts like sustainability and social equality aren’t prominent in the book), nevertheless I think this broad framing offers an interesting, if somewhat imperfect, way to understand the future of the architecture profession.

The End of an Era

Susskind and Susskind believe that four significant trends will characterize the end of the professional era.

1. The move from bespoke services

Past: Architecture was a bespoke service where designers tailored buildings to the unique needs of a client. At most firms, the design process was ad-hoc, improvised, and particular to the people working on a given project.Future: The Susskinds believe that “bespoke professional work looks set to fade from prominence,” meaning that the design process is going to become more systematized with more routines, checklists, and computers.

This systematization is already becoming evident both in standard projects and highly customized ones. On standard projects (such as offices, hospitals, and schools), cost pressures are driving architects towards more routine production. On custom projects, buildings have become too complicated to deliver in an improvised manner. Compared to thirty years ago, the construction systems, performance targets, and the number of interested parties have added another level of difficulty to the design and construction process. And further complicating things is our current infatuation with novel, parametric buildings (ironically, most projects that appear visually non-standard are actually delivered with relatively rigid, well-thought-out, and standardized processes).

The move away from bespoke services represents a shift for the industry. In the past, many believed that mass-production was the key to efficiency, with the automotive and aeronautical industries often heralded as north stars. But attempts to standardize the output haven’t prevailed, with attention now shifting to focus on standardizing the process instead.

2. The bypassed gatekeepers

Past: Architects only designed a small percentage of the buildings constructed every year. The projects they worked on were typically large and complicated; the type of project that would be impossible without the expertise of an architect. On these projects, architects were often legally required, making them unavoidable gatekeepers, the ones that stood between you and the building you wanted to create.Future: The Susskinds argue that professional expertise is becoming more widely distributed. For example, people today frequently Google symptoms instead of talking to a doctor, and they often use online accounting software rather than employing an accountant.

This disintermediation may seem unlikely for architects, particularly given the profession’s reliance on creativity and personal relationships. But this isn’t certain. Already a number of startups are trying to develop software that allows clients to design buildings themselves. Other companies are trying to sell architecture as a product rather than a service, bypassing the need for a client to hire an architect directly. And even within architecture firms, employees are increasingly staking out successful careers without becoming licensed architects, effectively sidestepping the architectural institute that once determined who could and couldn’t work on these projects.

3. Shift from reactive to proactive

Past: The client hired an architect whenever the need arises.Future: The Susskinds point out that since the clients aren’t the experts, they often don’t know if or when they should employ a specialist. In other professions, there is a push to become more proactive and work on problem-avoidance rather than problem-solving. In healthcare, for instance, reactive care (treating people only when they arrive at the clinic) is giving way to preventative care (monitoring people’s health and making changes before something goes wrong).

In architecture, the profession is still principally reactive to the whims of a client. At some point in the future, you could imagine firms actively monitoring how clients use buildings and coaching them to maximize the value of their assets rather than waiting for things to become so bad that the client needs an entirely new design.

The challenge is that architects, like other professionals, are addicted to exchanging time for money. When architects have tried to be more proactive (spinning up consulting groups or offering long-term workplace strategy), it has often devolved into paid business development, a way to drum up interest in the core service: redesigning buildings. In other professions, the push for proactive services has commonly come from people outside the profession, people that don’t have a financial stake in the old business model. Already startups are eyeing a more proactive design market, but it remains to be seen how architects will participate.

4. The more for less challenge

Past: Most architects eked out a modest living by charging clients a relatively small fee in comparison to construction costs.Future: The Susskinds believe that the professions will encounter even more financial pressure in the future. This squeeze probably seems obvious to anyone who has worked in the architecture industry recently. The Susskinds think that technology will allow firms to cut costs further and to share expenses with others. If this is true, large firms will benefit, since they can spread the cost of developing technology across many projects. To remain competitive, smaller firms may need to specialize so they can share technology expenses across a niche of related projects.

Emerging Skills and Competencies

To deal with the changing nature of the professions, the Susskinds put forward four skills that companies need to master to thrive in the new business environment.

1. Different ways of communicating

Past: Not long ago, architects communicated with their clients face-to-face, over the telephone, in writing, and drawings. That was it: four ways to communicate, four communication channels to master.Future: New communication channels have arisen and proliferated so quickly we don’t even notice them. Today architects communicate on everything from email to social media and chat applications. In many cases, these new channels behave differently and require different aptitudes than what came before them – consider how ham-fisted most architects appear on social media compared to natives of the medium.

The Susskinds say that “successful professionals of tomorrow will need to embrace new methods of communicating.” At the moment, many in the architecture industry are not prepared, partly because these channels have arisen so quickly and partly because the old channels have become so instinctive after years of mastery. This provides opportunities for the next generation, a generation that is likely as adept at communicating in these new mediums as the older generation was at communicating through drawings, books, and presentations.
Past: Universities dedicated a considerable chunk of their curriculum to training people to communicate effectively through drawings and verbal presentations.Future: Out of habit, communications classes will emphasize visual and verbal presentations, but they should be actively preparing students for a world where these aren’t the client’s preferred communication channels.

2. Mastery of data

Past: Architects relied upon experience and intuition to make decisions. They didn’t have much data. The data that did exist was found mostly in handbooks and reports.Future: Data is all around us and growing exponentially. Given our growing reliance on data, the Susskinds say that “being on top of the data is not an optional add-on in the future.”

Like other professionals, architects are drowning in data. There is data coming from BIM databases, from IoT devices, surveys, HVAC systems, and on and on. Being fluent with data is quickly shifting from an opportunity to a necessity. The best firms will be the ones that can organize, analyze, and extract value from this new resource – which, for most firms, is a new competency.
Past: After a building was constructed, architects knew very little about what happened behind the walls they built. As a result, architects didn’t know much about how their buildings actually performed.Future: Using data, architects can make better measurements of how their spaces perform. Perhaps more importantly, this data will also make it easier for building owners to measure this performance. The transparency offered by this data will put pressure on architects to measure and attain performance targets.
Past: Architects sold projects with renderings and charisma.Future: Clients demand that architects justify design decisions with evidence and hold them accountable with data.

3. New relationships with technology

Past: Computers were akin to drawing boards – dumb machines that were subservient to designers.Future: The Susskinds point out that while there have been advances in computation, computers are still unable to perform many of the tasks of a professional. At the moment, and likely in the future, the best results tend to be achieved when computers and humans work collaboratively, allocating tasks to each other’s strengths rather than working in competition.

In architecture, many attempts to apply machine intelligence to the design process have failed because they try to automate the entire process, replacing architects wholesale and employing a computer for everything, even the tasks better performed by people. Although algorithms seem unlikely to succeed architects, they will increasingly be able to complete a narrow range of tasks better than a designer (such as laying out desks in an office). As this algorithmic capability grows, two things will happen: 1) targeted automation will progressively replace design labor; 2) designers will work more collaboratively with algorithms that capitalize on the unique intelligence of human designers (design augmentation).
Past: Computers were machinery.Future: Computers are design partners.
Past: Buildings and construction methods were relatively simple. It was conceivable that an individual architect could have a reasonable grasp of all the technology used in a project.Future: Buildings and construction methods are getting increasingly complicated. There are more people involved, there are more demanding production systems and schedules, and there are stricter performance objectives in terms of things like sustainability, comfort, and cost. The complexity is at a point where an individual can’t fully understand all the technology on a project. Even something as seemingly simple as a window – a curtain wall – has become an entire area of expertise in and of itself. This technological complexity is an underlying driver in the push for specialization and routinization.

4. Diversification

Past: Firms focused on market diversification to minimize risk. They would try to win clients in different regions or different business sectors so that if the market faltered in one country or sector, they would still have work in other places. As firms entered new markets, they ended up competing against other architects already established in those regions.Future: The Susskinds observe that many service providers are becoming more client-focused, causing them to serve the needs of a client by any means necessary, even if it requires offering a service atypical of their profession. And so the boundaries between professions are becoming more blurry.

Architecture firms are no different. Several firms are beginning to offer services adjacent to their core expertise, such as business strategy, branding, and product design. In part, this is a push to become more client-centric (the best solution to a brief isn’t always a new building) and in part this a hedge against the boom and bust of the construction industry. But as architects encroach on other professions, these industries are responding by entering the traditional territory of architects. To name a few examples: there are furniture manufactures offering design strategy services, real estate companies doing project management, and tech companies conducting post-occupancy evaluations. Thus the boundary between professions is slowly eroding while the competition is increasing.
Past: Architects competed against other architects.Future: Architects compete against other service providers.

Professional Work Reconfigured

Professionals have long seen their work as a craft, as a job where no two projects are alike. But the Susskinds argue that this is changing, that professional work is becoming more and more standardized. They identify three main areas where professional work is being reconfigured: routinization, decomposition, and disintermediation/reintermediation.

1. Routinization

Past: The design process was often ad-hoc, improvised, and particular to the people working on a given project.Future: Complexity and cost pressures are pushing architects to find more efficient and consistent processes.
Past: The job of the architect couldn’t be automated because there was too much variation in the work, meaning the work was often too unpredictable to reduce to a set of pre-defined processes.Future: As the design process becomes more routine, there will be more definition and structure, which will present new opportunities to automate and outsource some aspects of this work.
Past: No two projects were alike, which made it nearly impossible to improve the process and design outcomes from one project to the next.Future: With a more routine process, it becomes easier to test new design methods and see how they affect project outcomes. Architecture becomes a lot more like product development, with an iterative process driving greater efficiency and better design outcomes.
Past: Since the process was idiosyncratic, the firm’s value was entirely its people. If one or two brilliant designers left, it could all fall apart.Future: In a systematized process, the individuals matter less than the overall structure – the value shifts from the people to the process.
Past: Rather than designing a bunch of unique buildings, people believed the industry would be more efficient if buildings were mass-produced. Everyone from Le Corbusier to Kanye West tried their hand at this.Future: Mass-producing architecture wasn’t particularly successful with repetitious architecture gaining a lot of negative connotations. Many people today believe that standardizing the design and delivery processes is the secret to unlocking greater efficiency, with everything from parametric modeling to robotic fabrication offering ways to provide custom products with standard procedures.

2. Disintermediation and Reintermediation

Past: Architects were often unavoidable intermediaries; people you legally had to hire if you wanted to construct large or complex buildings.Future: The Susskinds observe that many professions that were once considered essential are now finding themselves disintermediated (such as travel agents and tax accountants). There is a growing concern that similar technology will allow clients to bypass architects. Already there are companies working to disintermediate architects either by enabling clients to design their own buildings or by selling architecture as a product. If these initiatives succeed, architects may find themselves sidelined on specific project typologies, no longer the unavoidable gatekeepers of construction.
Past: Architects only designed a small percentage of the buildings constructed every year. Most projects (such as houses in the suburbs) were simple enough that they didn’t warrant the expense of an architect.Future: While architects face a risk of disintermediation, they also have new opportunities to reinsert themselves into the design process (reintermediation). Automation, for instance, may sideline architects on particular projects, but it could also enable architects to participate in others. If technology can lower the cost of design, then architects may become more cost-competitive on particular project typologies. Given that most buildings are currently constructed without an architect, cutting the cost of design may open significant tranches of the construction market to architects (parts of the market where they’re already disintermediated).

In addition, if there are suddenly many new ways to acquire architecture (software, startups, and productized buildings), then clients might need a professional to help navigate all the different delivery options. This complexity would be an opportunity for architects to build services around these new delivery mechanisms, reintermediating themselves into the process.

Furthermore, all of these companies vying to disrupt the construction industry are going to need to hire architects and architecture firms to create algorithms, develop construction systems, and stamp drawings. Already platforms like Hypar are positioning themselves to become a marketplace where architects can sell algorithms instead of design services. As people and firms become more specialized, it’s conceivable that new opportunities will open up to capitalize on this knowledge.

3. Decomposition

Past: Architects were generalists, they were expected to be knowledgable in everything from project management to design philosophy. To become licensed, architects had to demonstrate competence in all aspects of the business – they had to show that they could essentially run their own one-person architecture practice.Future: The Susskinds note that while professional work was once considered a “monolithic, indivisible lump of activity,” much of this work is now being decomposed “into constituent tasks that are allocated to other people and systems who are best placed to discharge the work.” In other words, the work is shifting from generalists to specialists.

Architects are the prototypical generalist. In the past, they may have been responsible for everything from marketing to project administration. But today, many of these tasks are being broken off and handed to specialists. This has given rise to a whole host of new roles, such as computational designers, sustainability consultants, and workplace strategists. These people do one narrow part of the architectural process day in and day out, and they do it well. Architecture firms will likely continue to find ways to decompose the job of an architect and hand portions of it to people that specialize in small parts of the overall process.
Past: Architecture firms hired architects, drafts-people, and assistants.Future: Architecture firms hire computational designers, sustainability consultants, BIM managers, workplace strategists, social media managers, visualization specialists, business development specialists, and architects.
Past: Architecture firms were led by architects. These leaders would do everything: they would set the design direction, make business decisions, and be the public face of the company (their name was often on the door).Future: Management, like any other task at an architecture firm, is being broken into its constituent parts. Some firms have appointed CEOs from outside the industry (for example, BIG and Hassell). These aren’t architects but rather people that specialize in running businesses. Meanwhile, other aspects of a firm’s leadership, such as thought leadership and design direction, are increasingly being handed to people that specialize in these tasks.
Past: A project typically only needed a few consultants (perhaps an architect, an engineer, and a contractor).Future: Consultants increasingly specialize in a narrow part of the design process (such as facade design or BIM management). A project can involve dozens of consultants and sub-contractors, each an authority in their small domain of expertise.
Past: Licensure was considered a necessary career milestone. Universities assumed that their students would go on to become licensed architects and therefore geared the curriculum around this career path.Future: Many specialists inside architecture firms work on such a narrow part of the overall process that licensure isn’t applicable. As a result, there are lots of specialists staking out successful careers that aren’t licensed architects and probably never will be (such as the computational designers, sustainability consultants, and workplace strategists). The problem is that licensure harkens back to a time when architects were generalists and it is difficult to see how the licensing bodies will adapt to the decomposition of architectural work into a series of specializations. As it stands, many people now participate in the architectural profession without becoming licensed professionals, which potentially diminishes the authority of licensing bodies. Whatever the case, educational institutions will need to adapt, acknowledging that many of their students will go on to become specialists rather than licensed architects.
Past: Work was generally done by a team of people that were colocated in one office.
Future: If the work of a professional can be split into constituent tasks, the Susskinds say that it often makes sense to perform these tasks in areas where “labor costs, operating costs, and property costs are lower.”

In architecture, these methods of offshoring and outsourcing are still relatively nascent. There are some firms that maintain offices in India and China, where they offshore some of their design work, and there are other firms that outsource work to consultancies overseas (such as visualization studios). This type of labor arbitrage isn’t something firms like to highlight, although it is conceivable that in the future some parts of the design process will become even more globally dispersed. And in a similar vein, if this work can be packaged and sent to teams offshore, it makes it a lot easier to imagine some of this work also being packaged and transmitted to computers in the cloud.

So when is all this happening?

While The Future of the Professions provides a likely roadmap for how the architecture industry will evolve, it doesn’t offer a timeline for when we’ll get there. In fact, each profession is moving at its own pace. Tax accountants and travel agents have already been disintermediated by online websites, and there are similar trends in healthcare, but that doesn’t mean that architects will suddenly find themselves in the same situation next year, or even in 5, 10, or 20 years. Although we can see the macro trend, there is still much inertia in the industry and it’s hard to predict when this will break. As such, the roadmap above gives a likely direction for the industry, but it doesn’t give a velocity, it doesn’t tell us when we’ll get there.

It’s also not clear where this innovation will come from – will architecture firms lead the charge, or will it be interlopers from outside the industry? The Susskinds point to two potential futures: in the first, professionals continue working much as they have, but they focus more on standardization, systematization, and specialization; in the second, they introduce systems that entirely displace the work of traditional professionals through things like automation and disintermediation. The Susskinds argue that in the near term, these two futures will run in parallel, but in the long term, the second will win. It’s easy to see architects thriving in the first future because it’s a continuation of what they’ve always been doing: exchanging time for money. The only difference is that they’d be doing it more efficiently, which is why standardization, systematization, and specialization are all obvious next steps for the industry. The second future is harder to imagine because it requires a new profit model. No matter how badly architecture firms want to be product companies, it’s hard to imagine them escaping their habit of selling time for money (and there aren’t many examples of industries that have managed to do so). If this is the case, the future of the architecture profession potentially lies in its ability to get out of its own way.

Thank you to Tyler Goss and Andrew Heumann for reading, editing, and providing feedback on this article.

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