Millennials won't take no for an answer
Illustration: Brett Ryder

Long before the housing market crashed in 2008, the architecture and design industry was facing trouble, says Ann Voda, AIA, a principal at Bentz/Thompson/Rietow in Minneapolis and president of AIA Minnesota. The “so-called traditional practice of architecture was enduring pressure and revealing stress cracks well before 2008,” she wrote in the forward to a 2012 AIA Minnesota report commissioned to help architects navigate the unsure post-crash market.

“Even during the expansive times leading up to the crash, the architect’s role in a project was perceived as eroded,” she continues in the Architects in Commerce Research Initiative report, “[and] there were concerns that we were undervalued, overworked, and underpaid. The writing was on the wall for medium sized architectural firms with a general design practice who didn’t develop a specialty.”

One of the things that made this report meaningful is that it reflected the input of clients—owners and developers, contractors, and owner representatives—along a spectrum of trends, from the perceived role of architects to third-party advocates for property owners.

Jean Dufresne, AIA, co-principal at Chicago-based Space Architects+Planners and a member of the AIA’s Small Firm Round Table, adds that the increased reliance of clients on representatives, and of architects on contractors, sets a difficult precedent to reverse.

“We have left others to erode our skills and services,” says Dufresne. “When is the last time you saw an architect on HGTV or TLC? One that clearly showed value and return on investment on the project? Never! And that is horrible.”

But Michele Russo, senior director of research for the AIA, sees potential in findings of the Architects in Commerce Research Initiative report. “The emergence of third-party representatives is an important trend to understand, and one that has led to some frustration for design professionals, who feel they are becoming distanced from their clients,” she says. “However, the research that AIA Minnesota conducted suggests that clients want architects to be their partners, understanding their needs and offering solutions, versus just acting as a service provider or trying to impose their own vision.

“Not only does this emphasize the importance of a firm to develop meaningful and productive relationships with clients, and to understand all the potential possibilities that clients may themselves not even know exist, it also suggests the time is ripe for architects to expand the ‘partner’ function they bring to owners,” Russo says. “In addition to delivering design services, architects are analytic problem-solvers. The opportunities for them to capitalize on those skills could open up new opportunities that take the profession in exciting new directions.”

Indeed, recent research supports this. Another instructive report, commissioned by the AIA’s Large Firm Round Table, the 2014 McGraw-Hill Construction SmartMarket’s “Managing Uncertainty and Expectations in Building Design and Construction,” ranked owner-related issues such as accelerated schedule, unclear project requirements, lack of direction and involvement, and program or design changes among the leading drivers of uncertainty on building projects. The report concluded that better communication and integration among project team members represent the most effective approach to reducing both the causes and the impacts of uncertainty.

Survey results from architects and contractors in the report reveal that the “top drivers of uncertainty-related problems … are owner-driven changes, and the need for clearer direction from owners, as well as more active leadership by owners.”

Yet several owners foresee what one describes as “a big opening for the architectural community to step up and help out” by providing greater leadership and evolving toward a deeper relationship with owners that the “Managing Uncertainty” report calls a “trusted advisor, participating a lot more and a lot sooner, really doing an integrated project design around that client’s mission and that client’s culture.” The report’s authors predict it can be “a whole new paradigm for the architectural world, not a transaction based on ‘You tell me what you want and I’ll tell you how it’s going to be,’ but more of an ongoing, participative process where they’re continually helping you get to where you need to go.”

Jean Leathers, president of Practice Clarity, a national consulting firm that helps architects build their businesses, agrees. “Changes in project delivery methods from traditional design/bid/ build to design/build and integrated project delivery mean that oftentimes all members of the design and construction team are involved early with clients,” she says. “Changes [can be] made well ahead of construction—I’ve heard it said it’s cheap to change ideas, costly to chop up concrete.”

Millennials Remaking the Market

The notion that residential projects can be an ongoing participatory process involving architects and clients bodes well for future homeowners, namely millennials. Despite popular belief, a Zillow survey revealed that members of this demographic believe more strongly than previous generations that owning a home is necessary to being a respected member of society. Even as they have accrued more student debt and face bleaker economic prospects than others, millennials represented the largest share of recent buyers for two consecutive years, according to the 2015 National Association of Realtors (NAR) “Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends” study. In 2014, millennials purchased 32 percent of all homes sold in the country; in 2013, that percentage was 31.

“Over 80 percent of millennial and Gen X buyers consider their home purchase a good financial investment, and the desire to own a home of their own was the top reason given by millennials for their purchase,” wrote NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun in the study. “Fixed monthly payments and the long-term financial stability home ownership can provide are attractive to young adults despite them witnessing the housing downturn and subsequent slow recovery in the early years of their adulthood.”

Pegged as socially conscientious, millennials by and large seem to value the principles of New Urbanism—walkability, connectivity, and what the Congress of New Urbanism calls “traditional neighborhood structures” that include defined public centers, discernible boundaries between neighborhoods, and a sense of urban diversity. Among the biggest factors in choosing a house was the neighborhood, according to the NAR study, “Millennials were most influenced by the quality of the neighborhood (75 percent) and convenience to jobs (74 percent).”

In order to better understand the members of the millennial demographic entering architecture and design professions, the AIA partnered with McGraw-Hill Construction to conduct two studies, which together are revealing of the group as a whole, including prospective home buyers. One of the studies targeted architecture students and recent grads and the other focused on existing architecture firms. Both were part of the basis for the 2012 McGraw-Hill Construction SmartMarket report “Construction Industry Workforce Shortages,” which pointed to one irreducible fact: There is a sizable gap between current industry thinking and the values of the next generation.

Taken together, the studies also imply that millennials entering the profession value sustainability very highly, which influenced their motive to pursue green design through a deeply personal sense of responsibility. Millennials were also found to rely on technology and social media for basic networking or job searches far more than other generations of practitioners. The SmartMarket report’s authors note that “it is more likely that the architecture industry will need to adopt these tools as an important means of networking than students will abandon their use.”

This, of course, isn’t a revelation. Many studies, reports, and media outlets have covered this shift deeply and broadly over the past decade. What is important to note, however, is that technology, sustainability, personal responsibility, and social value– driven decisions are no longer brewing trends among the children of prospective clients. They are, in fact, the foundation of the current and future client base for architects.

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