credential creep

If the Great Recession has taught us anything, it’s that there is another practice competency schools ought to teach: entrepreneurship. Architects make up less than 1/10 of 1 percent of the U.S. population, so they need leadership and negotiating skills to relate to a variety of audiences. In short, they need a stronger position from which to compete with other entrepreneurial business models.

The context for success is changing, and the profession needs a larger definition of itself, says James P. Cramer, Hon. AIA, chairman of the Greenway Group in Norcross, Ga. He also is president of the Design Futures Council and a past CEO of the AIA. The Greenway Group forecasts that private credentialing will increase across all professions and gain market share. That raises the stakes up and down the design food chain.

“What has overriding importance now is that architects must see themselves as design entrepreneurs in a very competitive zone,” Cramer says. “Even in this painful economy there is growing hunger for good design, and architects are not alone in providing design expertise. The marketplace will adapt to high-quality design service delivery providers who meet the needs, do it at a value price, and use the latest technologies to get top quality and speed.”

Entrepreneurship may mean working creatively with industry colleagues rather than trying to compete with them. For example, many builders and remodelers feel an off-the-shelf plan can get the job done, but there are times when they need someone with an artistic eye to solve a complex problem, and that’s an architect.

On the CRAN forum, Decatur, Ga.–based architect Eric Rawlings, AIA, LEED AP, urged residential architects to consider designing one-of-a-kind speculative houses with local remodelers and builders. “We must recognize where the market opportunities are and the areas that need the most help,” he says. “Spec houses fit both categories, and architects can’t make a real impact on the residential market until we get involved in that market.”

In downtown Atlanta, speculative renovations have kept Rawlings busy right through the recession. Residential designers are good at doing basic boxes, he says, but when it comes to transforming the structure behind an old house’s plaster walls, their ideas are limited. And once he grooms his associates to offer unique solutions, they often enlist his help on new construction. The partnership pays off. Two spec projects sold for more than $700,000 in 2009, he says, while nothing else sold in the neighborhood that year.

Remodelers and builders want to pick finishes—that’s how they differentiate themselves, Rawlings adds. By providing only the architectural moves, he’s affordable to builders, and he’s able to crank out far more houses and reach clients who never get to experience artistic solutions, while eliminating cookie-cutter homes in his neighborhood.

There’s a give-and-take on homes that you can’t have on commercial or third-party structures, Malecha says, so it’s not either-or, but both-and. An example is the 9,000-square-foot chancellor’s residence at NC State that he’s working on with builder Jon Rufty, president of Rufty Homes in Raleigh. Because Rufty builds one large home after another, he can work in shorthand to produce one-off details with trusted subs. By contrast, Malecha is more attuned to time, people, and place. “I like to call it understanding the scenarios of life in a building,” he says. “Oh, by the way, the stair landing is reconfigured so the chancellor can see everyone and everyone can see him when he’s welcoming visitors at a reception.”

The AIA’s position that public welfare concerns justify licensure even for single-family homes resounds for many architects, too. It’s ironic, points out Donalek, the Chicago architect, that many rural areas don’t require an architect’s stamp on house plans. “I wonder how many of those buildings destroyed by tornadoes last spring were substandard, seeing what happens in small towns in the good old boys’ network,” he says. “The more I learn and do, the more I see how complicated architecture is.”

The past half-century’s population growth has raised the stakes on zoning and energy consumption. We live closer to each other now, and our residential energy codes are getting stricter. “Who is accountable when the documentation needed to get a building permit for a house in many states is one step above a child’s drawing?” Malecha asks. “That’s not in anyone’s interest if we want communities of quality. And if a house is built cheaply, how will it maintain its value for resale?”

There’s an in-between place where an architect has a voice, acting in the public good. That’s what we should be focusing on, he says. “This isn’t, in my mind, an issue of generating a business income, although one could argue that’s what happens, but about the interest of the community being held. What someone builds on the open piece of property across the street will have an impact on me, and who’s watching that for me? The building department, not so much.”

In a crowded professional marketplace, credentials do count. Cramer cites research by Morris Kleiner, an economics professor at the University of Minnesota, showing that licensure or certification from a government body boosts licensees’ income by about 15 percent. But, Cramer says, it’s up to individuals to invent their own future. “The licensing organizations do not owe the profession a steady stream of work,” he says.

However, he adds, the AIA should have a strong public affairs and government relations arm that runs offense and defense for this diverse profession. And the registration process should be reviewed. “We never want to get so caught up in our habit patterns that we believe they can’t be improved,” Cramer says. “Everything we have can be substantially improved, including the relationship between the profession and the public it serves.”