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08.19.2009
Editorial: Not Business as Usual
Without business know-how and better management training, in these times like these many firms might as well pack it in

Architects have long complained about being shut out of the development process. Every project, it seems, is led by a client who knows little about architecture, and by a contractor whose interests conflict with the architect’s. And both parties have more power than the put-upon designer.

Most architects are obviously well-trained in design, and even familiar with technical areas like engineering, construction, and project management. But not in business. This is often something they figure out as they go along. In order to thrive, and to make our way out of future recessions, architects will have to change that. The first step is to make architectural education include training in business, and to teach skills like management, marketing, fee structuring, and design-build, among many others.

As of now only a small handful of schools offer business curricula related to architecture. Woodbury University offers a Master of Architecture in Real Estate Development, taught by San Diego architect-developers Ted Smith and Jonathan Segal, among others. The program covers the ins and outs of the development process, and many of San Diego’s most successful architect-developers have graduated from the course.

Another program, at California College of the Arts, offers an MBA in Design Strategy, which teaches artists and a few architects how to navigate the business world. Students in the program take courses and studios in design, marketing, sustainability, and entrepreneurship, all focusing on experience and not “canned data,” as Nathan Shedroff, who leads the program, points out. Along with these two programs, several design—but not architecture—schools offer joint business and design degrees, like the one at the Illinois Institute of Technology. And a small number of architecture programs do offer a smattering of professional practice classes.

Asked why he thought few schools offered business courses, Shedroff, who studied architecture at UC Berkeley and auto design at Art Center, pointed to the culture of art and architecture schools. “I think a lot of it is that students go into these areas specifically because they don’t want to do quantitative work,” he said. “They’re not interested in numbers or set formulas or the standardization of solutions. They gravitate to what are seen as creative disciplines. But pretty much anyone in a company should be creative.”

That’s exactly the point. Business can be just as creative as architecture. Shedroff noted that many creative types see business as representing everything that’s wrong with the world. But that isn’t the case, either. “Students need this kind of experience if they want the kind of influence they deserve,” said Shedroff.

And now is the perfect time to try to change the architect’s role. Without business know-how in a time like this, many firms might as well pack it in. And as the Obama Administration’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel likes to say, in order to change the status quo, we should never let a good crisis go to waste.

Sam Lubell