False Binaries

Phil Bernstein pens inaugural column on technology, value, and architects’ evolving role

National News Professional Practice
Phil Bernstein pens inaugural column on technology, value, and architects' evolving role. (Courtesy Jesús Moreno/Wikimedia)
Phil Bernstein pens inaugural column on technology, value, and architects' evolving role. (Courtesy Jesús Moreno/Wikimedia)

This is the inaugural column “Practice Values,” a new bi-monthly series by architect and technologist Phil Bernstein. The column will focus on the evolving role of the architect at the intersection of design and construction, including subjects such as alternative delivery systems and value generation. Bernstein was formerly vice president at Autodesk and now teaches at the Yale School of Architecture.

False Binaries

(Courtesy Phil Bernstein)

(Courtesy Phil Bernstein)

This semester, I’m teaching a course called “Exploring New Value Propositions for Practice” that’s based on the premise that the changing role of architects in the building industry requires us to think critically about our value as designers in that system. After studying the structure and dynamics of practice business models, the supply chain, and other examples of innovative design enterprises, they’ll be asked to create a business plan for a “next generation” architectural practice. I’m agnostic as to what this practice does per se, as long as it operates somewhere in the constellation of things that architects can do, but there is one constraint—your proposed firm can’t be paid fixed or hourly rate fees. It has to create value (and profit) through some other strategy.

I want our students to think critically about this question of value propositions: Where do architects contribute to the making of buildings and how is the resulting value realized, and to whose benefit? Technology has begun to change those value equations. Increasing reliance on design information created as a result of the architect’s process—the “big data” of design representations, geometry that drives computer-controlled fabrication equipment, “smart building” telemetry—is but one opportunity to argue that architects are the lynchpin of the building delivery system. But we must both design the methods and protocols that demonstrate our value, and as an important result, reap the financial benefits accordingly. This, it seems to me, is a much more direct route to assuring the relevance of architects to architecture, various television marketing campaigns insisting that clients “look up” to really appreciate their architects notwithstanding.


In discussing these ideas with my architectural colleagues I’m often faced with skepticism that puts this perspective in opposition with two perceived realities of practice. First is the assertion that architecture is in essence an artistic, expressive endeavor that will be sullied by considerations of money, business, or even the implications of digital instrumentation on the design process itself. I agree with the first part of this conclusion, but—as you can imagine—I take exception to the second. That design is the core value of the profession isn’t arguable, but also isn’t the point: The more interesting question is how we best empower clients to understand that value, architects to enable it, and other members of the delivery systems of building to rally behind it. And since architects operate in a supply chain (of building purveyors and consumers) that is a complex web of exchanges of money, information, and risk (and therefore value), how does design make us more valued participants?

I recently spoke on a panel with two other architects to a large group of architecture students. When asked what I thought was a critical issue that would face them in their careers, I answered along the lines of the argument above. In response, a panelist declared to the students that architects don’t enter the profession because they’re interested in money, but rather because of their passion for design—and that he never made much money practicing but was far happier in his career than his very well-paid lawyer sister. The message here was clear: An interest in the business of architecture, or, worse, the resulting financial opportunities, is beneath our dignity as passionate designers.

Both of these assertions are false binaries at best, and potentially harmful conclusions to the profession at worst. Every architect wants clients, collaborators, even builders to realize the value of our design work. That’s wishful thinking, however, until we can position ourselves in the systems of delivery—the financial and technical protocols by which the architect’s ideas are built—and make that case. In subsequent columns I’ll explore how we might do so, and design a profession that might better satisfy our passions and, as a result, our pocketbooks.

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