Sunday, August 28, 2011

Women in the Profession

In back-to-back meetings, I heard an institution talk about its admirable efforts to increase opportunities for women-owned businesses and then a female architect discuss her decision to leave the firm that she worked for because of the long hours required, often working for that same institution, making it difficult for her to have enough time to raise her two children.

As John Cary, an insightful critic of the architecture profession’s poor treatment of young people and under-represented groups, wrote in the Christian Science Monitor ( “an estimated 10-12 percent of the 105,000 registered architects in the United States are women,” even though women in architecture schools represent about 40 percent of all students. Also, as many educators will tell you, women in the schools often play leadership roles. The problem occurs after graduation, when women who have excelled in school for various reasons do not make it through the internship process or decide not to get licensed. What happens during that post-graduate period and what can be done about it?

There is no lack of opportunity for women. Many public-sector and even a number of private-sector clients give preference to hiring women- as well as minority owned businesses as part of their design teams, in an effort to encourage such under-represented groups. Many architecture and design firms also actively seek a diverse work force and make concerted efforts to recruit women to their offices. At the same time, women continue to make major contributions to the design world, producing a lot of the very best work.

The problem lies elsewhere: in a profession that is perennially underpaid and overworked in relation to the value it creates and the liability it assumes. And therein lies an irony, highlighted by the conversations mentioned above. The very institutions trying to create opportunities for under-represented groups may also be creating the very conditions that lead women and minorities to leave the profession because of the relatively low pay and the long hours required to do the work. In that sense, the lack of women as licensed architects serves as a warning and a symptom of a larger dilemma that many in the field seem unwilling to talk about, maybe not wanting to antagonize their clients.

If the architecture profession wants to attract and keep those who seek a more balanced life – regardless of their gender or ethnicity – it needs to do a better job of aligning its compensation and work hours with the value it creates. This may seem particularly hard to do in one of the worst recessions to hit the profession since the 1930s. In times like these, with so a lot of firms chasing a little work, demanding higher fees may seem foolhardy at best. Many firms are glad to have work of any sort, just to keep their staff busy. The issues of diversity may seem less important and less pressing when a firm’s survival seems at stake.

However, there is also no better time than this to deal with the imbalance – the ridiculously long hours and ruthless fee cutting – that many think is just part of being an architect. With so few "traditional" jobs available in a depressed construction industry, the architecture profession has an opportunity to reassess the value of what it does – which goes way beyond the design of buildings – and to see that what it has to offer is particularly relevant in bad economic times: the knowledge of how to achieve the most with the least. Doing so may be the most effective way to improve the profession’s gender and ethnic balance.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Expanding the Design Professions

Several years in a row after 2008, architects’ average salaries have barely changed. While many attribute that to the “great recession,” some have started to wonder if a fundamental shift had begun to occur in the demand for architectural services and if the time had come to think about the value that designers might bring to clients and communities outside of conventional practice. Other professionals see this as an abandonment of the field and have resisted the idea.

The science writer, Richard Panek, wrote a book published in 2004 entitled, The Invisible Century, Einstein, Freud, and the Search for Hidden Universes, that has a great deal to teach designers. Panek observed that at the end of the 19th century, some scientists thought that we had discovered all there was to know about the physical world and that science had come to an end. That didn’t happen, of course, because with the 20th century came the discovery of “invisible” phenomena, from Freud’s explorations of the human subconscious to Einstein’s revelations about relativity to Max Planck’s descriptions of quarks. That opening up of whole new worlds ripe for scientific investigation made it “the invisible century,” as Panek calls it. While scientists continue to study the physical world, the invisible one has greatly benefited human understanding and opened up whole new areas of study.

The same, it seems, has begun to happen in design at the beginning of the 21st century. At a time when a lot of the job opportunities for designing and constructing physical structures have begun to wane or at least not grow very quickly, work in a number of other areas not directly associated with buildings have begun to open up for the design community. In almost all cases, these opportunities exist in what we might call the “design of the invisible,” be it the design of services and systems, applications and infrastructures, features and flows, products and policies, processes and procedures. This expansion of the design professions into such “invisible” realms comes at an opportune time. Unemployment among architects has reached record levels, and especially young people have begun to vote with their feet, seeking out the unconventional application of their design skills, whether or not traditional practitioners approve. A terrible economy can open up incredible opportunities for those willing to open their minds.

The ethical issue here revolves around that question: is this change good? Some see the good as inseparable from tradition, a perspective that assumes that the world evolves slowly and incrementally, and that rapid change brings more bad than good. That conservative ethic abhors revolutions. Others see the world as something in constant and at times destabilizing flux. For them, the good gets continually redefined as things change and new requirements emerge. Both sides want the good to happen, but how they achieve that could not be more different. While one group seeks to hold back change in order to preserve what they know, the other sees change as the primary way in which good things happen for people in the process of adapting to new conditions.

The conditions we live in, of course, could care less about our ethics. If demand declines for what we have done in the past, we must respond as creatively as possible. We may not yet fully understand what it means to design the “invisible” world, but we will only know by starting to do it. And for those who like such a change, do not despair: plenty of work remains to be done in the visible world, as scientists also discovered. So onward!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Conflict of Commitment

A property manager has a corporate client trying to decide whether to expand in its current leased space or to have a custom building designed and constructed for it. With an architect spouse whose firm is on the development team for the new building, the manager is torn between wanting the best for the client, which would save money by expanding in their existing space, and the best for the spouse’s firm, which would benefit from the commission to do the new building.

Marriage has its challenges as two people learn how to live together and to work together maintaining a household. And successful couples learn that preserving a marriage often entails putting it first, above the demands of work or other pastimes. That can become difficult, though, when spouses have a professional as well as a personal relationship. While the personal relationship would put the marriage first, the professional relationship can cause the opposite to occur or at least, as in the case here, make us feel torn between divided loyalties to a client or a spouse.

Ideally, we wouldn’t have to make that choice. But as sometimes happens in the design community, in which both spouses work in similar occupations or even in the same offices, the potential for conflicts increase. In this situation, there exist two kinds of possible conflicts – a conflict of interest and a conflict of commitment. The former seems more obvious and so easier to address. A conflict of interest would exist if the property manager urges the client to commission his spouse’s firm for the new building, since he would indirectly benefit from the fees the client pays for that work.

In this case, however, the property manager and the architect have taken great pains to avoid any conflict of interest. The manager has advised the client to commission two different firms to look at the implications of the company staying and renovating the existing space versus building anew. That not only gives the client two different perspectives; it also incentivizes the design teams to do the best job they can to win the commission and it avoids biasing the client toward one approach of another if the same firm did both projects.

At the same time, the architect has excused herself from being a part of the project because of her husband’s role as an advisor to the client. And while her firm would benefit from getting the project, she wouldn’t benefit directly from participating in it, nor would the firm’s winning the commission affect her salary one way or the other, with plenty of other work in the office to keep her busy. The best way to handle conflicts of interest, apart from avoiding them altogether, involves acknowledging their potential to occur and taking steps to recuse yourself from any involvement that would lead others to suspect that a possible personal benefit skewed your professional judgment.

Even though this couple has done everything possible to avoid a conflict of interest, there still remains a conflict of commitment. That can prove harder to spot and easier to overlook, since it involves not material benefit, but instead affects the time and energy you put toward one endeavor versus another. Might the property manager, in this case, steer the client to the new-construction option, not for personal financial gain, but simply because it would make his spouse happier if he did? The very possibility of that suggests that, in this case, the architect’s firm should simply not get involved in the project. Sometimes having an in requires that we stay away.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Veil of Ignorance

An architect at a discussion about ethics complained about contracts written in such a way that they hold the architect liable even if not involved or responsible for a particular aspect of a project. A developer in the room asked what is unethical about that, arguing that if the architect is willing to sign such a contract, that is their decision and that it has nothing to do with ethics.

The boundary between laissez-faire and unfair competition can appear fuzzy at times. If an architectural firm willingly signs a contract that holds them liable for more than what they have responsibility for, that may not be wise, but it also doesn’t seem unethical, especially if the firm made the decision freely and fully knowledgeable of its implications. The firm did not have to sign the contract or it could have negotiated a better deal for itself, and if it didn’t, then it has to pay the price should something go wrong.

Such a view, voiced by the developer in the discussion, implies a reduction of ethics to just a few obvious wrongs, such as murder, theft, or other violations of the law. Almost everything else, from this perspective, constitutes healthy competition in the marketplace: caveat emptor, let the buyer – or in this case, the signatory of the contract – beware.

That reductive view of ethics misses its point. Ethics does not just help us determine right and wrong; it can also help us see obligations and the implications of our actions that we often overlook, often to our detriment. In his book A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argues that in any situation involving the allocation of benefits, we should act as if there exists what he calls a “veil of ignorance” that prevents us from knowing our “original position” – whether or not we have more or less power or money, say, than anyone else. Not knowing that, Rawls observed, we would always act in ways that ensured that the least advantaged – which might be any one of us – benefit as much as possible.

The “veil of ignorance” may sound like a nice theory, but one that has no bearing in reality. In real life, people do know their position vis-à-vis others and who has the upper hand and who doesn’t or who would benefit the most from a law or contract and who would not. But Rawls’s theory is anything but theoretical. It turns out that we are always operating behind a “veil of ignorance” and that our not recognizing that fact leads to a lot of unintended and self-inflicted harm to ourselves as well as others.

For example, that developer may see no harm in demanding contracts with consultants that unduly shifts his risks and responsibilities onto them. If they want the work, they have to sign the agreement or he will find someone else who would. The developer may see himself as a tough competitor and may pride himself in his negotiating skill, but he seems also profoundly ignorant of his true position.

He might be at the top of his game now, but what if the market sinks and he finds himself – like many developers these days – underwater financially, with too much unsold product and way more debt than he has revenue to cover? All of sudden, he would find himself, in Rawls’s example, not the most advantaged, but among the least advantaged person at the table, having to rely on others to help him out or perhaps even to ask others to share in his losses through foreclosure or bankruptcy.

At that moment, his reputation for unfairly shifting his responsibilities onto others comes back to bite him: who wants to help someone who did so little to help others? Which is precisely Rawls’s point. In addition to literal contracts, we have a “social contract” with others based on fairness and justice. Someone can uphold a literal contract, but violate the social contract and find themselves bereft of the very benefits that accrue to those who have recognized and respected our collective compact.

The irony of the veil of ignorance is that those most ignorant of it remain most veiled from it, and – as we can see in the case of this developer who sees nothing wrong with unfair contracts – potentially the most harmed by ignoring it.