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Design Matters in a Variety of Settings

The focus is still on big problems and practice niches.

by Zach Mortice
Associate Editor

While the broader economy has been marching towards a modest recovery in recent months, the design and construction industry hasn’t been so lucky. Emerging professionals (EPs) have been especially vulnerable, as they often have the least amount of expertise and seniority.

The 2009/2010 AIA/NCARB Internship & Career Survey shows that the number of unemployed EPs has risen from 3% in 2007 to 17% in 2010. The number of aspiring architects having to work outside of traditional practice has remained static since 2005, at approximately 10%. Recent graduates in today’s economic climate are no different and are sampling a wide diversity of alternative careers.

A step towards “total design”

An EP finally adjusting to life at a firm after graduating from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in 2007, Margaux Verdera was laid off from her job at Cockrill Design and Planning in September.

By December, she and her boyfriend (who was also unemployed) were getting antsy. “We’ve got to do something,” she said at the time. “I don’t want to work at the local grocery store.”

Verdera had been interested in graphic design throughout school, and got a minor in illustration. During the interminable Craigslist searches for work of any kind that are the somber daily ritual of the unemployed in the Internet age, Verdera’s attention was piqued by the considerable need for graphic design work she noticed. She began by designing logos for grocery money. With the help of her computer expert boyfriend, M+J (Margaux and John) Design Bureau stared expanding to designing Web sites, interiors, marketing materials, signage, and more.

Verdera dreams of one day running a “total design” firm that could design a restaurant’s interiors, furniture, silverware, and menus, as well as the building they go into, and her current graphic design endeavor gives her an opportunity to expand her skill set in this direction.

Life as a new business owner has been liberating and thrilling. And also intimidating. “I wake up some days, and I’m like, ‘Man, can I do this?’” she says.

It’s not a question she envisioned asking herself. Verdera had wanted to be an artist, but instead chose architecture because she thought it would be more economically stable.

Where architecture doesn’t tread

Phil Amthor graduated from Auburn with a BArch in 2006, but quickly came to the conclusion that the best way to influence parts of the built environment that haven’t been given the design attention they deserve was outside of architecture. So he stayed in school to get a Masters degree in city planning, which he finished in 2008. Now he’s a regional city planner for his hometown of Birmingham.

Amthor grew up in a typical suburb and realized that, though it was where a vast swath of Americans spend most of their lives, these collections of subdivisions, strip malls, and gas stations are rarely acknowledged by designers of any kind. “The people who built my suburb were developers,” Amthor says. Architecture, especially in academia, he says, was not dealing with suburban conditions.

Amthor is fascinated by the social science aspects of city planning (economics, population trends, capital flow in and out of a region), and now he works on long-term masterplanning developments for local municipalities. The goal is to create communities that are more compact, pedestrian-scaled, and feature multi-nucleic nodes of urban development. Accomplishing this requires political engagement to change the regulatory structure of how cities and neighborhoods are built, and Amthor says this kind of interaction is often missing from design professions. “To think about the political process in architecture school is a really foreign thing, but design needs to be political,” he says.

His advice for architects that aren’t able to design buildings: design legislation instead.

Democratizing the good idea

When Derek Roberts, Assoc. AIA, got laid off from Lord Aeck and Sargent Architecture last fall, he took it upon himself to solve one of architecture’s biggest problems. The 2005 graduate of the University of Michigan felt that contributions by young architects weren’t being realized in hierarchical firm structures. Again and again, he had seen good design limited by inflexible processes and closed design input. Architecture, Roberts thought, needed to democratize the good idea.

Good ideas are seldom more democratic than when they’re presented in an architectural competition, where the ability to compare and contrast different schemes without playing favorites lets clients make the most informed decisions. Small clients with small projects avoid competitions because of the assumed higher costs and longer timeline they require, but Roberts says he and his business partners have found a way to make competitions feasible and affordable for a wide range of client types. Design Evolution Workshop, which Roberts and his Detroit-based partners launched in January, does just that. “The competition allows us to be more creative, but it also allows us to engage more people in architecture,” he says.

Design Evolution Workshop (which is based in Michigan, but is not location specific) combines project management services with the running of a competition. They also replace construction managers and value engineers with design-oriented peer reviewers, thus protecting the integrity of the chosen design. So far, they’ve been working with residential developers, municipalities, and historic conservancies.

“The reality is that we’ve gotten to a point where the process of designing and building a building is cumbersome, lacks design focus, is not fun, and wastes a lot of money,” Roberts says.

Somehow, the dire economy is forcing clients to face up to this situation, which is good for Roberts. “It would be a lot more difficult to have the conversations we’re having,” he says, “were the economy better.”


Margaux Verdera. Image courtesy of Margaux Verdera.

Phil Amthor. Image courtesy of Phil Amthor.

Derek Roberts, Assoc. AIA, Image courtesy of Derek Roberts.


Recent Related:

Displaced by the Economy, Architects Balance Design and the Bottom Line

Consulting Practice Niches Create Shelter for Architects in a Thorny Economy


Visit the Navigating the Economy Web site.

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