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Experiences: An Assistant Professor of Architecture and Co-Chair of the FOREFRONT Conference Discusses Trends in Collaboration

About Erin Carraher, AIA: Ms. Carraher is a licensed architect and an Assistant Professor at the University of Utah's School of Architecture. She coordinates the first-year architecture studios and teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on digital technology. She is the co-director of the school's digital fabrication lab and is a senior researcher at the Integrated Technology in Architecture Center, where her research focuses on fundamentals of applied digital technologies. She studied at Virginia Tech (BArch 2002) and Yale University (MArch 2004) and practiced in New York City at BKSK Architects before joining the faculty at Utah in 2011.

Erin, we often hear that the architectural profession is becoming more collaborative, but we don’t often hear about what’s driving this change. Do you think the profession is being forced to change because of economics—doing more with fewer resources—or is it evolving because of new technologies? Or is design simply becoming so complex that collaboration is necessary?

Our profession has been in a state of constant evolution for more than two thousand years. Change is not new to us; architects have historically adopted and invented tools that allow for them to practice more efficiently and to push their designs in new directions. Change is simply happening more rapidly now.

Many factors are contributing to greater collaboration in the field. Architects certainly need to do more work more quickly with fewer resources, but technology is driving the trend. Technological tools that foster a collaborative, integrated, and streamlined workflow allow for smaller firms to take on bigger projects and for larger firms to be more efficient.

Additionally, digital fabrication technologies are allowing architects to have more control in the design-to-construction process. Rather than developing designs based on existing construction practices, we are now able to develop new fabrication processes and explore forms that would have been previously cost prohibitive or difficult to achieve based on their geometry or complexity. Elements of this work often require a degree of specialization that makes collaboration inevitable.

You are a co-chair of the upcoming FOREFRONT conference. One of its objectives is to provide architects with skills so they can reclaim their role as leaders in the design and construction of our built environment. Historically, when do you think architects relinquished that role? And why do you think this happened?

There are many who would argue over when, or even if, this occurred, so I like to frame it not by lamenting the “good old days,” but by looking critically at where we are in the current context. I think this is a very exciting time to be practicing and teaching architecture as there are so many developing technologies, and we all have the opportunity to frame what contemporary practice is to us.

Many believe BIM, digital fabrication, and alternative delivery strategies like IPD are allowing architects to lead in the implementation of new technologies in the design-to-construction process, which places us in a position of leadership, though not necessarily a position of authority. For me, being an architect will always have specific connotations in terms of our professional responsibility to protect the public health, safety, and welfare. How we achieve this is constantly evolving and expanding.

Before you became a professor at the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Utah, you worked on several institutional projects with BKSK Architects. Can you discuss how collaboration and broad-based decision-making enhanced one of those projects—either in process or in the resulting building?

I think collaboration works best when there is an open exchange of ideas and expertise amongst team members with a goal of enriching a common project. It also needs to be valued by all parties—from owner to architect, and from consultant to contractor.

For example, I worked on a team that designed a public library where we had a truly phenomenal client in the form of the head librarian. Having lived in the area for several decades, she could share a deep insight and understanding of the community’s cultural practices that would have been impossible for us to achieve ourselves.

Through constant engagement with her, the team was able to develop a design that is not only a great building, but also one that truly represents the diverse and rich community it serves. This was because she had insight into the way different user groups used the space in conventional as well as non-traditional ways and understood that modern libraries are evolving into hybrid programs that include various community and educational activities.

She also recognized that it was important to engage the community at all stages of the design process—especially the grand opening. That involved a ceremonial parade of books from the old library to the new, accompanied by a 20-foot long Chinese dragon and other giant puppets that the community members had made, which were featured throughout the space. Despite the fact that it was a public bid project, her tenacity and dedication to the project matched ours, and because we collectively bought in to the vision of the project, we were all willing to fight to preserve key elements when they were threatened.

How is architectural education preparing future architects to collaborate, to be receptive to broader participation by all members of a design team?

Collaboration is critical to architectural practice. However, this wasn’t a focus until my last studio in graduate school. Working on a design with a partner taught me the power of cooperative teamwork to create projects that no individual would be able to achieve on his or her own. This positive experience continued during my time in practice, where I often worked with architects, clients, consultants, and contractors who were truly dedicated to utilizing their individual strengths in working toward a collective goal.

I was lucky to have experiences where collaboration was fostered by the process, but I think we should be much more conscious of preparing students by having them work on collaborative projects throughout their education. At the University of Utah, we start this on day one in the first-year undergraduate studios, and we are seeing great results as the cohort of students moves up through the years together. Particularly in the beginning of their education, students have wildly diverse skill sets. Collaborative projects function as great team-building exercises and also as a way to show students early on that they can learn as much, if not more, from each other as they do from their faculty.

FOREFRONT is jointly sponsored by the AIA Center for Integrated Practice, AIA Utah, and the University of Utah College of Architecture + Planning. Are the techniques employed in collaborating on a conference similar to what architects might experience in their work? Is there an approach you found particularly useful that could be implemented in the design process?

The idea for the conference grew out of a continuing education resource, Leadership in Collaborative Architectural Practice (LCAP), that Ryan Smith, an associate professor at the University of Utah and director of the Integrated Technology in Architecture Center, invited me to take part in. During the course of our research, we have been working transcontinentally (he is in Scotland for the year) as well as with AIA staff and leadership consultants in other parts of the country.

Having key team members in remote locations has magnified the importance of the critical collaboration principles that we discuss in LCAP—having clear lines of communication, articulating shared project goals, having all team members understand their individual responsibilities and be held accountable for them, and utilizing technology to aid in the process. These principals underlie collaboration in any field.

When beginning to plan the conference, we built off our research and looked to David Scheer, conference co-chair and former director of the Technology in Architectural Practice Knowledge Community (TAP), as well as other leaders from the Center for Integrated Practice to help bring together applied examples of these principles to have a discussion about what works and what doesn’t. We’ve learned a lot already from the research and conference planning process and are excited to have the national leaders in their fields who are implementing these principles in practice—architects, engineers, consultants, and clients—coming to Salt Lake City in October to discuss exemplary projects that demonstrate collaboration at its best.


FOREFRONT: Architects as Collaborative Leaders

October 24-25, 2013

Salt Lake City

This conference focuses on helping architects learn to lead integrated and collaborative teams. [more

Jointly sponsored by:

AIA Center for Integrated Practice

Technology in Architectural Practice Knowledge Community

Project Delivery Knowledge Community

AIA Utah

The University of Utah College of Architecture + Planning

The Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA)

Member Spotlight

Erin Carraher, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C
School of Architecture, University of Utah
375 South 1530 East Room 235
Salt Lake City, Utah

The School of Architecture at the University of Utah immerses its students in the discipline and analytics of evidence-based design while encouraging risk taking without constraint. The School is housed in a midcentury modern building that was influenced by Le Corbusier's Maisons Jaoul with its traces of craft, expression of material, and insistent presence on campus.


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