A Changing Profession

Susan Shannon , 9 February 2015

All professions grow, mature and change – Susan Shannon draws on her extensive body of research to reflect on registration and the shifting shape of the profession, and suggests that practice and academia talk about registration rates!

It is rewarding for an architecture academic when their publication ignites discussion within the profession. It’s especially rewarding for me, as I am extremely invested in the nexus between education and practice. This intersection is also at the heart of John Held’s essay ‘Deskilling and Reskilling Architects and I will respond to some of the questions implicit in this piece by referring to my recent research project, “Why Architecture Graduates Do Not Register as Architects: A Quantitative and Qualitative South Australian Study 1999–2011”.

Academic research is iterative and uncovering the statistics reported in my 2014 paper involved much painstaking work. The project tracked the registration status of all male and female graduates from South Australian universities from 1999–2011, and discovered that 22% of females and 27% of males have registered. This registration status for graduates is the departure point for John’s essay, which exhorts architectural practices to more highly value their role in developing the next generation of architects, particularly by ensuring that graduates are skilled in all areas of project delivery. It questions the link between the skills and knowledge required for current practice and the underlying values and knowledge examined during the registration process. The essay does not directly suggest ways in which universities can better prepare graduates for practice or the path to registration. Although it is not the role of the ACA to recommend potential improvements and change within universities, this is a little disappointing, as the architecture schools are always ready to listen to, and engage with, the profession. That conversation will doubtless continue.

John Held and I registered almost 40 years ago. In 2009, when I was appointed by Minister Patrick Conlon to the Architectural Practice Board of South Australia (APBSA), I was surprised that the registration process itself had changed very little in the intervening 40 years. This is in direct contrast to academia – the teaching I do now is completely different to how I was taught.  I became an examiner for the registration authority for both Registration, and for Recognition of Academic Equivalence (for applicants whose architecture degree is not from Australia). The competencies examined through these processes were very broad and deep, and reflected current and past architectural practice standards. 

What is an architect?

My engagement with research on gendered factors relating to registration led me to the Parlour-organised symposium, Transform: Altering the Future of Architecture, in Melbourne in May 2013. Many passionate arguments were raised there about the narrowness of the definition of an ‘architect’ and the inability of non-traditional architectural practitioners to register, to call themselves architects and to fully realise their ambitions. These were all reported back to the APBSA, and I gave them particular emphasis in my submission to the Architects Accreditation Council of Australia (AACA) review of the competencies for registration. 

This review is the vehicle for real change in defining the necessary skillset and experience of an architect. Undertaken every five years, the review of the competencies sets up the process for the next five years, outlining what is admissible as logged hours in the registration logbook, and shaping university curricula. Having a strong voice on the review committee and making strong and timely responses to the draft (which is broadly circulated) is critical to driving change. Having said that, current Australian registration system has no categories for different classes of architect, be they practitioners, authors, critics, academics, historians, artists, builders, project managers, design managers or developers. The prevailing view of registration is that it confers the legal capacity for sole architectural practice, and with that the authorisation to manage, unsupervised, the entire ‘traditional’ architectural process, from initial client contact through to the defects period and beyond. This is the role John Held describes as the “trusted adviser”.

The recommendations of the AACA review and the final competencies selected for registration logging hours, provide strong evidence that the current profession is uncomfortable with broadening categories for registration beyond the traditional view of an architect. However, such broadening may lead to more uptake of registration. 

Accruing competency

During our research, interview participants did not dwell upon the competency categories for registration themselves as an inhibitor to registration – rather, they focused on the difficulty of securing suitable employment that would enable them to accrue the required competencies. Women and men both strongly stated that practice culture and practice leadership were critical in whether graduates were encouraged and supported to register.

There are obviously two ways of looking at this finding. The first is to conclude that participants in the registration process are disempowered to question the competencies required and the process itself (although they let rip in the interviews I conducted). A second observation is that participants in the registration process can actually see how vital the required competencies are for successful traditional architectural practice – working, as they are, in practice, where they are grounded in the daily machinations of project delivery and contract administration. 

When it comes to non-traditional practice, however, these competencies are simply not aligned. As the Parlour forum attested, registration is often denied to many would-be worthy candidates, who do not wish to practice in a way that would ever need these competencies. In the global view of what an architect is, and can be (which encompasses so much), these alternative views were not heard (in the sense of being supported) in the review and development of the current registration competencies. Australia’s participation in mutual recognition of registration with certain overseas registration jurisdictions may be a factor here. However, these mutual recognition arrangements should not necessarily drive Australian domestic policy where classes of registration could be introduced.

Current registration competencies are supposed to underpin the skills and knowledge required for current practice. Thus, the skills that are logged, and then examined, are the skills that practitioners should know and be able to perform autonomously upon registration. However, I was told on many occasions during the interview process that this is not a particularly realistic scenario, as teamwork and referencing to a broader knowledge base through precedent is the hallmark of current practice. 

It’s interesting to consider the link between registration competencies and what practices are actually looking for when hiring graduates – which skills, knowledge and personal qualities are attractive to architectural practice?

After many years of teaching experience, I have found that most graduating students want to embark on a career path that will involve engagement with the profession, production of actual buildings, and working in an architect’s office. Rather fewer students determine that they do not want to enter architectural practice immediately following graduation from a minimum of five-years tertiary study, with the level of specialisation of an Master of Architecture degree. (This is a further area for research – to thoroughly evaluate this proposition.) I cannot think of a single occasion when a graduate immediately said that they did not wish to gain employment in this field, apart from those few who immediately proceed to a higher degree research. 

The employer's view

In my 2012 research publication “I Wish for More than I Ever Get”: Employers’ perspectives on employability attributes of architecture graduates”, I examined what Australian architectural practices (small, medium and large) were looking for in their new graduate hires. I explored whether architecture schools are educating architecture graduates to enable them to productively engage with industry at the point of graduation, and whether scarce education resources are sufficiently devoted towards the attributes currently sought by employers. In particular I focused on the value employers place on the technology and technical skills in the graduate recruitment process. This is both a measure of future-proofing – in the sense of technical skills enabling a more complete understanding of sustainability and familiarity with technology providing for more effective work practices – and a key discipline-specific graduate attribute along with design skills and computer-aided design (CAD) representation skills.

The gap between the universities’ sometimes idealised view of the architecture graduate and the practical skills required by practice in their graduate hires is much explored in academic literature. Jack Williamson’s 2008 paper, “Assessment of Architectural Work Experience by Employers and Students” argues that practitioners give preference to students and graduates who already possess practical skills, but that academics continue to prepare students by developing graduate capabilities and life-long learning skills to equip them to survive and adapt in an ever-changing profession. Lindsay Johnson posited the same thesis 10 years earlier, pointing out that architectural education focuses on a very singular view of what an architect is – “a design architect, preferably working in her/his own architectural practice, designing buildings with ‘poetics’”. Paula Whitman states that “the cooperative education model necessitates a closer relationship between the academy and practice. These authors believe that the failure to bring practice and the academy together contributes to the gap between the expectations of practice, and the reality of outcomes from university architectural education.”

My 2012 publication was underpinned by a survey and interview process, with twenty-one small, medium and large Australian architecture practices (including the public service) in four states – all of whom employ graduates. Respondents believed that technical skills were marginally more important than design skills, whereas the perceived wisdom in some architecture schools’ curriculum – both through literature (for example, the Johnson paper) and the amount of coursework time devoted to them – is that design and representation are the skills critical to graduates and the profession. This research found that employers from a wide range of practices, and practice sizes, highly prioritise the demonstration of sound technical skills in graduate recruitment, at least equally with design skills. Current sound CAD representation skills are the most highly valued discipline skills by employers. Employers look to graduates’ portfolios, in particular, as a key presentation asset at the time of hiring. Teamwork skills are also highly valued, with self-management, communication, creative initiative and enterprise, planning and organisation, and problem solving all rating higher than four on a five point Likert scale. In this section of the interview, respondents were asked to rate each capacity on the Commonwealth of Australia’s agreed list of ‘employability skills’ (so-called soft skills). These lists are also universally found in one form or another among all universities’ graduate attributes.

Readers are strongly encouraged to look at the full research article for details of the employability skills most highly valued by employers, and to consider that Revit (with its capacity to produce a BIM model) is revolutionising representation, and replacing CAD.

One interviewee was a US employer, who has practiced in the USA for more than 30 years and is a graduate of an Australian school of architecture. S/he commented that “who controls the BIM model controls the project” and that her/his firm had been commissioned to build the BIM model and manage the project delivery for prominent projects – for example, one designed by Sir Norman Foster as his office did not have the capacity to produce and manage the BIM model. S/he further commented that “you build the building twice – first in the BIM model, then on site”, and that the cost of the documentation of the BIM model was more than compensated for by the reduction in clashes between consultants’ documentation delays on site.

The importance of soft skills

Consequently I agree with John Held’s reflection that ‘employability skills’ – particularly evidence of teamwork, which was the most highly valued soft skill in my survey of practices’ graduate hiring priorities – are as critical to the stress-free building of a BIM model, as are graduates’ confidence and competence with Revit and BIM modelling. This skillset also leads to geographic mobility, with one Australian-registered female architect, now employed in New York, commenting – “within three months I had three job offers on the table; within one hour of induction into the firm I selected, I was in the BIM model”.

I also agree with John Held that architects have largely lost their traditional role in project management. However, I am not aware of any developments in education that address this. I do not see project management graduate diplomas available to be studied concurrently with MArch degrees, or specialist streams in project management integrated into double degrees with MArch programs. There are presently 1,000 MArch graduates per annum in Australia. This volume far exceeds architectural practices’ capacity to absorb them – a factor that must contribute to so few registering. In our interviews, both registered and unregistered MArch graduates cited finding suitable employment to accrue the required logbook competences as a major factor in not registering (or delaying registering). If there has been a sideways shift into project management, we should consider that the technical and problem solving skills of architecture graduates, if further equipped with project management qualifications, could make a considerable contribution to the field. 

A growing profession

In conclusion, I would emphasise that professions grow, mature and change. Ours is no different. There are many things we could consider as we adapt to new contexts. This includes broadening the definition of what an architect must know, or be, at the point of registration in a way that would also value alternative career paths. We could also encourage MArch graduates to consider linking a career in project management with their core profession as an architect as a way of increasing versatility and offering more to future employers.

 

References

Lindsay Johnson, “Getting Out of the Sheep Pen: New directions in architecture education. The International Academy of Architecture Conference. Sofia: InterArch. (1997)

Susan Shannon, N Webb, Y. S Zeng and J Holder, “Why Architecture Graduates Do Not Register as Architects: A Quantitative and Qualitative South Australian Study 1999–2011}. Creative Education, 5, 1540–1558 (2014). Published online September 2014 in SciRes. http://www.scirp.org/journal/ce

Susan Shannon, “I Wish for More Than I Ever Get”: Employers’ perspectives on employability attributes of architecture graduates Creative Education (Higher Education Special Edition) 3(6) Oct 2012 pp. 1016–1023 Published online October 2012 in SciRes. http://www.scirp.org/journal/PaperInformation.aspx?PaperID=23573#.VNgi9mSUduE

Louise Wallis, Paula Whitman and Susan Savage, Creating Architectural Knowledge in Contemporary Practice. (Manuka, ACT: Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA), 2005).

B. J. Williamson (2008). “Assessment of Architectural Work Experience by Employers and Students.” In e-Proceedings of the WACE/ACEN Asia Pacific Conference (pp. 607-613). Sydney: Manly. URL (last checked 29 August 2012). http://eprints.qut.edu.au/30599/

Susan Shannon is and architect and Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the School of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Adelaide. This piece was written in response to John Held’s position paper “Deskilling and Reskilling Architects”. 

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