Deskilling and Reskilling
John Held reflects on deskilling and reskilling in the profession. Have architects lost the role of ‘trusted advisor’? What do low registration rates mean and what skills do we need to be effective in the future?
Susan Shannon’s recent paper on the numbers of both male and female architects that complete their registration exams has provoked a number of discussions in our office – about gender, registration, and what skills an architect needs to practice.
We have debated the nature of architectural education, the relevance of registration, and whether architects are being deskilled. If architects are gradually retreating from what was considered “full service” is it because our talents are better suited to areas like design, or because others have invaded our turf?
When I graduated in the 1970s I saw the start of the rise of the project manager. These people took advantage of a fairly tumultuous period in the construction industry, with rampant inflation and difficulty in sourcing trades. Architects were seen as not being able to control cost and time, so the project manager was inserted between the architect and client to manage time and cost. Was this our own fault? Probably. We let go of one skill, and as a result often lost our trusted advisor status with clients. Once that was lost, it was easier for clients to seek competitive bids because the inherent value of our work was limited to a bit of design and documentation, not advice about the client’s business.
Many of the recent books, articles, and comments about the future of architectural practice emphasise the need to regain that trusted advisor status and get rid of those parts of our work that can be commoditised.
In her essay ‘Architecture’s Undisciplined Urban Desire’, Dana Cuff suggests this may take the form of ever-larger, multi-disciplinary firms increasingly concentrating on urban and infrastructure projects. Local and interstate firms increasingly are divorced from the construction site, being novated to the builder early in the design process and sending their documentation offshore. They see ‘design’ as their value proposition. In this scenario, many of the criteria for registration are increasingly irrelevant. Architecture is a creative industry and therefore deserves special status. The hollowing out of the profession that started with the loss of “project management” as a core architectural skill is happening again.
Is this a bad thing? The creative professional, often with minimal practical skills, seems to be the ideal product of our architectural educational system. Yet our graduates are unanimous in valuing the bit that comes next – learning the day-to-day practicalities, from construction to contracts, from client psychology to waterproofing, from detailing to truly understanding materials. Registration is seen as an important rite of passage. The concern of my colleagues is that the system relies on the sharing and passing on of knowledge (and wisdom), and that link can be broken in one generation. Traditionally architecture was based on an apprenticeship model, but the last vestiges of that could soon be lost. Will a deskilling of construction knowledge – something that takes years to learn, unlike modern software which can be taught in weeks – inevitably lead to design which has lost its spark and detail, and buildings that look and function like student projects?
The continued training of graduates of architecture in all aspects of the profession is a big commitment – and a rewarding one. It requires changes in the way we value our time and work, so that we can afford to involve graduates in all aspects of a project. Your first design detail that doesn’t work on site is a great learning experience, although it does nothing for your confidence.
Susan Shannon’s research shows that a lack of confidence is one reason that fewer females register. Karen Burn’s recent article in ArchitectureAU on why women leave the profession is instructive:
… the combination of low pay, long hours and the sheer obstinate dedication and iron will required to be a successful architect outweighed their own personal passion or resilience. Other responses revealed that self-esteem issues affected women’s self-perceived capacity to contribute to the profession, and respondents reported feeling inadequate as architects, particularly as designers. The high honour we attribute to ‘design’ relegates other core skills and tasks to ancillary ‘work’.
Is there a pattern here? Is ego compatible with trusted advisor status? Is the shift away from a broad-based model of practice to a ‘design focus’ a true or the only reflection of ‘value adding’? And is the emphasis on design above all else in architectural education encouraging deskilling at a later stage of architects careers? Design and practical application are not either/or – they are two sides of the same skill set. Most of the ‘design’ architects I admire are just as knowledgeable about intricate construction details and methodology as grand visions of architecture. On so many projects architects are the first on board and the last to leave – and often the only people at the end who were there at the beginning. If that is the case, and that project knowledge and professional expertise is valued and utilised, how can documentation and contract administration be regarded as ‘commodities’? They become valuable parts of the architect’s contribution to what Davy and Harris describe as the client’s ‘organisational ecosystem’, where providing a built solution is only part of the architect’s contribution.
Rather than deskilling, especially in documentation and contract administration, architects should increase their skills in this area, by producing better-resolved documentation and being attentive on site. Many architects have either moved into design management (another specialty) in construction companies or become builders in their own right, using the architect’s skill set to different ends. It does raise the spectre, however, of someone other than the architect having the ultimate control of design.
From the Orgill Report on the Building the Education Revolution program, through to the recent Productivity Commission Report on Infrastructure, the themes of the importance of an educated client and a mature approach to risk management are repeated. Architects rejoice when these topics are considered on day one of a project. A message to construction lawyers: the knowledge of how to shift risk is not the same as the wisdom required to reduce risk. Ask those at the bottom of the construction food chain how it works in practice.
Shannon’s discussion about the confidence of female graduates as they work towards registration might be stem from the same attitudes to risk within practices – what happens if you make a mistake? Are you supported in learning and growing by the practice?
One of the biggest threats to us, and at the same time our greatest opportunity to resolve many of these issues, is through BIM. This does sound far-fetched, but an understanding of true nature of the BIM process shows that it is not about technology or specific software, but a different way of working. Being able to truly collaborate with other professionals and building team members from early design through to well past handover of the building changes behaviours, programs, briefing and cost control. It demands better-resolved briefs, structured decision-making, better design resolution, and a better grasp of construction. There is no longer an excuse for a lack of coordination, shoddy documentation and an attitude that someone else will sort it out later. It demands truth, and that truth can set us free, if we can rise to the challenge. No longer is documentation a commodity, but an essential part of the virtual construction process that precedes the actual construction. No longer should the loudest voice in the room win. Truly integrated project teams should function very differently to the way many current projects are run, and there is no reason to think that architects should not be leaders in this process.
Many of the skills required for integrated project teams are ‘soft’ skills – diametrically opposed to the office cultures Burns describes above. The preponderance of males at BIM technical events is probably a reflection of what is becoming an outdated view of BIM as software or obscure technical processes. Implementation of this new approach does not happen by hiring an expert, but by culture change within the organisation. This can only be good for new models of equitable practice.
Shannon’s work shows that barriers to registration may be different for women and men, but for both genders a large majority of graduates do not register as architects. This might be a waste of education resources, a failure of the profession to encourage graduates or a reflection of hard economic times. It might be a cause to celebrate lots of people with design training doing interesting stuff. It might reflect on pain, heartache and a sense of loss that people studied for a long time without achieving their ultimate goal. It might reflect badly on those with power in the profession who have not reached out to help or transferred their skills to a new generation.
Whatever registration looks like in the future, it should value the men and women graduates who are the future of the profession. Or, in a generation, we will all be lost.
 Shannon, S.J., Webb, N., Zeng, Y.S., and Holder, J. (2014). Why Architecture Graduates Do Not Register as Architects: A Quantitative and Qualitative South Australian Study 1999–2011. Creative Education, 5, 1540–1558.
 Kyle V Davy and Susan L Harris: Value Redesigned – New Models of Professional Practice, Greenway 2005
John Held is ACA – SA President and a director of Adelaide practice Russell & Yelland.