Recently, a group of Nevada-based architects gathered at Cili Restaurant in Las Vegas to discuss current challenges within the profession, including the economic slowdown, staffing issues and sustainable design. Connie Brennan, publisher of Nevada Business Journal, served as moderator for the event that brings industry leaders together to discuss issues pertinent to their professions. Following is a condensed version of the roundtable discussion.
The architects agreed that Nevada’s economy will turn around faster than the rest of the country. The completion of large projects on the Strip will lead to job creation and spur the need for housing. They were optimistic that 2009 will bring a better economy to the state.
Robert Fielden: We’ve got enough work to get us through 2008. In 2009, all of the new projects on the Strip are scheduled to open. In addition, work continues on MGM’s massive CityCenter project and as all that construction proceeds, it will have a major impact on housing, which will help all other sectors.
Joseph Rothman: The smart developers who have the funds available to hire architects for the next year have realized, that if you hire us today and sign a major project, it will be another 18 months before building permits are in hand to start construction. So that puts you right in the middle of 2009. If a building needs to be completed in 2009, you better hire the architect right now.
Those in attendance voiced concerns about the increased costs of construction and its impact on the industry. As a result of higher costs, architects said that projects are being delayed and cancelled.
Gary Congdon: We have seen some of our projects that we thought would be breaking ground now, being pushed off until 2009. I’m probably a little bit more pessimistic. I think it’s going to be 2010 before we really bounce out of this. Nevertheless, we are doing plenty of work, bigger stuff, but it seems to be moving slower.
John Anderson: We do a lot of work with very large companies, and some of their projects have been cancelled. Major projects undergo much more scrutiny than in the past.
Congdon: The cost of building has increased tremendously over the last few years, and as a result, projects planned two or three years ago have been cancelled. Owners had to determine to cut back or spend more money, and we’ve seen a combination of both. Some projects have been downsized, but will proceed. Some are electing to pause on the design side, and will not move forward with construction until the economy levels out and pricing stabilizes a little more. A number of companies are reevaluating internal projects, so some of the larger remodeling jobs have been cancelled or put on the back burner.
Paul Heretakis: I think money is the absolute key. Finding money is not that easy to do and it’s affecting a lot of what we are trying to do.
Howard Thompson: I really don’t see the cost of construction dropping significantly. Even if the cost of material comes down because of labor, we’re not going to see the costs of labor, concrete or steel drop to levels paid 10 to 15 years ago. They will decrease somewhat, but we’re not going to see a dramatic decrease.
Those in attendance expressed concerns about the new technology used in the architecture industry. Most agreed that the technology used in their industry is constantly changing and it makes it difficult to keep all employees up to speed.
Domingo Cambeiro: As an industry, we don’t really step up and help the architecture schools with everything we can in order to interest students in the profession. Instead, they are going to technical schools where they are taught everything on a computer. It’s a monkey-see, monkey-do attitude.
Pete Blakely: Just because you are a CAD operator doesn’t mean you are an architect. We don’t have enough people getting into this business with the experience and knowledge of what it takes to succeed. Most of the young people coming right out of college, don’t want to put in the time and they expect to move right up the ladder.
David Moss: It’s shocking how quickly you lose touch with technology if you are not doing it day-in and day-out. It’s a battle to keep people educated and productive with software changing every two years. The ever changing state of technology is a real challenge.
Sean Coulter: I think we are experiencing a shift. I came into the industry when pen-dropping became obsolete and operated AutoCAD right out of school. AutoCAD is a two-dimensional program, and now, we are getting into billing information management (BIM), which is a three-dimensional program. I think there is a whole new level of technology that we have to consider. How do we get everybody up to speed? We have a few people in the office who know how to use it, but it is a challenge to educate the rest of the office without having to make anybody suffer because they lack knowledge on software.
Rothman: When AutoCAD was first introduced to the industry, companies wouldn’t hire an architect if he or she didn’t know AutoCAD. An entire generation of people left architecture because they didn’t want to learn AutoCAD, and we lost a lot of the mentors. We lost a lot of the people who taught us what we know.
The Art of Architecture
When most of these architects began their careers, architects drew everything by hand. According to those who attended the roundtable, today’s generation only knows how to use the computer programs for drawings.
Cambeiro: The universities should be teaching students how to draft with their hands. There is an important connection between your brain and your hands, and if you only learn how to do the job by using a computer, you bypass that artistic part of architecture that is so important.
Heretakis: I agree. In my experience, I have asked people in my office to sketch designs for me, and they come back and tell me they don’t know how. They don’t know how to draw an arch, a circle or a straight line.
Thompson: The good old days are gone, and the students coming out of school today don’t know how to draw, and they will never learn.
Rothman: We have actually been fairly lucky to get some of UN LV’s professors to work full-time for us during the summers in a mentoring capacity. Unfortunately, what happens, and we all see it, as young employees get a little more knowledgeable and experienced, they hear they can make more money or jump into a better position with another company. Despite these problems, it remains our responsibility to teach the younger generation because they will have to pass on this knowledge in the future.
Sustainability has become the standard for all development, but architects were using green practices well before it became a trend. Here, the architects discuss sustainability as a way of life and how educating clients on sustainability is key.
Coulter: Sustainability is a very important aspect of architecture. To me, architecture is more than just sustainability – it’s more qualitative than quantitative. You can measure quantitatively, but how do you measure quality? That’s a very important part of the industry.
Rothman: Sustainability is using products that have the least amount of impact on the environment, but in the end it still boils down to costs. If a client considers a central plant that can save him enough money in a year, he’ll be for it. But, if it’s going to take three or four years to return the investment, he won’t do it. It’s pure economics.
Thompson: With all of the exposure and education on sustainability, if your building doesn’t have a green component, it won’t fly anymore. Just about everything that comes down the pipe today better be green or it will face a lot of scrutiny in the market.
Anderson: Nowadays, sustainable design needs to be a fundamental architectural practice. We don’t just need to be good architects, we need to sell good architecture.
Cambeiro: As architects we all have been involved for years in finding ways to incorporate sustainable elements into green building designs – day lighting, improved air quality, energy conservation and the like. It’s encouraging, as well, to see that clients are now savvy to the benefits of sustainable building design, particularly in the U.S., we tend to waste so much because it is convenient and cheap to do so. Our awareness of sustainability is such that, while we don’t like to be forced to do certain things, we now understand that the ultimate reward is well worth the extra costs paid up front. In fact, many of our clients have discovered that the unique advantages and benefits of a green building enable them to offset additional upfront costs and wait as long as seven years for a monetary return on their investment in sustainability.
We asked the architects in attendance if they thought it was their obligation to educate their clients about environmental accountability. All agreed, that educating clients is part of being an architect.
Cambeiro: It’s part of being an architect. It’s not an obligation, it’s a responsibility and integral part of the profession.
Frank Dumont: It’s part of what we should do. It shouldn’t be optional. We all have to be leaders and set an example.
Christopher Larsen: The biggest thing green building has brought to the table is not in the way architects do the business, but through the monumental innovations occurring in construction techniques, as well as the manufacturing of materials and supplies. It’s the clients who are looking at it and recognizing the benefits of a cost effective or energy efficient building.
Blakely: We have actually initiated green practices internally, as well. For example, we have started using double-sided paper and electronic transfers to minimize in-office printing, and it has saved us $5,000 in paper costs. So suddenly, I’m a big believer.
The industry professionals don’t feel the public knows or understands what an architect is or does. They believe the profession deserves respect, which they feel they don’t always receive.
Larsen: No, I don’t think it ever has. When you read a newspaper article about a brand new building, it only mentions the developer and contractor. How often do you see the reporter go expend the effort to identify the architect?
Fielden: While we don’t get the credit we deserve, I think the public at-large perceives the profession as possessing a degree of trustworthiness far beyond that of other professions. Being an architect is not a job or a career, it’s a way of life. Most people are not willing to invest the amount of dedication necessary to make it a way of life.
Larsen: More than that, it’s the talent. Not everyone can be an architect. The profession carries a certain mystique. To take a blank piece of the paper, listen to a client, and create a building, that’s magical and not everyone can do it.