Get out of the bathroom and into the game

About 60 architects and I spent a full day last week  learning (among other things) that the spacing from the center-line of a toilet to the adjacent wall has changed 1” with the most recent revision to the building code. It was a seminar on the new accessibility code in our state and we were there to maintain the architectural profession’s requirement for continuing education.

To get into an architectural school the people in this room were among the brightest students in their high school class. It’s safe to say not one of them chose this profession so they could design an accessible toilet room, or detail proper thru wall flashing, or specify a water tight roof, or know where to put expansion joints in a masonry wall. Yes, mastery of each of these systems is critical to good building design. Yet this knowledge does not begin to leverage the creative gifts of this room full of intelligent men and women.

The demand for architects who design buildings naturally ebbs and flows with the economy, as does the demand for people who build those buildings, and supply the building products they use. More startling, Seth Godin observes that “the Internet has turned white collar work into something akin to building a pyramid in Egypt. No one could build the entire thing, but anyone can haul one brick into place.” Amazon has created a website that allows a person or company to present a task “and hordes of invisible people will chip away at it, doing work that’s eerily human but requires no personal interaction and very little money.”

We may take comfort in the complexity of building design, believing that no one will ever be able to parse the effort into thousands of micro-tasks, completed for next to nothing by people all over the world. Tell that to the companies who operate their computers and servers on Linux, an operating system developed and maintained by volunteers all over the world and free to anyone or any company who wants to use it. It is naive to believe that building design can never be “deconstructed” in a similar way when there is enough of an incentive. When that happens a large part of the market for architectural services will disappear.

There is good news.  Our industrial production-based economy is turning upside down and the opportunities for a new kind of leader, whom Godin refers to as “linchpins” is emerging. “These are people who own their own means of production, who can make a difference, lead us and connect us.” Architects more than any other professional group understand what this means. “The linchpin is an individual who can walk into chaos and create order, someone who can invent, connect, create, and make things happen. This time, the opportunity is to bring your best self to the marketplace and be rewarded for it.”

The need for architects who can “walk into chaos and create order” does not ebb and flow with the economy, cannot be outsourced to Asia, or spread across the Internet. But there is risk in changing the way we have practiced architecture for a hundred years. Our work may no longer be defined as “building design.” We will encounter deep internal resistance to “anything that feels threatening, risky, or generous.” And not only will there be external resistance, our own lizard brain sabotages us, drives us to maintain the status quo, hold on, not rock the boat, hope for the best.

Not every architect will seize this opportunity. Only a few will be brave enough to challenge the resistance, both external and internal. Having come to understand this new opportunity and the self destructive power of internal resistance, I am convinced that I have one mission for the next 20-30 years:  to help architects tap into their full potential, to understand the need for and to claim the power of being a “linchpin”, to succeed and to enjoy the profession that attracted them in the first place.

An observation about resistance: It has been almost a week since I began writing this post and my internal resistance has been fighting me every step of the way. “Too radical. You will be misunderstood, ridiculed…or worse, ignored.” There is only one way to overcome the resistance and that is to hit the “publish” button. Done.