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Brave new practice

It's 2037. What options await the graduate?

A warm morning in April 2037. Career day at Boston’s International College of Architecture. Sara McNally-Ng, a student in her final year, enters the school’s auditorium.

She goes into a booth, sits down in a womblike chair, and pulls a capsule over her head. Images of gleaming skyscrapers in the world’s great cities flash past. A voice speaks:

“We are Vitruvius Giganticus, Limited. Call us ViG.

“In an industry that has been known for smallness, inefficiency, and losing money, we are large, efficient, and very profitable. ViG is the first design-construct corporation to enter the Fortune 50. We are publicly traded, with 146,000 employees, offices in 58 countries, and annual revenues of $180 billion. Do you dream of designing underground cities in Antarctica? Autonomous ocean liners? The logo for the Trans-Himalayan Bicycle Race? Only at ViG can a young archi­tecture grad work on projects like these.”

“How did ViG start?” Sara asks. “You call yourselves a design-construct corporation, but isn’t it true that the company began as builders, not as architects?”

“I see that you are well informed,” the voice replies. “ViG was born in 2027, out of the merger of three of the world’s five largest construction companies. As in other industries — from automobiles to pharmaceuticals to accounting and law — size produces synergies. We are big enough and diverse enough to provide our global clients with all the services they demand. And we have the resources to invest heavily in R&D for new building technologies.”

“So where does architecture come in?”

The voice chuckles. “That grew out of a business opportunity,” it says. “You were probably still in high school, but I’m sure you remember the market crash of 2030. ViG was able to buy up a lot of its smaller competitors: engineering, graphic design, and architecture firms. We have our own real estate development and finance subsidiaries. And don’t think we don’t care about design. Artificial intelligence programs design many of our high-rises, but not all. We took a cue from media companies, such as Disney and acquired all available rights to the modern architectural masters. That’s when we established our Legacy Studio. ViG can design a new building adapting a design by Mies or Wright or Le Corbusier, for clients who care about that sort of thing.”

Practice models continue to diversify, shooting off in radically different directions. In another 20 years, these predictions may seem tame.

Sara doesn’t say anything. “Don’t delay,” the voice says. “You’re talented and ambitious, and I’m sure you have college friends who will be full-fledged lawyers and doctors before they turn 30. You should check out Fast-Track, ViG’s leadership training program, in which we offer salaries that are actually competitive with those in other professions.”

Feeling dazed, Sara walks to the next booth, where a man wearing an antique T-shirt and jeans sits at a drafting table. He shakes her hand and introduces himself as Brian. While he talks, he illustrates his points with pencil sketches, drawn on yellow tracing paper.

“You’ve just come from ViG? At the Slow Build Cooperative, we do things a little differently. You’ll follow a project from beginning to end — starting with concept sketches, and finishing by building and installing cabinets and furniture. There’s nothing like getting sawdust in your hair to help you understand what you’ve designed.”

“A professor took us on a field trip to visit a private-school library you designed,” Sara says. “I really admired the elegance of the design and the care you put into materials and details. But doesn’t this way of practicing limit the scale of your projects?”

“That is a challenge,” Brian says. “From the start we’ve chosen to keep Slow Build small. Our size is capped at 30 architects, and we never take on more than 10 projects at a time. That way we can give each project the attention it needs. Staying small also allows us to maintain our ownership structure as a cooperative, so everyone has an equal share and an equal voice.

“But recently we’ve been developing a national network of other small firms that share our practice model and our values. That way, we can go after bigger projects without losing our firm culture.”

“Is it true that you don’t use computers?” Sara asks.

Brian smiles. “We do draw a lot at Slow Build,” he says. “We believe that there’s something special about the hand-brain connection. But we’re not Luddites. We’ll use any technology that’s available, so long as it helps us make better buildings.”

“But how do people in your firm make a living?”

He tears off the sheet of sketches and hands it to Sara. “Think about it,” he says. “At Slow Build, we’ve found that old ways of making architecture are always new.”

In the third booth, a woman in a white lab coat greets Sara. “I’m Dr. Chris, from PlanetCare.” She points to a large screen that displays images of buildings and landscapes and pulsing graphs of data. “That’s the real-time environmental monitoring for a mixed-use community we manage.

“PlanetCare’s mission is to help owners meet federal standards for net-zero carbon emissions, as mandated by Congress in the Build It Green Act of 2021. We redesign building systems to reduce energy demand, install on-site solar and wind, and create wetlands to absorb the floods caused by sea-level rise — all at our own cost.”

“And we don’t just talk about sustainability; we make measurable promises to show how we will achieve it. The owner doesn’t pay us unless we’ve met all regulatory standards — in which case, we get a share of the operational cost savings and of any appreciation in value upon sale.”

“Isn’t that awfully risky?” Sara asks. “I was taught in my professional practice course that architects should never make legal commitments that their insurance companies won’t cover.”

“No risk, no reward,” Dr. Chris says. “For too long, architects have shied away from responsibility for building construction and performance. At PlanetCare, we’ve found that with the right mix of in-house expertise, we can take back that responsibility and make our practice model work. Only about one-half of our staff are architects and engineers. We have a good number of scientists, like me. (I have a PhD in climatology.) The rest are business people, with backgrounds ranging from finance to facilities management.”

“What you do sounds worthy,” Sara says, “but where does design innovation come in?”

“That depends on how you define innovation. Think of PlanetCare as the architectural equivalent of the family doctor. You’ll have the satisfaction of helping to heal damaged ecosystems and communities. Our projects may not produce slick images or win design awards; but our market keeps growing, and we just got a new round of Wall Street financing.”

Do these scenarios for the future of practice sound far-fetched as we try to imagine how the architectural profession might evolve over the next few decades? Perhaps — but the current state of practice would have seemed far-fetched 20 years ago, when there was no BIM, no LEED, and only three American firms had more than 1,000 employees. Practice models continue to diversify, shooting off in radically different directions — from ever-larger corporations that expand through mergers and acquisitions to small practices that meld design with the crafts of making to mission-driven firms dedicated to environmental and social sustainability. In another 20 years, these predictions may seem tame.

As for Sara, career day 2037 is leaving her with a lot to think about. There are so many different architectural paths that she could follow, once she figures out how to start paying off the $750,000 she owes in student loans. ■