Background: “The next big wave”

Where are we? How did we get here?

This brief history of the last sixty years of design practice (1955 – 2015) forms a segue from Ava Abramowitz’ Chapter 11.2 on Assertive Practice to my Chapter 11.3, Catching the next big wave. I write this from the perspective of one raised in the American educational system, with standard American values, but with the perspective of having spent more than three decades abroad. This expat view allows me to see the American experience a bit more like the rest of the world sees it; rather than the myopic, self-reflective view that still characterizes pockets of American thinking.

The last big wave

The last big wave, the building of industrial America, had come to a crashing end in 1929. That wave was the last hurrah of the profession of architecture as the vocation of gentlemen – although that wasn’t apparent for some time. In 1941, New England architect Royal Barry Wills (see the epigram to Chapter 9.1) lamented the loss of professionalism to the forces of business. WW II exhausted the world, but its aftermath created the conditions for the next (medium-sized) wave in architecture: a huge pent-up demand for construction, the baby-boomer generation, and a sense of hope, confidence, and invincibility in being ‘American’.

We welcomed the poor and starving of the world before the war, we fought and won two wars at the same time on behalf of our friends, and we were rebuilding Europe with the Marshall Plan. I don’t say this to brag; it was just the way it was seen, and I submit that it reinforced in Americans an ultimately unhealthy sense of self-righteousness that periodically returns to haunt us.

Architecture was already going through a kind of globalization; the Bauhaus had been transplanted to Harvard, and Wright was being edged out of favor by adoration of van der Rohe, Corbusier, Aalto, and others, by the time I was in architecture school in the 50’s. There was plenty of work for everybody, and we pursued it with all the zeal of new-age master builders, with Beaux Arts-inspired training and craftsman guild pride.

We ensured high ethics: no architect could get his hands dirty in construction and be a member of the professional society.

The origins of QM

In the dark days after WW II, the US government dispatched an obscure statistician with experience in census-taking to Japan. This solitary piece of highly disruptive technology, in the form of W. Edwards Deming, changed the world forever. Deming returned to Japan, and taught the Japanese his views on quality. They were humbled by occupation, desperate to rebuild their shattered lives, and they listened, and followed his instructions. Within three decades, by 1980, they were eating Detroit’s lunch, bringing the mighty US auto industry to its knees.

The world-wide TQM movement had started, and Detroit automakers embraced it as the only way to stave off an otherwise inevitable demise. The TQM movement quickly changed manufacturing approaches worldwide. Service industries, like architecture, tried out these ideas, where it was widely seen as a failure and dismissed as a passing fad. However, some governments, big developers and major clients in other countries saw potential in these new ideas, and forced professionals to start using the principles. TQM devolved to QM, which wasn’t quite such a total shock to the practice systems. The first international quality standard was published in 1987 – just three decades ago. (I’m simplifying the story somewhat, but accuracy in detail wouldn’t change the outcome. In fact, Dr. J. M. Juran was already working in quality in industry in the late 1920’s and 1930’s.)

Paralleling the QM ‘coming of age’ were two other critical trends in American architecture: the growth of business models to design, applied both from within and without the industry, and the growth of claims and litigation against design professionals.

The seeds of commoditization

Outside the profession, and as a direct consequence of America’s swing toward improving productivity as a way to fend off the early Asian moves to capture market share of the world’s commodities, many purchasers of design services began to abandon any pretence of treating their architects and engineers as the gentlemen of an elite profession. They starting putting value squarely on the line – largely by challenging hourly rates, percentage fees, and lump sum offers. Commoditization of A|E services had begun.

Within the profession, in the 80’s, Weld Coxe, FAIA, gathered together some of the brightest business-oriented minds of the time into a sort of atelier of business practice, setting in motion a widely-read and followed rethinking of practice around different ways of dealing with the trend Wills had identified 40 years earlier. These efforts were aimed at making sense of and responding to the commoditization pressure from services buyers – and in many ways, they succeeded. These models and some of their variants are noted in Part 6. See also Thoughts on the Coxe/Maister Model vs. the Heifetz Model of Work (Kyle Davy).

The rise of claims against professionals

Litigation, as measured by the number of claims per 100 projects, as well as the ‘severity’ of payouts, had been moving steadily upward for many years, hitting a high point of 44/100 about 1983. The reasons for this growth have been debated at great length. The favorite reasons given are (a) greedy, avaricious lawyers, taking advantage of the ability of US lawyers to work on a success basis, and (b) a growth in errors and omissions caused by clients’ insistence on reduced fees and impossible deadlines.

Do I buy this? First, research by US professional indemnity insurers shows that only about 30% of errors and omissions claims are caused by errors and omissions – the other 70% have other causes. (See Note 1 below) I have met very few greedy, avaricious lawyers! While these factors may have had some influence, I believe there is another, far more powerful cause.

Here I return to the quintessential American post-war mindset noted above: presumption of invincibility, pride and self-righteousness. People with this mindset typically do not see failure as a learning experience. Because they are right, when something goes wrong, it has to be somebody else’s fault, and the right course of action is to find and punish them by seeking compensation.

Whatever the cause (and I don’t expect much agreement on this thesis inside the US), the profession, the AIA, and US professional indemnity insurers were deeply worried about the escalation of claims and the corresponding rise of premiums. In the middle 80’s, the two largest insurers (Victor O. Schinnerer & Co. and DPIC), working with the AIA, began intensive risk management training programs across the country. (Note: DPIC is now XL Group)

These programs worked, and they gradually brought down claims incidence to about half of previous levels (22/100) where they stabilized. While solving the instant problem, these moves did not identify or address the real reasons that clients, as a group, were losing confidence in their design advisors.

There was a dark side to these ‘wins’. Productivity up, risk down. Forces outside us, but with our unwitting full accommodation, were moving big chunks of the profession surely but steadily toward a maginalized, globalized, commoditized, risk-adverse workforce, away from the idea of an esteemed profession long respected for its ability to think beyond the imperatives of running a risk-averse business.

But does it matter? Despite all the outsourcing and off-shoring, most firms with any moxie are very busy at the moment. Despite continuing downward pressure on fees, there is more work around than there are qualified people to do it. Seller’s market, but the buyers hope you won’t realize it.

Here, I return you to Chapter 11.3, to learn more about how to get your practice surfboard up onto the next big wave.

Note 1:  Research by Victor O. Schinnerer & Co. concluded that only about 2% of claims against architects are ‘frivolous’ (see Sources at the end of Part 11 in the book).

Note 2: For a more detailed description of the history of the Quality Movement, see Charles Nelson’s paper TQM/Six Sigma Overview, under References – 2018 Edition.