Not so long ago, I sat down with my son, Jake, a college student who is majoring in the family business: architecture. While our conversation sounded like a typical father-son exchange, when the topic turned to his career path, I couldn’t help but put on my business face and give him a talk about how the field of architecture has changed since my father—and even my father’s father—had similar aspirations.
Before I discuss those changes, let me shed some light on where it all began, long before my brother Marc and I decided to become architects. For those of you who don’t know the back story, our father, Michael Harris Spector, dreamed of becoming an architect after watching his dad work as an architect for a national shoe manufacturing firm.
After graduating from Syracuse University in 1961, he went to work for another architect before deciding to hang out his own shingle, founding some 46 years ago what is known today as Spector Group. Word of mouth got out about the quality of his designs and, before you knew it, he had developed relationships with several single-family residential developers on Long Island. By the mid-’60s and into the early ’80s, that led to work throughout the New York metropolitan area, including corporate office building design.
You see, back then, if you were a qualified architect with personality, that could take you pretty far. Business sense was simply a bonus. However, as Spector Group grew, my father had the insight to realize that a business plan was not a luxury—it was a necessity. Even to this day, most architects are not groomed to be businesspeople, but they should be! Newbie architects often enter the work force only to be quickly brought up to speed about the way the world works, but that’s certainly far from ideal.
Over the past few years, I’ve seen a shift: architecture schools are encouraging students to minor in business to make them well-rounded, appealing candidates. For instance, if I interview three architects at the same level with the same design and technical skill set, and one of them has business acumen as well, who do you think is getting the job? And guess what subtle suggestion I made to my own son? (Yes, he is majoring in architecture with … ahem, ahem … a minor in business).
What else has changed in recent years? Architects are being asked to design more build-to-suits for corporations rather than just speculative office spaces for building owners, and to renovate existing structures rather than create ground-ups, in reaction to today’s economic climate. Being open to changes has helped our firm thrive.
By 1998, we opened our Manhattan office and increased our core/shell and interiors work, building upon a solid reputation in Long Island and a need in the market. That risk paid off. While we do everything to anticipate what could happen in five to 10 years, it may not turn out to be what we thought it would. For instance, who could have foreseen the boom of social media firms, not on the West Coast, but here in New York? Yet that is where these companies are—for now, anyway.
Another shift is the need for LEED. As green buildings and sustainability become more commonplace, LEED design will be standard or law, not a special designation. Buildings of the future will need to have smaller imprints, and there will be new standards to adhere to that we don’t even know about yet. The sky will be the limit for future generations.
Today’s architect is—and will be—expected to deliver, both faster and much more accurately. The tools and technology we have in place are a far cry from the hand drawings of the ’60s. While a high level of skill is still needed, software, including drafting programs for iPads, has increased productivity. Modeling continues to be part of the business, but rather than hand-cutting replicas, 3D scans and renderings, as well as 3D printing, make these time-consuming tasks less so. Will we see smaller home versions of these? Will every architect have a 3D printer on his or her desk one day? Who knows, but I can definitely see innovation bringing architecture to a whole new level that my grandfather could never have imagined.
Speaking of the future, tomorrow’s architect might want to think beyond the basics and consider becoming fluent in a foreign language or two. As the business world becomes more of a melting pot and foreign investment continues to make its way into Manhattan, being able to communicate with others, no matter where they come from, will be more important than ever before. It’s not unheard of to receive a request for a project manager or project architect who can speak Japanese (or Chinese or Russian) with a tenant!
Despite all of these advances, one thing has not changed: the need for a skilled design professional to take projects from A to B to C. While tomorrow’s architect will need to do so much more than “just draw,” he or she will still need the people skills that helped my own father build Spector from the ground up all those years ago.