The Reframing of Architectural Practice

What is the opportunity cost to the profession of not reframing architectural practice and where might we start?

Architects love stories about an architect that’s found success in another profession by utilising their architectural skills. We rarely hear stories about how architect’s have used their architectural assets and skills in order to deliver better practice, better leadership or better culture. It’s time to start writing those stories. It’s time to start creating those stories.

The architecture profession is predisposed to prescribe boundaries around the work they do. Constructing narratives about what type of work is done by an architect – it’s by and large we design and assist in the delivery of buildings. It’s a scope of work that has remained relatively unchanged over countless decades, albeit increasingly diminished. These narratives act to further instate boundaries preventing alternatives and possibility in the work they do.

Here’s why it might be time to start changing the boundaries and narratives and why they matter.

Kodak developed the first handheld digital camera in 1975. They failed to exploit this opportunity as they held onto a narrative about being in the film business. It defined a boundary preventing them from pursuing the digital camera as a business proposition. They ostensibly maintained this boundary for another 25 years, albeit whilst maintaining some digital platform development. The rapidly emerging digital photographic market showed up their error and they attempted to adapt to and adopt. All the while still maintaining a steadfast dedication to physical artefacts of imaging (prints). It was too little, too late and in early 2012 Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the USA. [source:]

The kicker is that upon emerging from bankruptcy, Kodak changed their narrative and boundaries, announcing they were “a technology company focused on imaging for business”. I assert that they had always been a technology company focused on imaging, but the boundaries they invented kept them from exploiting the many opportunities such a narrative might lead to.

Kodak’s trajectory may have been different had they always recognised that they were a “technology company focused on imaging”. They wouldn’t have dropped the first handheld digital camera in the market. It’s conceivable they might have earlier developed software, computer systems, imaging display systems and so on. If it wasn’t for their boundaries, they would have maintained a competitive advantage and market leadership.

As an interesting aside, Polaroid were another early developer of digital photography, also failing to embrace the digital realm in favour of maintaining their business in the instant printed image business. It makes me curious what the equivalent might be within architectural practice. Is there something the profession is ignoring in favour of maintaining the status quo? Alternately I’m curious what change is being dismissed in favour of maintaining the “traditional” boundaries of architectural practice. Fairfax also failed to embrace the coming change of the internet leading to their downfall.

John Fairfax Holdings (later Fairfax Media), was founded almost 180 years ago in 1841. By their estimation they were in the news and media business, with a financial model heavily reliant on revenue from advertising and classifieds. In the closing decades of the twentieth century their leadership (& their narratives) failed them. Despite warnings about impending change due to the internet and associated platforms, they chose not to adapt and embrace the possibilities this new technology might bring. The narratives around their size, reach and strength in the marketplace, blinded them to the possible threat and opportunity that was at hand, dismissing the potential and subsequent threat of the internet. The internet, as a platform for their work and business, was initially held to be outside the boundary of what they identified as their business.

What if instead Fairfax had identified that they were in the “information sales business” and embraced that narrative? Their boundaries would have expanded and they would have recognised the internet as an opportunity instead. At a stretch, they might have beaten Ebay (est 1995) to the punch, seen off Gumtree (est 2000) or even invented Google (est 1998). Instead they ended up struggling to maintain their business, prior being carved up and sold off.

Kodak and Fairfax had blind spots that lead to setting limiting boundaries detrimental to their business. Advantageous boundaries can build an identity, clearly defining the work done, assisting in resourcing, messaging and skills acquisition. Narratives have similar potential to both propel or hold back a business. It’s important therefore to get curious and to critique the narratives told and the boundaries set. Do they help in the work being done, leading to better work and creating opportunity or are they leading to the under-utilisation of assets and limiting opportunity?

The architecture profession may not be a singular business, but it is by and large a singular profession. What might it be able to learn from these examples around assets, boundaries and narratives?

What professional assets are beneficial in the reframing of architectural practice? The many intangible assets such as identity and reputation are supportive but not change-making. The tangible assets such as a legislated market and a body of work, are equally helpful but skills are the interesting tangible assets that might profoundly effect change around the boundaries and narratives of practice.

Architects are highly skilled thinkers: design process thinking (designing), systems thinking, strategic thinking, thinking around corners (thinking ahead in space and time, anticipating consequence). The narrative of architectural practice identifies with spatial thinking, but these other modes of thinking are equally strong assets. Spatial thinking limits the practice of architecture ostensibly to the design of buildings. Bringing other modes of thinking to the fore can expand the boundary of practice.

The foundation of practice is its significant technical skill base and associated knowledge base, specifically around the realisation of built form. Architects marry these knowledge and technical skills with their coordination skills. Their extraordinary ability and skill is to then assimilating and incorporate disparate information and requirements (briefs, consultants, codes, aesthetic, etc), into a creative, resolved and singular proposal. Such a skill is not uniquely applicable to building.

It may be contentious to claim that architects are highly skilled in communication and negotiation, there’s clearly a skill gradient. Regardless, the job requires communication skills, communicating design, with Clients, Councils, Consultants, Stakeholders and so on. Negotiation is intrinsic to such communication and often politic by nature. Many architects are consummate storytellers, clearly articulating a position, building emotional engagement and ideally settling on an agreeable position. Architects have an opportunity to better utilise these core skills.

The point here is not to exhaustively list all the assets or skills of the profession but to identify a number of points from which a reframing of architectural place might start. The intention is to start a reconsideration of the implied and applied boundaries of practice, and it’s acknowledged that there are a number of other skills that might also be brought into this new narrative. The most important thing is to start.

What deliberate and thoughtful boundaries might then be applied to business of practice? Specialisation might, for example, be utilised as a helpful boundary. By specialising in building typology, in delivery, scope, or skills, an architectural practice might clearly define their target market and messaging. Constructive boundary setting, serves to define your identity, expertise, market and messaging. This is known as seeking your smallest viable market.

Architectural practice must also start to identify the potentially damaging boundaries or those that constrain opportunity. What might be lost, for example, as the result of a boundary set by core architectural services? What other possibilities might be out on the edge of architectural practice with a reframing of practice and its core services? What lies beyond the edges of the existing boundaries of architectural practice? As Kurt Vonnegut beautifully observed,

“I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the centre.”

In order to get out to the edge it’s necessary to let go of a narrative defining architectural practice. A narrative that presupposes architects design buildings. Yet as Cedric Price observed,

“The best solution to an architectural problem may not necessarily be a building.”

Accepting that Cedric Price is correct suggests that architects are capable of far more than designing buildings. Taking this further, what if architects were to take on commissions where the “solution” was certainly not a building? What new opportunities might then be possible for architectural practice?

Rather than persisting with the habitual thinking, boundaries and narratives of architectural practice, what if we were to consider architectural practice with a beginner’s mindset (Shoshin)?

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” — Shunryu Suzuki

In the beginner’s mind, what business might architects be in?

The great strength of architects is the way they think. It is not unusual for the observation to be made about the unique perspective and thinking that architects bring to their work. It’s a type of thinking in the service of others (mostly in the delivery of a building). Opportunities abound here for a design practice. Utilising strategic and structural thinking to work more broadly with companies on more than their physical environment or workplace. An integrated approach to workplace design is possible, incorporating the design of and restructure of the organisation itself. Architects bringing higher level change to the organisation.

By adopting a more entrepreneurial mindset architectural practice might utilise a design process thinking to identify new business opportunities, either within or without practice. This work could be in service of their own practice or that of others. Potentially even assisting restructuring established ideas into more coherent strategic directions. To do such work architects would also call upon their coordination skills and ability to think around corners. These are the core skills of architects, bringing new ideas and new structures into existence.

It’s not unusual for architects (or former architects) to be found working on online spaces and interfaces in media and the internet. Why can’t software architecture part of an Architectural practice?

Architects might serve communities, utilising political and storytelling skills to bring positive change to communities as well as a variety of “thinking” skills. Such work may naturally coincide within different scales, of spatial design, urban design, masterplanning or building design. Such work might also include organisational design, strategic design, thinking around corners, coordination, as well political chops, or indeed placemaking.

Placemaking. Surely that’s a business architects are already in, but have seceded to a specialist discipline. Plenty of scope for architects to work in this area as the specialist.

This is just a start in some creative thinking around the reframing of practice. It is not intended as an argument for architects to stop working on buildings (even exclusively), but instead to embrace the possibilities that might lie within practice whilst avoiding the fate that befell Kodak and Fairfax. It’s a start in reframing architectural practice through a reconsideration of the boundaries and narratives in the profession and what possibilities might then open up. How then might architects now frame practice? Taking a cue from Kodak, architects might describe architectural practice as:

“The business of creative and design process thinking in the service of better structures.”

What might that open up for the practice of architecture?

The profession must be aware that change is coming. Practice is fragmenting due to technological pressures and subsequent new specialist disciplines within the construction industry. Learning from the nearsighted vision of Kodak and Fairfax, reframing practice unlocks possibility and is insurance against change.

There are some obvious advantages to taking such a position.

There are always less people out on the edge and therefore that’s where the opportunities lie.

What if by reframing practice, the profession’s value was also reinvigorated?

A final word.

I write this not to suggest all architects must reframe their practice but to encourage those that are interested, to reconsider the possibilities of architectural practice. Too often the complaint is that the traditional roles of an architect are being eroded by new specialist disciplines. What if instead the profession embraced the opportunity to reverse the erosion by reframing the boundaries and narratives around practice. Broadening its scope.

Architects must begin to recognise the opportunity cost to architectural practice by not reframing practice? The cost is to more than the profession.

Picture by Luke Webb on Pexels

Hi! I’m Michael

I’m an architect and coach. I help architects rethink their practice and support them as they uncover better ways to work. I’ve worked in architecture for over 25 years, and I ran my own practice for 14 years. I understand architectural practice from the inside out. Fun Fact: my NSW architect’s registration is #10 007 and I have a license to skill.

I believe improving practice takes asking hard questions and deep listening.

Hear more

subscribe to unmeasured updates & the useletter

Recent Posts

I've just launched a new workshop

Audit your practice

If you’re struggling with your architectural practice,

thinking about changes within your practice,

or wanting to take your practice to the next level.

This workshop is for you.