Towards a better future for academia and practice

By Nissa Dahlin-Brown, Assoc. AIA,

University of District of Columbia School of Architecture


Emerging professionals and the architectural workforce at large will benefit from collaboration between schools and firms

With shifts in technology and generational divides in the architectural workforce, it’s hard to imagine just what practice will look like in 2025. Are academia and practice doing all they can do to prepare and support young professionals entering the profession? This question was at the heart of a discussion at the 2018 Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) annual conference, where AIA gathered architects, academics, and emerging professionals to examine what each group really needs to move the practice of architecture forward.

David Morris, AIA, of The Beck Group in Denver, and Corey Griffin, associate professor of architecture at Portland State University, agreed that the practice most needs graduates who can think critically, work on teams, and have the emotional intelligence to adequately work with clients and colleagues. As the scale and complexity of projects grow, collaboration is critical to Beck’s design/build business model. “Students come out [of school] as great designers, but their ability to connect in a team situation with clients or subcontractors is a challenge,” said Morris. “We look for students with emotional intelligence, and it is a difficult find.”

Griffin strongly believes that by working alongside other disciplines—while also pursuing research projects in school—they can better prepare students for professional practice. “If we are going to create the next generation of buildings, the engineers have to be at the table, too. Our students and practitioners need to know how to speak to each other. As we go on paths in school and career, we diverge and silos are built,” he said. To prevent such divides, Portland State offers classes in which engineering and architecture students work together with firms on building research projects. “We must find more ways to do that in the academy,” Griffin asserted.

Nick Caravella, AIA, of Denver’s Davis Wince Ltd. Architecture, believes that practice has just as much to gain from interdisciplinary and research-oriented endeavors. “With integrated project delivery, we don’t need to be the expert in everything. We want to leverage the expertise of others,” he said. “By encouraging a culture of research, and pushing all the teams to deliver more, [we see that] collaboration is immensely valuable to innovation in architecture.”

“Collaboration is immensely valuable to innovation in architecture.” -Nick Caravella, AIA

Research is a linchpin

Research appears to be an ideal common ground that brings together academy, architecture, and related disciplines. The Georgia Institute of Technology offers design and research graduate studios during final year of an M.Arch program that links to research efforts in the Master of Science in Architecture (MS.Arch) program. The studios provide an interface between research and practice along with an opportunity to acquire state-of-the-art expertise in a specialized area of knowledge-supported practice, according to Julie Ju-Youn Kim, AIA, associate chair, professor, and undergraduate program director at Georgia Tech. “We build links with industry in order to redefine the role of the graduate degree programs vis-à-vis the profession. We imagine our graduates can play a significant role in shaping the direction of practice. Partnerships between industry, practice, and the academy are fundamental to our curriculum,” she says.

Griffin, who co-founded the BUILT Research-Based Design Initiative at Portland State, identified similar programs on the West Coast, including the Center for the Built Environment at the University of California, Berkeley and the Integrated Design Lab at the University of Washington. Such partnership programs are equally advantageous to students, firms, and universities. After participating in research projects, students enter practice knowing how to investigate problems and use tools. They can then train other staff, so firms no longer need to go to the university. For architects, quality research and talent comes to the forefront of their practice.

When it comes to research initiatives, there are clear ways to improve the relationship between academia and practice. Griffin noted that businesses don’t always realize the cost and time required for quality research—nor do they believe they can afford it. Firm participation in BUILT requires a modest fee and some dedicated staff time, but the company benefits from the rigorous timeline and projects that inform both better practice and design.

On the firm side, Morris admitted that when The Beck Group forayed into partnering with a university on research, their questions revealed that they were not knowledgeable. “We did not know what we were looking for. It was exciting for our firm, but we were not successful,” he said. “We were not aligned with the studio’s needs, and we found the timeline of our real project with the school’s timeline did not mesh.”

Creating a more innovative workforce

For the emerging professional, there is also a divide between what happens in school and what they experience in the workforce. Caravella completed his B.Arch in 2012 and became licensed in 2017. While happy with his education, he felt he would have benefited from less “blue-sky” and more real-world applications from academia, a common refrain of recent graduates.

When he entered practice, Caravella found that firm leaders were so focused on their immediate needs that they forgot that young employees desire challenges, new growth opportunities, and support for passing licensure exams. Another part of the problem was that while firms embraced new technology and tools, they seemed resistant to examining their practice methods and culture.

“We don’t need to identify the rating of a door in a fire-rated wall because we have information modeling,” said Caravella, citing an example. “How can we leverage technology and tools to make better decisions? [Why can’t we] step back from what we are doing every day—just because it has always been done that way—and discover more efficient ways of working?” That kind of innovative thinking that students are celebrated for in school is often stifled when they enter the workforce.

A stronger profession

To build a stronger profession, representatives from academia and practice settled on a few recommendations. First, if educators are more mindful of the business of architecture and offer curricula that reflects real-world practice with its strict program limitations, client consultation, and collaboration inside and outside the field, students will leave school better prepared. And if academia better educates practitioners about research methods and the value of engaging in research projects, then they can work together to make architectural advancements.

Practice, on the other hand, must support students and faculty, be open to alternative ways of working, and give their enthusiastic young employees more agency at work through mentorship, responsibilities, and collaborative opportunities. When architects and firm leaders are supportive of new ideas and professional development, their businesses will thrive.

Practice and academia should work towards the common goal of a more engaged profession—one that educates and supports the next generation and, through research, advances the future of architecture.

The 2018 ACSA Annual Meeting brought together academics and practitioners from across the country. The AIA panel moderated by Phil Bernstein, FAIA, associate dean at the Yale School of Architecture highlighted tensions between architectural practice and academia with the goal of inspiring further dialogue.

AIA is committed to strengthening the link between academia and practice, dedicating efforts to higher education,emerging professionals development, and architectural research.

Nissa Dahlin-Brown, Ed.D, Assoc. AIA, is director of higher education at AIA.

Image credits

University of District of Columbia School of Architecture

Greg Powers

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