Changing Times: The Future of the Architecture Profession Is Not What You Think

“Architects should become owners,” argues architecture student turned developer Brandon Donnelly. “They should insert themselves into the development process.”

Brandon Donnelly Brandon Donnelly

Brandon Donnelly is an architect-trained and tech-obsessed real estate developer who runs an insightful daily blog for city builders. Join his 14,000 followers and subscribers.

Yesterday, I had a really interesting conversation with somebody about the future of the architecture profession. We spoke about how Joshua Prince-Ramus of REX believes that architects have marginalized themselves as a result of shying away from liability. We spoke about how architecture schools need to teach more about about business and making money. And we spoke about why I decided to never practice architecture and instead become a developer.

At the end of it all, he came to more or less the same conclusion that I did in this post. He felt that as more and more trained architects choose to become developers, that maybe the future will be firms that vertically integrate both architecture and real estate development. For those of you not in the building industry, this is a fairly uncommon practice today. Typically, developers retain the services of an architect to design their buildings and do not handle this in-house.

Rendering of Yongsan Tower R6 by REX, Seoul, South Korea; via REX

But there are firms that do. Developer-architect-builder firmDDG out of New York and San Francisco is one example. Although there’s a subtlety worth mentioning. According to their website, they say that they often act as the “design architect” for their projects. This means that there would still need to be an “architect of record” whose name would appear on the building permit and who would ultimately end up shouldering the liability for the design.

You see, a bifurcation has happened even within the architecture profession itself. You have “design architects” who may or may not be licensed but do a lot of the fun design work up front for a project. And you have production-oriented firms that actually produce the technical drawings needed for construction. The fees are generally higher in the latter case (unless maybe you’re a starchitect), but the work is less creative.

41 Bond Street by DDG, New York; via DDG

The emergence of these two streams of architecture is precisely what Prince-Ramus is talking about when he says that architects have marginalized themselves by shying away from liability. He believes that architects are reducing themselves — to designers and stylists — from master builders. So his argument is that architects need to reinsert themselves into more of the building process.

What I’ve been suggesting is that architects should become owners. They should insert themselves into the development process. And the reason I feel this way is because I worry about the tendency for production and construction to just be farmed out to the lowest bidder. Design and development, on the other hand, are high value creation items.

Truthfully, though, I don’t really know which option is better for the profession in terms of relevance. I know which one I’m most interested in, but that could just be a personal preference. What do you think?

Top image: 41 Bond Street by DDG, New York; via DDG. This post first appeared on

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