Mobile Architecture

My last post on the architect’s staff meeting was so popular I decided to follow up with another provocative question about the practice of architecture.  The practice of architecture, and all things that can even be remotely associated with it, are of constant interest to me as I continue to learn and grow as an architectural professional.  And that should be the task of all architects and designers, even those who maybe do not “call the shots”, so to speak.  If we’re not constantly trying to improve ourselves as architects, as designers and as professionals then eventually we will fall behind and we will fail.  This is why I continue to ask questions and challenge time tested ideas for new solutions and new possibilities.  Most people find that really annoying about me, but that’s a different story.

So, the question is:

Can architecture be mobile?

More specifically, I’m wondering, can a practice be mobile?  Can a successful architectural studio have no studio?  Instead of employees stumbling into a shiny new office 5 days a week, could those same employees instead be spread out over, say, the continental US, meeting instead via a digital office, an office “in the cloud” as the catchy commercials whisper?

As the economy continues to slump down the road at a snails pace and more and more architects and designers are either hopelessly unemployed or striking out on their own scraping together all the cast off projects others don’t want, could the firm of the future be simply a collaborative effort of many individuals working together for the cause of architecture rather than the cause of money?

I believe all of these things are possible and more.  Imagine small firms and sole practitioners banding together across the country, and even across the world, to pool the best talents to produce the best work for the client and the end users.  Is this just a foolish utopian ideal?  Am I dreaming with my head too far up my own ass?  Can architects and designers finally start setting aside our overstuffed egos and form relationships and practices that are revolutionary in a way that will not just help ourselves, but help everyone?  When the architectural community actually BECOMES a community, amazing things will happen in our built environment that will positively affect generations.

The question really becomes:

Why isn’t architecture mobile?

17 thoughts on “Mobile Architecture

  1. I have been pondering this subject for over a decade, but have not given any energy into it. I especially became interested eight years ago when I went on my own. Yes to your questions, architecture can be mobile and yes perhaps it should be mobile. Other industries are putting together “virtual offices” just search for it under Google, you’ll get 7 million hits. I believe if we could pool ourselves, admit to our strengths and use them collectively we could form a community to do some amazing things. Perhaps the nation or world would really see our value.

    The drawback to it is architects are really not risk takers. Perhaps we have never had the resources (cash, coin, moolah, dough) in our piggy banks to support us in case we fail at a risky venture. Nevertheless, I am interested in it, if for no other reason to avoid the status quo.

    There are logistical and software hurdles to overcome (i.e. different time zones, different CAD/BIM software, fragile architect’s egos), but with open communication, that could be solved.

    Ok, keep it going, how can we get this past a blog post?

    • Ah, you’re like my brother from another mother. 😉 Logistical concerns are really where the rubber hits the road in my opinion. Everything else is just management details. Cross platform issues (which we deal with already with our consultants, by the way), time zones (pssh, who needs sleep?!) and egos….ok I’ll give you that one. I had a sit down with a friend of mine last week to talk about this very thing. He runs his own virtual hosting business. Essentially it is a “office”, or server, that can be accessed anywhere. And anyone can have one and set permissions of the fly. So lets say you and I partner up on a small project. I host the data and give you permission to access the drawings and other documents associated with that project. You would essentially have your own “desktop” in my “office” to work from anywhere in the world at any time of day. Conferences and meetings can be handled via phone and skype and site/field visits can be handled by whoever is closest (if that’s how things work out). Oh, and the “software” can either be purchased and leased out by the virtual host or installed directly on the server. I’ve got a small demo server set up that I’m trying to find time to test out. Will let you know how it goes.
      And actually, I disagree with you that architects aren’t risk takers. To me architects are the ultimate risk takers because it’s our profession to take something that has never existed and give it physical form. Isn’t that the biggest risk of all? Creation.

  2. Point well taken on the risk taking aspect…never thought of it that way. As for the logistics, I am a great architect, but lousy with IT stuff. So when it comes to strengths and weaknesses, there you go. I hope others comment, otherwise throw it out on LinkedIn…maybe I will.

  3. I think its possible in some places and for some situations, but technically we’re still rooted in locations and their climates etc.. The biggest obstacle I have experienced is cultural, many countries including all of the US and Canada are still protectionist so that’s a problem and the car culture is a real bummer in these places too as its very limiting and ultimately destructive of “buildings” opposing their staticness with its shiny techy mobility, so live by the sword maybe die by it too?!

    • Great comments, Lisa. I tend to agree with you that this is a big part of why we’re not moving towards this method of business. But, do you think that, as the current generation (those in their late 20s to late 30s) move into either positions of power within small and medium sized firms or even start their own, that this “protectionist” mentality becomes less and less of an obstacle and more of an excuse not to take a risk on something great?
      I think as global communication continues to get more and more efficient, it’s becoming easier and easier to build lasting professional relationships with quality professionals across a multitude of disciplines across multiple cultures and continents. This process will naturally break down those boundaries and hindrances you talked about.
      If the cultural “walls” broke down, would you be more inclined to participate in this sort of structure?

  4. After 30 years in California, my firm “hit the wall”….with no new projects for an entire year…..I went back Home (New York). Within 3 months, I had 8 new projects in California. I now have active projects all over the country & beyond….5 in California, 3 in Pennsylvania, 2 in Mississippi, 1 in Delaware and several more tentative projects in California, Hawaii, New York, Panama. I work out a 100 year old farmhouse in UpState NY….fly a lot….carry my drawings on a USB Flash Drive….use several FTP sites to provide clients and remote engineers/contractors/consultants with access. All my phone numbers and emails are forwarded to my Blackberry……and my laptop is my best friend. Licensing is no problem when I can consult & coordinate with other licensed Architects and Engineers in the states where I don’t have a license.

    I guess my answer to the question of whether or not Architecture can be Mobile is….”Yes”.

    • Patrick, thanks for your comments. I’m glad to finally hear from someone who has successfully made the transition to a mobile office and is in fact thriving. This is where I see small practitioners going even as the economy gets better. Collaboration across state lines and even across continents can only benefit the profession and the client as well. Cheers.

    • @Patrick This is fascinating to me. I think it would be great to hear more about how you got these projects and a bit more how you manage them. I can’t say I’d be a fan of flying all over the country leaving my family behind, but I’m intrigued by your success.

      • Being single allows me to be involved with my business 10 to14 hours/day (which is necessitated by having projects in different time zones)…..usually 7 days/week…..often including holidays. Certainly not for everyone, but it works for me. My grown sons live on the West Coast, which is a major incentive for me to travel. The management part of it is the most difficult. Most of my work is repeat business and referrals from previous clients, contractors, developers. The only real problem I have not fully addressed to my satisfaction is my outlook calendar….scheduling a future meeting in one time zone while based in another time zone tends to be a bit confusing when I arrive in the second time zone and the meeting shows up on my calendar 3 hours earlier. It’s really a minor detail, and I’m sure there is a way to do it properly…..just haven’t really bothered to investigate completely.

      • @Lee – I agree with you, the biggest hurdle I’ve conceptually tried to overcome is exactly that: how to manage multiple projects in multiple cities/states. Though, with the model that I’ve been talking about for a while now, it would not be quite as stressful I think. That model being a mobile practice that utilizes architectural consultants in cities where projects are located.
        @Patrick – I think you mentioned something like this with regards to licensing and stamping drawings, yes? Speaking to that, since you’ve been at this for a little while now, have you built a network of other architects that you regularly “partner” with on your projects? If so, what challenges have you faced with that kind of arrangement?

  5. Dear Jerry the architectural practice model you’re proposing like Pat expresses is already the thriving model of the 21st Century. For Firms to stay viable nimble and competitive in the present milieu they must net work with mobile and up coming professionals. The traditional architectural practice however coexists with the mobile versatile model. In my opinion what you are proposing here is very encouraging and nurtures high hopes of the future of architectural practice anywhere in the world.

    • Thanks so much for your comments, Ikpe. I agree with you 100%. Even more than that, I think the traditional architectural practice is becoming mobile by necessity. As globalization continues and as our technology increasingly allows instant communication between any two points on the globe, the idea of a “fixed” practice is becoming obsolete. Mobile practice and a networked practice, in my opinion, is the future of architecture.

  6. Jeremiah, it is a thought provoking question of the best kind which you ask. My opinion is yes, a firm not only can be dispersed, but should be. There is great strength and potential in collaboration over distances that needs to be tapped in our industry. I know many industries embraced this model long ago.

    The nature of the profession of architecture is changing rapidly, and we, as architects, must make some drastic changes. The changes will either be led by us, as agents of our own futures, or forced upon us by others who would see their interests prevail. Well, enough pontificating. I for one am willing. If you are then that makes two. And a movement is born.

  7. @Jeremiah – What do you mean when you say that we are not moving toward this method of business? Are you referring specifically to Architecture? Many other industries are already far down this path, and the collaboration tools to make this seamless have existed for years. As for file sharing and remote working, it is called a VPN – virtual private network.
    Large architecture firms already have these systems in place – they need to having multiple offices around the world. Maybe it is the small firms and solo architects that are lagging.
    I can see how for a small firm/solo architect with so many time demands it is hard to keep up to speed with all of these technologies and figure out which one is right for their office. Your idea is intriguing because it opens up questions about solo architects teaming up together to go after projects they might not have a chance of getting alone.
    Architects may be risk takers, but I disagree that this relates to technology and new ways of doing things. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard “this is the way it has always been done around here…”.
    Maybe what you suggest is one of the few avenues left for small architects to thrive. I think the last compensation report I read about architects said that sole proprietors make on average 60k a year. I don’t know how one can survive on that.
    @Patrick – I too am interested in hearing how you went from no projects one year to 8 new projects in three months. I’m trying to figure out what it takes to start a firm and right now it seems virtually impossible…care to share your thoughts?

    • Enoch, thanks for your comments! It’s much appreciated. I am actually speaking specifically about arch firms. And I understand that many industries have embraced digital technology as a way to boost and expand their businesses and even bring on new talent via telecommuting that otherwise would not have been possible. But unfortunately arch firms have not largely taken to this way of business thinking. I’m familiar with VPN and have even used it at a previous firm, but the operative word there is “private”. It’s not an open network designed for the sharing of work and ideas across multiple networks.
      What I imagine, and am working towards developing, is a network of solo architects and designers networking together not just for the big projects that require larger work forces (though that is a goal), but also for the day to day stuff that just needs to get done. You are right that many solo architects have very little time to spare during the day to deal with things as they come up. But imagine if they had a trusted few architects they could give access to their network and contract with them for specific projects and tasks? Not only does this help the project architect but if done all over can help a lot of the out of work or slow architects and designers trying to stay afloat. This then boosts the profession, keeps people working, keeps them sharp and ultimately serves the client much better because they are getting a quality product faster and still at a much lower fee than if they went with a large firm.
      I really believe this is the future of the profession. It’s the step we’ve never taken but have always needed to take. Mentorship is almost a joke in my experience. So few interns have really good mentors that take active and participatory roles in their development, and in this economy when so many are not even working, the profession continues to suffer. But in the environment that I hope to foster, mentorship will be by default across multiple generations. What the young learn in school they’ll be able to pass along and vice versa for those in practice and/or leaving practice.
      Thanks again for your comments. Keep em coming!

    • I think what is an important distinction here that I believe Jeremiah is making is the vast difference in structure and warm bodies between the solo architect and large firm. I’ve been making this point all over the web. The solo architect cannot hand off details to a staff member or delegate ANY other task. So I answer my own phone, I draw the details and I get the new work and write the proposals. We need to find a model that works for the solo or very small practice. I love the model in which I work as a solo architect, but I would also love to partner with someone like Jeremiah or even Enoch across the country on work that is hopefully more significant. I would also like to have a go-to group of people to do some of the over load of work, like CD’s and such when I am bogged down “shaking trees” or on the construction site. I am open to anything to learn and make this happen.

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