The Means of Production in Architecture: A Macro Explanation

As a follow-up to my last post, I just read "How software is changing the architecture industry." I don't agree with its conclusions (survivorship bias) but I thought it was interesting that others are noticing the same trends, so I'd like to attempt a macro explanation:

This is what pure competition predicts of successful technological innovations. When first invented a new technology offers a comparative advantage to early adopters, but over time the technology's adoption becomes ubiquitous and comparative advantage disappears. The technological innovation becomes necessary just to compete in the industry. Economic profit approaches zero, and if all goes well normal profit remains.

Architecture is either in the early or late part of this cycle. My bet is that we're in the second part - that is, there isn't much if any additional profit to be made off of adopting BIM. Clients and contractors already know this capability is out there and they expect it. Lawyers even more so. The margin of acceptable error in drawings has been much reduced in recent years. Basically, if you're still using CAD you're in a John Deere world with a horse and plow.

The Means of Production in Architecture

There seems to be a natural career arc in many fields whereby in your first few years you focus on production - in architecture this means drafting and becoming familiar with the current software which manifests itself as drawing copious amounts of bathrooms and stairs. The longer you're in the industry the more you're involved with clients and you tend to spend less time on actual production. At some point you're almost entirely disconnected from the means of production - and it makes sense. As you become more valuable you shouldn't do work that lesser compensated people can do, but abandoning what made you valuable in the first place poses issues. You're setting the stage for your own obsolescence. This isn't unique to architecture, but within architecture it leads to those above me not understanding how the software I'm using works. It sounds innocuous but it leads to things like hiring consultants that can't deliver what I need to design complex buildings. It's like asking for steel to make a car and being given wood. I'm really talented but I'm not a magician.

Regarding the means of production there are two types of advancement:  incremental change like updated software and faster computers, and are structural shifts such as moving from a hand drafting based practice to CAD. Again, this isn't unique to architecture, but our structural shifts have unfurled as follows:

Hand drafting: antiquity - late 1980's early 1990's.

CAD: 1980's - present, but in decline.

BIM: clear successor to CAD as of about 2008.

The frustrating part of living through this period of transition is the lag in adoption. Revit (a software made by Autodesk, BIM is the type of software) is to CAD what email is to hand written letters. I can literally do the work of several people using BIM yet almost a decade in and schools aren't teaching it with any rigor and firms are resisting its full adoption. BIMs use is a common topic of debate in both firms and schools, but this isn't an incremental change. This is a structural shift. Much like climate change, If you think there's a debate there's a good chance you have no idea what you're talking about.

Weekend Links

A concise and well referenced history of Israel (reddit/r/AskHistorians). /r/AskHistorians is hands down the most well curated sub on reddit and worth visiting independent of reddit itself.

An architecture student "beat" SimCity (Vice).

Hip hop artists ranked by the size of their vocabulary (mdaniels).

The death of expertise (thefederalist).

Increasing your wealth tends to make individuals less egalitarian and more right wing (Warwick University)(PDF link to academic paper).

One of my professors from IIT, John DeSalvo, just published another book. He does all the sketches by hand (W.W. Norton Publishers).

One of my structural professors from IIT, Paul Endres, is being recognized for some unique work he did on a private home in Big Sur (Architectural Record, he's on the cover of the print version).

Webcomic author and illustrator Allie Brosh created a comic about her depression. Many psychologists find it to be one of the clearest descriptions of depression that exists (The Globe and Mail).

SpaceX had it's first soft landing (in an ocean but whichever). Sending cargo into space is expensive - like $10,000/pound (16,000  /kg). About 70% of that cost is the rockets themselves which are only used once before they hurdle backs towards earth either burning up in the atmosphere or slamming into the crust (Wired).

Paul Krugman explains how the United States is becoming an oligarchy. He also plugs Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty. It's a 700-page tome, but (and mark my words) this book is on the level of General Theory of Employment, The Wealth of Nations, Das Kapital, etc. You will more than likely never read it but you will know quotes from it.

More on Capital in the Twenty-First Century from author Thomas Piketty and several Nobel laureates.


Quick Note - There Is No Skills Gap

I've pointed out previously that there are many jobs where employers say there's a skills gap. "I want to hire someone but there's just no one out there with the skills I need!" This is BS. There isn't a skills gap, there's a what we're willing to pay you gap. I'm helping my firm find a new hire so now I'm experiencing this first hand.

In the Chicago architecture job market there's a shortage of people who know how to use Revit (pencils are to AutoCAD as AutoCAD is to Revit). My firm wants to hire someone who knows how to use this software, but so is every other firm. Revit is a deep program that takes a long time to learn and it isn't typically taught in schools. Hence, the salaries for these people has gone up. We can't find someone at a salary level we can afford but instead of admitting to that they say no one knows how to use the software.