The Future of/for Architects?

This short essay uses the The Future for Architects? (Robinson, et al. 2013) report as a reference to evaluate the contribution of British architects to the future. The report interviewed a wide range of professionals and students related to the construction industry. During the interviews and discussions, the participants exposed their concerns about the visions of the practice.

This essay identifies the key problems exposed by interviewees in the report, to group them in 3 main topics. Alongside the architectural practice, education drives a professional through their interest, allows an architect to develop their skills, constantly makes them contribute to a changing environment.

The environment is the nature, the town, the city, the country, the economy, the politics, the Internet, etc. and also, a mixture of all scenarios interacting among them. I will try to discuss what kind of education an architect needs to allow for a constant development in this ever changing environment.

Environment will be the first topic. Understanding the scenarios related to environment is a must to understand the future necessities of the society. Development will address the capabilities that architects will need in the future. Finally, Education will speculate how architectural schools should prepare the future architects.


It is possible to identify two major crises in the current global environment. The first concerns the natural ecosystem and the second – the economic ecosystem. Both are intrinsically related.

The Natural Ecosystem

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report (Walter V. Reid 2005) explores the ecosystems and shows that 15 major ecosystems out of 24 are in decline or in major decline. These includes fresh water, air and water natural purification, natural hazards, pollinations process, fish capture, pests, etc. It is difficult to measure the impact in numbers, but the evidence shows these are substantial and growing constantly. Many of these 15 ecosystem have been destroyed to supply services for humans; e.g. agriculture and buildings. One of the key points of The Stern Review (Stern 2006) says: “The average temperatures could rise by 5C° from pre-industrial levels if climate change goes unchecked”. Approximately 20% of the world’s coral reefs is already lost forever. The consequences for humans and other species are certainly preoccupying.

Natural Ecosystem, the vast richness of the tropical forest biomass contrasts with the poverty of its soil. The Rain forest can only maintain its diversity through a complex set of interactions that recycle sparse nutrients through the system, over and over again (Holland 1995)

The Economic Ecosystem

The effects of degradation of ecosystem are being disproportionately suffered by the poor, creating inequality between humans. Social inequality is changing faster in some countries than it does in others. In the UK, the CEO / employer ratio in 1999 was 69 times, in 2009 the ratio was 145 times. Stewart Wallis (Wallis 2013) points to the fact that inequality decreases demand for goods and services (e.g. health services), and increases personal debts. He held the activity of banking systems responsible for financial stability. “For a time, money became our master rather than our servant” (Wallis 2013). Between 1980 and 2005, the UK GDP doubled, but well-being level remains unaltered. It is, therefore perfectly reasonable to assume that much of the housing debt could never be paid. The richest 1% possesses equal wealth as the rest of the world combined, creating a really massive concentration of power in markets where the rest of people have no equal purchasing capability.

The Economic Ecosystem, created by humans. Hamsters duplicate their size and weight every week until puberty, but in nature they stop to grow for some reason. Why do economists and politicians think the economy can grow forever? (Wallis 2013) click on the image to see the impossible hamster video

Characteristics of Ecosystems

Ecosystems show evidence of overwhelming diversity, interactions and features. Even if it is possible to catalog the activities and participant entities, it is not possible to understand the effects of changes in an ecosystem (Holland, 1995). Destruction of ecosystems demonstrates nonlinear changes (Walter V. Reid 2005) which are highly difficult to predict, understand and, more importantly, amend. These changes include: abrupt alterations of water quality, acceleration of underwater ecosystems collapse, shifts in regional climates and economic crises.

For the first time in history, humans are close to the environmental limits of the planet. The current economic structure and the planetary limits are incapable of existing together. If the world population consumes as much as the UK average citizen, we will need 2.4 Earths. In fact, according to Global Footprint Network (McDonald 2015), the current world population is using 1½ earths, based on global absorption of carbon dioxide, and exploitation of forests and oceans.

This is the current situation where humans are creating a planet based on Mega-cities. By 2020, 70% (Cerwal, et al. 2015) of the world population will be connected by smartphones, and by 2050, 70% of the population will live in cities. Financial crisis comes around every 7 years on average, and markets and cities are increasingly connected (The Guardian 2014) Economic models intrinsically related with modern cities are described as a complex system[1] . Humans have been modifying ecosystem interactions with a wrong idea of what their actions really mean, creating an unequal relation between services and sustainability. Also, humans have been creating new ecosystems (some of them digital) which are being inserted into the original ecosystems.

Architects bear a great responsibility for the environment and its modifications. In a short future, the architects will need to understand ecosystems, because the current architectural education does not allow this. It is essential to repair the current situation and prepare the land for sustainable megacities. This clearly is a common effort to be made. If humans cannot repair the damage, they will need to develop a plan B, and the role of architects will be more essential than ever.


Architectural practices need the use of technology. The available software and other tools such as 3D printers, 3D scanners, significantly reduce the time for design development and at the same time guarantee its procession. Moreover, modern tools help to produce sustainable designs and allows architects create consistent documentation of their design, from early stages of the design to the construction.

Usually practices leave technology updates to young practitioners, because senior (and not so much senior) members are less interested in learning new software. As a general rule, big practices embrace new technologies, such as BIM, faster than smaller practices, as the size of their projects requires this kind of support (Robinson, et al. 2013). The Future for Architects? report proves, through interviews, the inflexible nature of the name “Architecture”. Many practices prefer not to use the name “Architect” in order to reach diverse markets, others create sister practices to achieve this aim.

It is logical that a future architectural practice will need a wide range of markets to develop their business. They will need to create sustainable business to maximize the return of ecological resources and minimize (eliminate) waste and use of non-renewable energies. A good challenge for BIM platform, aside from: clash detection, quantity survey, facing construction, productivity and the well-being of employers and future users.

Architectural practices (of all sizes) need to address a new business model based on circular economy (Wallis 2013), while, the old fashioned linear economy extracts natural resources to create a product to be disposed of after its using life. Future architectural practices will need to incorporate recycled materials as infinite loop, and to employ use of energy based on renewable sources. Other crucial issues will include supporting natural ecosystems, repairing declined environment, creating value for new businesses and supporting social activities.

Architectural practices will need skills such as mathematics and programming in order to simulate ecosystems and be able to analyze them. Presently, numerous designs are based on the assumption that an intervention will create the same results in different locations; the assumption, however, is wrongful. Ecosystems are based on millions of agents interacting with each other under certain rules. Agents could represent people who move in the city, who perform commercial and social activities. It is possible to simulate their living distribution and commercial areas, evolve the simulation over the time and base a design on such model. Architects will need tools to analyze the real interactions that would emerge from the design and to detect any negative tendencies before they dominate over sustainable interactions.

Architects, need a constant development along their career. Paul Finch points in his lecture “T: Training, A practical profession”. Architects needs a constant improvement along their profession. Reading, research and learning should be a natural way of being, as the world is getting small and thinking in a local-isolate way is naive.

British practices are used to American and Australian architects working in the UK. The future will bring Asian/Commonwealth practices, Spanish, French or even South American practices can have potential Interest in the EU market. Using London as a commercial center and leaving the workforce in South America could certainly result in an interesting competition. British architects need a second language to work abroad but, more importantly, a second to learn from different cultures and other ecosystems. According to the BBC article “Why Britons are ‘language barbarians’” (Robb 2004), a poll of 1,500 British workers showed that less than 5% could count to 20 in a second language, and approximately 80% manifested that they could get a job abroad because “everyone speaks English”.

Clearly, the future of architectural model business model needs to change, investments in research and sustainable technologies being the main objective here. Future architects will need to incorporate new skills, and to develop effective models to help them understand ecosystem they are modifying in favor of sustainability. They will need tools to help them modify their designs in order to trigger the right interactions and control ones that are harmful to the ecosystem. Future architects will need to improve constantly, learning new technologies, languages, and skills to influence politicians, developers, urban citizens.

The Plan B

If living on Earth is not possible any more, outer space and others planets represent the solution. Designing space ships to host large populations or settlements in other planets constitutes a complete different way to work (probably no planning permission would be required). The exploration of Space started nearly 400 years ago, when Galileo Galilei build the first telescope. In 1998 the International Space station was launched, the first long-term habitable structure in Space. Architects are currently working on interior designs for the International Space Station (Leach 2014), researching in robotic fabrication techniques to build structures in other planets, and visualizing spaceports and spaceships (Wainwright 2015).

Architects will need to learn different ways of harvesting energy from the Space, manufacturing materials and robotics, and colonising the Space; they will need to explore the ways of how to construct habitats through large 3D printings, and how to manage radiation, diet, and gravity. How are architects going to design sustainable ecosystems as closed loops, without physiological and psychological effects on the population?

The Space exploration research has introduced numerous inventions to enhance well-being and everyday living on Earth. Nasa has over 6300 patents to its name. The research conducted by architects in this field could bring new possibilities to address the current problems of the planet; the opportunities would include recovering deserts, perfecting ecological fabrication techniques, broadening social engineering studies.


In the report, young practitioners admit the label of architect is very restrictive. Some of them create parallel practices without employing the name “Architect”. Many of interviewees admitted the necessity to break down the traditional model practice. In addition, planning and architectural students manifest the narrow range of employment prospects could face. Other key point showed in the report, evidence of the segregation between architects and other disciplines during the education.

On page 29, the report says: “The RIBA might need to consider evolving the 20th century definition of what it means to be an architect in order to fit better with the 21st century reality of the profession”, and later in this paragraph: “In order to survive, the architect must design beyond buildings – and in turn should be supported to do so by regulatory and membership bodies”. Phil Pawlett Jackson in his Article “Education is not a commodity” says that the previous RIBA Education review was in 1958 (Jackson 2014).

Education needs to be updated, or a framework must be designed where architects would not get obsolete after 10 years’ practice. Skills are important, but it is even more important to inspire students to challenge themselves continuously, to learn new skills, to explore new markets, and to be brave.

The Architectural education usually is oriented to produce “creators”, and genius designers, to have “the magic touch”. Tutors inspire students through great architects, often following their own interests instead of teaching the real profession necessities.

Teaching new skills is not the solution to prepare students for a future which is in a continuous change. The proposed solution is to create an educational core based on natural and economic ecosystems. Students are dazzled with parametric shapes and Architectural schools see economic opportunities creating courses. The results are full of “possible futures”, complicated shapes and pompous names.

During architectural studies its feels like Jack Nicholson in Shining, but the reality of architectural practice is that you are going to be (at least for the beginning) Sandro Rey reading Tarot at 3am in the local TV Channel. The Point is Architectural studies creates an illusion about the reality of the practice

Education for Natural Ecosystems

Natural ecosystem crises emphasize the necessity to understand and learn sustainability. Actually, the notion of sustainability is frequently reduced to red and blue arrows in a building section. Sustainability education needs to be reformulated, and a wider view to become the core of the course (Buchanan 2012). The name should probably be reformulated, perhaps to “ecosystems”. This subject should run parallel to all architectural studies, organized, for instance, in 5 major courses.

The first course should start with biology, chemistry and natural science, which would help to refresh knowledge and learn the ecosystem bases. The second course should address ecology and human settlement history to guide students through agriculture, environmental modification, pollution, renewable energies, and energy consumption. The third course, Evolution, should guide students through social evolution and biological evolution; these would be divided in two sub themes: the first one, ecology, and the second one, teaching DNA and Natural Selection as a mathematics model[2]. The fourth course should lead students through adaptation, diversity, non-linear properties, Parallelism and Emergence. All of these themes would introduce students to the adaptive complex systems.

The last course would dig deeper in this theme and would teach students how to simulate such systems, how to analyze them, and how to design them. From mathematics to algorithms.

The course would create a common context among student architects, urban design, planning, landscape architects, designers, engineers, science computation and art. The objective consists in creating a future cooperation between these disciplines and professions. They would share the same experience and the students learn from others class mates through study groups. The Challenge would involve creation of an ecosystem culture, similar to a sustainable culture (Buchanan 2012).

Education for Economic Ecosystems

The current architectural education is focused on design and management. Architects should use their skills for something more than buildings. The real challenge for architects is educating developers and investors, as well as shifting the goals of companies from focusing on providing high returns to shareholders. This is a very difficult endeavor, as it involves Architects, Universities, RIBA, ARB, politicians[3], etc. Clearly, these entities need to work together in the same direction, each of them performing the job that corresponds to them[4] towards to educate developers and investors for sustainable business. Universities need to introduce courses based on new economic models, where the research in sustainable technologies is the core. A basic course should introduce students to languages and oral presentation techniques. Students should learn a second language and other ways of communication like web, email, phone, verbal and body language.

Another course should include applications, as a general term, and cover Planning, grants and research applications used to obtain research and development funding. Still another course should introduce Policy, History and Law. This area should be supported by ARB and RIBA through lectures, reading materials, conferences and congresses.

Plan B

Education for Plan B would be optional. The Students would take any course from the University, (university meaning: Universality). Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics. (STEAM).


The range of architectural education needs to be wider. The students should learn more complex subjects in order to contribute to the society in local and global terms. Always creating sustainable buildings based on sustainable economic models. This will be the key for the good architecture.

Architects needs to be aware of the global decisions and sustainable tendencies, in order to apply this knowledge in local communities. This new architectural attitude will require a constant development.

ARB and RIBA should lobby politicians and the government to create policy measures to counter short-termism in building companies, reduce taxes and create incentives to the use of renewable energies, control the speculative business structure and grant British Architects with civil responsibilities, similar as other EU Countries.

The definition of Architect should be banned, because it limits the evolution of the practice. Enclosure the practice to repeat a task over the time and makes difficult incorporate new knowledge. Meanwhile the natural ecosystems indicate the opposite. The architectural practice acts as a definition but design and creates ecosystems. The point is how I am going to design something that I do not understand their complexity?

  1. Emergence: The sum of the parts produces complex behavior. It is not possible to understand the outcome through traditional method.
  2. The Natural selection as a mathematic model is defined by Genetic algorithms. In principle Genetics algorithms are used as exploration y optimization tool applied to a wide range of design problems.
  3. Politics will be considered in the side of companies, developers and investors.
  4. It is going to be assumed there is no corruption and selfishness in the agents involved.


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