Building an Architecture Career Amid COVID-19

Building an Architecture Career Amid COVID-19

Natale Cozzolongo, AIA, graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 2009 and entered the working world in the middle of the Great Recession.

“You kind of took whatever was available, whether it was a good fit or not,” he says. His first job was one of those bad fits. He’s not complaining; it allowed him to get his then-IDP credits and pass the AREs, which led to his current position at Kohn Pedersen Fox in New York City. But it was a far cry from the architectural hopes and dreams instilled in him during college.

“We’d ask ourselves, ‘What kind of museums are you going to design? What star architects are you going to work for?’ ” he says. “And then you’re shifting walls around in an exam room at the local doctor’s office. Not to diminish the value of that work, but it’s very out of step with what we were educated believing.”

Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic pauses wide swaths of the economy and unemployment seems guaranteed to remain in the double digits for months, emerging professionals will run into the same issues. After a historic boom period, work will be hard to come by, and many designers may start to wonder if the traditional entry points to the profession are worth maintaining.

A Need for Architects Who Think Outside the Box

Jennie Cannon West, AIA, also felt the uncertainty of the Great Recession. After graduating from Auburn University in 2008, she ended up in New Orleans, which she said was “still in the Katrina bubble” and receiving federal recovery funds that kept firms propped up. She spent several years at Eskew Dumez Ripple and then bounced around, eventually getting the chance to start a local office for a national firm.

“I got a taste of what that was like, albeit with someone else’s capital,” she says. It led to her starting her own firm, Studio West Design & Architecture, where she’s been practicing semi-solo for almost two years.

“I have one part-time employee who is about to graduate,” she says, “so in a couple of weeks we’ll be two full-timers in the office.”

Despite the ongoing pandemic, West feels confident about taking on a new employee. She hasn’t yet seen a dip in business due to COVID-19, though figuring out the logistics of each project has been exhausting.

“I spent a lot of time in the early days on the phone, finding out if my clients were comfortable proceeding,” she says.

Fortunately, West handles a good deal of development and pro forma work, which can mean wearing many different hats at once but also offering numerous services at a time when clients are looking for answers.

“I think owners want architects who can think outside the box and really work with them on projects, in lieu of the traditional ‘Here’s an idea, come back when drawings are complete,’” she says.

West knows she’s lucky; she was able to start her own firm because several clients who followed her from firm to firm asked her directly to go it alone. She has faith that those projects won’t be going anywhere, but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy.

Architecture Students Ponder an Uncertain Tomorrow

Erin Conti, AIAS, just graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology with a master’s degree in architecture. Fortunately, she’s the incoming president of the American Institute of Architecture Students, so she doesn’t have to worry about finding work right away. At the same time, stepping into a role that represents all architecture students has given her copious insight into their concerns about the future.

“I’d say the main anxiety is, ‘What do we do after this is over?’ ” she says. “I know a lot of students who had jobs or internships lined up that have disappeared. Firms have implemented hiring freezes; interviews were suddenly canceled. How long will this go on for? What should students plan to do once they finish school?”

AIAS has created a COVID-19 resource center for students who are impacted or even just uncertain about what comes next, but no one can predict how the virus will affect our lives or the economy from day to day, let alone onth to month. For now, Conti is trying to find the silver linings, especially in the shift to online classes.

“There is something about the studio that you can’t fully replicate digitally,” she says, “but honestly the adjustment hasn’t been that bad. If studios can go online—by choice and not by necessity—it would make it easier for more students to access an education in architecture.”

Emerging Professionals Feel the Strain of COVID-19

After graduating in 2010 and going through several years of on-again, off-again employment, Gail Kubik, Assoc. AIA, opened Fused Studios with her partner in 2017. The firm focuses on historic preservation and resilience projects, but the team of two had a narrow pipeline and not enough work in the wings to keep them operational during a crisis.

She does see a good deal of potential for emerging professionals down the road, though, especially in specialized areas. Her firm is developing a new set of offerings through what she calls social impact strategy—“diving into intersections of human-centered design, community needs assessment, and mobilization—but she also anticipates a real focus on biophilic design.

Tamara Elena Pérez Hernández, Assoc. AIA, has also felt the professional sting of COVID-19. She’d been a junior architect at Puerto Rican coworking company Piloto 151 for nine months, finding new spaces to transform into offices and redesigning the interiors, when the island went into lockdown and her whole team was laid off.

Hernández wasn’t overly shocked. After not only Hurricane Irma and Maria but a series of earthquakes in early 2020, a half a decade of economic decline, and now with the additional impact of the pandemic, Puerto Rico’s economy is as shaky as it’s ever been. In addition, the island’s status as a U.S. territory means its companies have long faced competition from American behemoths seeking an additional outpost.

“This happens a lot with small-scale businesses in Puerto Rico,” she says. “They’re paycheck to paycheck, not just the employees but the companies themselves. The waters are very, very shallow.”

For now, she’s doing freelance residential design for private clients who are flipping houses. Thanks to a few timely referrals, she’s getting by. But she’s also questioning how she and her peers were told to find their way into architecture: catch on at a big firm, bide your time, and be grateful for the gig.

“Maybe we need to rethink how we do business,” she says. “So many of us are working within this old-fashioned model of this big firm with hundreds of employees. I know from experience that this is not sustainable for the majority of practicing architects out there. In Puerto Rico, there are two or three big firms; the rest of us are on our own.”

She thinks the fissures laid bare by this global pandemic will further reveal what she’s already come to believe: There is something outdated about the way many firms do business.

Hernández has three bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree. She speaks five languages. She’s been honored by the local AIA chapter. But by virtue of her education and training as an architect, she still has a vital role to play in the profession — and fortunately, her belief in herself far outstrips her belief in the current system.

“I am prepared,” she says. “I am more than prepared.”

Source: AIA Architect