Editorial: Generation Gap

This month’s issue reports on the state of architecture across Canada. It’s based on interviews with almost 50 architects, from firms of different sizes and areas of expertise. We asked: what’s the mood in the architectural community in your part of the country? What topics of discussion are coming up, and what innovative approaches are being taken to address these topics?

Every region has its own challenges and opportunities. But some themes came up again and again, regardless of geography.

Across the country, most architects who work in the public sector are struggling with procurement. P3s are still being used in several provinces, and RFPs are becoming increasingly demanding in their requirements for project-specific experience. Many RFPs are structured to select architects based on fee, encouraging an environment of low bids. More than one architect told me that in underpricing services, the industry has become its own worst enemy.

The solution may partially lie in addressing another challenge: the lost generation of architects. During the recession of the early 1990s, virtually all public and private projects dried up, and many architects left the profession.

Firms are still feeling the after-effects. Now that the market is more robust, it’s hard to find mid- to senior-level staff in the 45-to-60-year-old range—people who know how to put a building and drawing package together, and who can take over from baby boomer owners eyeing retirement. A knock-on effect has been a competitive market for young architects; in much of the country, top graduates have their pick of firms to join.

Firms are under pressure to retain young staff and train them for future leadership roles, enabling eventual succession in the ownership of their firms. To attract and hold on to talent, they are being challenged to offer higher salaries, an attractive work culture, and reasonable prospects of work-life balance.

While the demands of the millennial generation of under-40s may feel unreasonable to those who have weathered tougher economic cycles, they may ultimately be beneficial to the profession.

To meet the expectations of younger staff, firm owners need, more than ever, to push for fair fees. This involves broader advocacy efforts, such as the development of the National Architecture Policy, to explain the value of architecture and the relevance of architects to the general public. It also takes associations and individual architects willing to have frank discussions with clients about what they’re getting for their dollars—and why investing in architecture will ultimately benefit them.

Bringing home a paycheck commensurate to effort expended is just one of the millennial generation’s priorities. Millennials are also interested in addressing the climate crisis and equity-related issues, and in seeing the positive impacts of their work. They want to make places that bring together communities, that help socially and economically marginalized people around the globe, and that contribute positively to the environment. As a generation, they hope to turn around the wrongs they see in the world.

This energy is, potentially, the fuel that the profession needs to reassert the relevance of architecture. The idea of creating useful, beautiful, and enduring places dates back to Vitruvius, and is what continues to draw aspiring architects to the profession. It needs to return to being the core of what architects do.

Canada is exceptionally well-positioned for this affirmation of architecture’s value. Collectively, its many regions harbour a wealth of knowledge and experience. British Columbia—and in particular, the City of Vancouver—is placing architecture in a key role for combatting the climate emergency. Architects in the Arctic and in the rural north of various provinces are cultivating collaborative relationships with Indigenous communities, based on authentic dialogue, as the basis for Indigenous placemaking. In several cities, architects are championing the use of mass timber and tall wood to create carbon-sequestering buildings.

As a nation, we’ve largely resisted the lure of flashy, style-driven architecture. We take pride in embracing diverse cultures, and in being practical, reasonable and frugal. These are excellent assets to leverage for showcasing the value of design—and especially architecture—where an investment in quality pays off in the long term, from all perspectives.

The built environment has the potential to be a powerful agent for social and environmental change. As a profession, we need to make good on that promise—for the sake of the present and future generations of architects.