...design firm, principals tie up a large piece of their net worth in a firm, and then get a salary and return based on how the firm fares. “The megafirms can offer a good salary without the cost of the initial buy-in. For architects, this is a new concept,” he notes.

If there’s a common complaint shared by designers, it is the continuing lack of people to do the work. “Finding people was the No. 1 issue raised at the last [American Council of Engineering Companies] CEO conference,” says Ronald Ewing, CEO of Dewberry. There are few designers who would argue this point.

Many large firms are becoming more involved with universities. “The competition for students is starting earlier than ever,” says Bell of SGH. The firm now is working on strengthening its relationships with the schools, including having its employees teach and sponsoring joint research projects with some schools. “It’s a way to identify top talent early,” Bell says.

Some firms are borrowing models from other industries. “We are using the accounting firm model of recruiting through internship,” says Roehling of SmithGroup. He says that the firm had 50 to 55 interns this past year.

Many firms worry about the impact of the coming retirement of the baby boom generation. “It’s not just the retirement of the baby boomers, but the baby-bust generation that came in right behind them,” says Cowen of Gresham Smith. “We have mindsets of how much experience is required for certain responsibilities that may have to be changed until the ‘echo-boom’ generation comes of age.”

The Din Over BIM

New technology is beginning to have a significant impact on design professionals, with the advent of building information modeling and 3D and 4D CAD systems. While still in its early stages, BIM is attractive to architects and engineers because of its potential to streamline the design process. “With BIM, you don’t have to draw things four times to get it right. And there’s less workarounds in the field,” says Davis of Davis Brody Bond.

“Everyone is recognizing that BIM is changing design at least as much as [computer-aid design] did 25 years ago,” says Roehling. “But CAD simply improved productivity. Unlike CAD, BIM has the potential to change our relationships with contractors, subs and suppliers, and change the way we do projects.”

This convergence has many architects and engineers excited. “BIM brings design and constructability together,” says Bell of SGH. However, he points out that its effective use will change the construction process. “Is it a tool just for design checking, or should it go beyond to the hand-off to the contractor? If it goes through to the handoff, this will cause us to reexamine how teams on a project are formed,” Bell says.

Some firms caution that there is a lot of work and a new learning curve beyond simply mastering a new set of software involved in BIM. “Designers may be getting into whole new areas that they aren’t used to, like estimating materials prices,” says Cowen of Gresham Smith.

Part of the problem in having BIM accepted throughout the design community is that it alters the decision-making process. “Under the old process, architects and engineers could put off final decisions on critical issues as late as the delivery of construction documents,” says Dewberry’s Ewing. “But in the BIM environment, those decisions have to be made much earlier in the process. So you will need input early on from geotechnical engineers, the landscape architects, the [mechanical, electrical and plumbing] engineers, the structural engineers, to make it work.”

Ewing also has concerns about the design process itself in an open BIM environment. “You need a platform designed for a collaborative environment. But the products out there now don’t always differentiate as to who is making changes to the design.” That raises issues of how to allocate risk in the design that will have to be worked out, he says.

There also is the question of client expectations in the BIM process. Because so much input is needed from so many parties and so much has to be done early in the process, the up-front design costs are higher. “You are bound to have clients that will complain that they don’t want to be responsible for two-thirds of the design costs in case the project gets canceled early on,” says Ewing. “So clients must be educated in the concepts of BIM from the start.” He does not believe that BIM will be fully accepted for another five years. “It will take another two-to-three years to get used to it, and another couple years to educate the clients,” Ewing says.

For some firms, BIM is part of the answer to a disturbing trend: Clients’ expectation of perfection in design. “Client expectations are becoming increasingly unrealistic,” says Bill Howard, executive vice president of CDM. “Even excellent designs with less than 5% change orders are no longer acceptable to some clients. The problem is that clients don’t understand what we do. We are no longer working for engineers employed by clients.”

Howard sees BIM as eliminating many design flaws before they reach the field. But clients need to understand that there always will be the human element in construction, and that perfection is an elusive goal, he adds.

The international market is providing a fertile proving ground for BIM. “There is a growing demand for American architecture in the BRIC countries: Brazil, Russia, India, and China,” says Barbara Hillier, design principal at Hillier. “They are hungry for American design ideas, but they want projects put up quickly. They want a New York City, and they want it quickly.” This has led to an increasing reliance on technology to produce original designs quickly, she says.

“We’ve been using Revit software for about eight years and have used it on a few projects,” Hillier says. But the surge in interest in BIM has caused a scramble to train staff. “We have to get everyone up and running now. You can’t train up 10% of your people this year, 20% next year, and so on. We have to institute full-scale training now,” she says.

For many design firms, the advent of BIM is simply a way to add synergies to the project design. “We are seeing more engineering-driven or engineering-informed architecture, says Bell of SGH. He says that developing technologies have given architects the freedom to explore more sophisticated shapes in the building envelope while allowing a better sense of the engineering that can make these shapes viable. “You don’t want engineering to dominate architecture, but the technology allows for engineering to help architects create more efficient designs,” Bell says. For example, he notes that computational fluid dynamics allow engineers and architects to measure air flow through a building, allowing a more effective design than was available five years ago.

Sustaining the Green Movement

For the industry, “green building” and “sustainable projects” have been catchphrases for several years. But sustainability recently has moved from mostly talk to real action. “I believe ‘green’ has reached the tipping point,” says Roehling. “The real bellwether is that developers are now coming to us and asking for as high a [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] rating as possible because it sells.” Roehling says SmithGroup first issued a set of internal guidelines for environmental design in 1986. “But it used to be a battle with owners to talk about the sustainability issue. Now, they are embracing it because ‘green sells,’ ” he says.

"I believe smart businesses will be the answer to the Earth's environmental problems"

— Pete Regan, CEO, ERM

Many point to the growing public awareness of global warming as pushing sustainability to the forefront in the design profession. For many design firms, this is a positive trend, but others are concerned about political overreaction. “Environmental concerns are important to the average Joe in Europe, but they are only now making it into a major issue in the U.S.,” says Pete Regan, CEO of ERM. So U.S. political leaders are reacting to the public concern. “But unless Congress acts, you are going to end up with a patchwork quilt of conflicting regulations on the state and local level,” Regan says.

LEED now is becoming an issue of interest for firms working in the housing developer market. The U.S. Green Building Council, Washington, D.C., is about to...