2 Future 4 U: A Perspective on Technology, Production, and Business Models in Architecture

The recent news of the passing of Kraftwerk founding member Florian Schneider had me reflecting on my favorite records from them. While listening to “Computerworld” it occurred to me that it was released in May, 1981 which was exactly one year before Progressive Architecture published “T-Square of Tomorrow”, an article on what was then the cutting edge of technology for architects, CAD. You should read that article while listening to “Computerworld” — it’s a trip.

It’s quite common for musicians to source vintage instruments and music technology to use to make new sounds. If done right, the resulting music gets celebrated as fresh takes on music crafted from old tools of the trade. It’s equally common to find musicians like Kraftwerk pushing the envelope of music technology as aides to their quest in producing entirely new and highly-disciplined sounds. There’s a freedom to how one produces music and what they use in that prodiction no matter what approach one takes. This is where it gets funny to cross-reference technology in production versus the result produced between music and architecture.

The musicians don’t make money from the creative process of the studio, but rather the resulting music itself (and mostly touring that music, of course). They could maybe lose a little money if the production process takes too long, but that’s all mitigated by ongoing album streams/sales, touring, merch, and even dropping the quick single or remix to supplement cash flow in between the big releases, or even doing production for another artist’s album.

The common business model of architecture is to charge for the production rather than the resulting building. Here’s where you quickly realize that any romanticism for manual drafting or even CAD must to be brushed aside for newer technologies that allow production to go faster with less labor and yield even better buildings. Architects don’t have royalties to lean on if production drags on too long, and when was the last time you saw merch from a firm that you considered paying for? Never! That’s why we give that shit away, it’s just not that cool.

Now is about the time that I started thinking more seriously about the ripples within the architecture industry concerning new business models. Concepts like building royalties have come up. There’s also been talk of outcome-based contracts alongside outcome-based design. So I’m not breaking any new ground here, but rather arriving at a similar conclusion from a different perspective.

Obviously the music business isn’t perfect. Things like royalties and tour proceeds have caused many musicians to get screwed out of hard-earned dollars. The music industry makes it all too easy for emerging artists to get exploited too. Musicians go their own way, with their own labels, and even build their own management companies to keep from getting robbed by the big companies (there’s a scary analogue for cranking out projects and making the firm rich versus becoming a sole proprietor too).

“These record labels slang our tapes like dope
You can be next in line and signed and still be writing rhymes and broke”

Dead Prez

Here’s the parallax of those incredible bars from Dead Prez…
These developers slang our designs like dope
You can be next in line and signed and still be making BIMs and broke

I’m hoping the first architect that became their own developer said that shit — or at least they will in the movie version of their story.

There are definitely lessons to be learned before architects dive into new business models that are inspired by or adjacent to those of the music business. But it’s certainly worth thinking about seriously. I thought I was satisfied with the realignment I did to make the value of phases in my contract align with the BIM Curve, but my current thinking is to blow up everything and devise a new business model with a more sustainable cash flow aspect to it.

We architects aren’t the only ones with business models feeling outmoded by the 21st century economy. If we circle back around to the technology itself, software developers everywhere are going to subscription-based models as a way to cash flow and continue to innovate their products. If you’re an architect that’s reluctant to think new business models could work, remember that the next time you cough up that software subscription dough, just like you did the year or month before.

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