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My 50-Year Career in Architecture

R. Gregory Turner, AIA, MBA, APF

My 50-Year Career in Architecture

Posted: June 26, 2020 | Tradewinds

Fifty years ago, I was a sixteen year old gaining my first exposure to the field of architecture, running prints of drawings on an ozalid machine, mimeographing specifications books, and trimming rolls of vellum into drawing sheet size. (Hint to Millennials: use Google.) Last fall, thirty-five years after founding my own firm, I closed on the sale of that firm. Not being a very contemplative person, I nevertheless found myself reflecting on a half century engaged in architecture, and the challenging and enjoyable profession that it is.

After serving as an office assistant during my high school years, I earned my degrees and got quickly to work in the late 1970s. In some ways, I felt unlucky that my working career began then, when the post-World-War-II construction boom was ending. I realized quickly that building systems and trades had standardized and commoditized, the better to meet the fevered demands of post-war reconstruction and economic expansion. I must admit to jealousy of the pioneers of modern design, who worked in an era of shifting sands when building with new methods and materials was still finding its way.

I felt constrained, living in an era where the basic building components — from the structural base and frame, to envelope, interior systems, and MEP systems — were largely “settled” with respect to technology, construction methods, and the amounts of financial resources devoted to them. The industry had become ordered, efficient, and mature, and seemed resistant to change. But then something startling happened.

In 1984, having just founded my firm, I invested in a computer workstation and purchased a new software product called CAD. The computer I bought was a real powerhouse: 286 kB RAM with a 1 mB hard drive. (That’s one megabyte, not gigabyte or terabyte.) Not long after, I added a Compaq Portable — a 28-pound wonder, and an innovation in transportable computing. Thus began my foray into the technological “arms race” which has since transformed how we architects work.

However, while the process of design and construction in recent decades has been totally transformed, the product of our work — the building — has not been affected as much. Nevertheless, the revolution unleashed by the personal computer was sudden and thorough. Computation, formerly sequestered in massive blocks of government and corporate buildings, was now housed in clunky little bone colored boxes sitting on each person’s desk.

The democratization of the CAD workstation was followed eventually by email, smartphones and tablets, BIM, flat panels, and the Cloud. And who really knows how AI will ultimately impact us? It’s been a wonder and a privilege for me to live through all of this, to witness firsthand the change from hand drawings to Sketchup, Revit, and beyond. As a reminder of the bygone era, I still have a calcium deposit on my elbow from rubbing it along drafting boards; and now it’s been joined by carpal tunnel syndrome.

More than their effect on my arm joints, however, changes in our professional tools have had profound effects on the thinking processes in which we engage when we design (a subject warranting its own discussion).

So, a lot has changed. What has not? More specifically, what is worth holding onto? I left the world of project management at a corporate design firm to start my own practice, largely because I missed the activity of design and construction, the “smell of the smoke and gunpowder.” Eventually, my role in my firm — developing business and making sure the bills got paid — again took me away from the action I had desired. But I held on as long as I could to conducting construction site visits. Being on the job site and understanding how what we do in the office becomes transformed into something physical and actual is fascinating. Places of construction are the ultimate “maker spaces,” where theory meets reality.

Site visits also provide a window into an intricate, complex, and incredibly interesting global industry. Early in my career I was fortunate to have worked on the AT&T Corporate Headquarters project in New York (Philip Johnson’s “Chippendale” skyscraper), where materials and building systems, crafted all over the world, were pieced together. Steel came from South Africa, granite from the U.S., marble from Italy, and so on. But AT&T was not an exception; similar processes now occur on projects of even modest scope. And the global product pipeline is more extensive than ever. Instead of dreading shop drawing checking, architects should wonder at the information contained therein.

Looking ahead to the next fifty years, what might be in store? First, recognition that everything is a design problem, including (and especially) your firm. We architects are drawn to our field because the work of shaping buildings is so interesting —where else can you find such a fusion of art, technology, and business? However, the how of architectural practice is as vital to successful outcomes as the what. It’s just as important to build coherent teams, create a technological infrastructure, and prepare viable business and marketing plans as it is to craft space and structure. This demands as much creativity and innovation as designing a building. Second, everything is fluid. There is no longer a “mold” or “signature” when each project is a specially built endeavor. Each project cherry-picks people, firms, systems, and delivery methods.

While knowledge of the product — the buildings — may be transferrable from one project to the next, not much else is. Since you can’t know ahead of time how each project may be structured, you will need to anticipate the possibilities.

Like most of us, I was wired from a very early age to be an architect. Looking back, my formative entrance into the field five decades ago felt more like an intermediate step, rather than the start of a career. Likewise, I see my exit from the firm I founded not as an end, but a next step into the future.

Whatever comes next, my multi-faceted career in architecture has already prepared me well.

About the Author: R. Gregory Turner, AIA, MBA, APF is the President of Today Came Early, LLC, a consulting firm that provides foresight-enabling content related to the built environment, design processes, and the AEC industry. Prior to starting TCE, Turner was president of Turner Duran Architects, a Houston-based company he founded and led for over 35 years.

A published author of books and a contributor to national magazines such as Architectural Record and Design Cost & Data magazine, Greg writes on issues involved in the design and construction industries, as well as historical trends related to the endeavor of building.

He has bachelors and masters degrees in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), and an MBA and MS in Foresight from the University of Houston (UH). Turner is a member of the American Institute of Architects and the Association of Professional Futurists.