A Letter to the President – Long Version

January 22, 2010

Dear Mr. President:

I write to send my support and to ask this time that you focus on creating jobs for the nation; but, specifically, for the many in the architecture, engineering and related design fields.  This includes over 40,000 professionals who have lost their jobs since 2007.  I also offer a potential program to full employment, a program that may have merit but would require federal funding targeted at this particular segment of the population and our cities.

The program would create design co-operatives in the cities around the country.  It is an evolution of the artists program from the thirties with a more cohesive and focused goal.  Very simply, it involves creating multiple co-operative centers in the cities with telecommuting extensions to the suburbs and rural areas.  Vacant office space could be leased at a reduced rate, telephones and power could be provided at cost, and the professionals: architects, designers, engineers, others would be able to go to an office every day instead of being isolated and without any connections to the working world.  The work could come from all of the projects that cities have shelved due to a lack of funding.  Not all the work would be built right away but some projects could be built if further funding were made available – there could be certain tests, feasibility, others that would determine whether this is appropriate.  Design professionals would work on the projects in order to get them “shovel-ready” to use the terminology from the ARRA.

The projects would range from city and park/recreation planning (professionals would become extensions to overstretched planning staffs), and on up to major public works; anything that is approved by the Federal government again by meeting a series of tests, although not too restrictive or focused mainly on transportation, as in the ARRA.  The return on this investment is simple: those projects that would get built in 2011 or, at least have the design work begin then, will be funded now so they’ll  be ready to build and reduce the burden on the over 200,000 construction workers who’ve lost their jobs.  It would also give design professionals the chance to work by redirecting unemployment funding into work.  Young people get the training and experience they need in order to get hired and more importantly, we don’t lose them as many have given up and moved on to other fields in order to make a living.  It would also serve to preserve the experienced talent we have in these fields, allowing us to step into a recovery much faster and rebuild from a position of strength.

How would we set up these co-operatives?  The design professions could use the AIA, ASID, ASCE and other design organizations as central clearinghouses for managing at both the national and local levels since the people are already in place.  I’m certain they would like to be able to offer their colleagues and other design professionals a place to work for the next twelve to eighteen months.  There are also city development staffs who could participate in the management and oversight of the program.  I suggest you follow a flat management structure and avoid any more than one clearinghouse in Washington, D. C. in order to expedite the process.  There will be hitches, but it will offer an alternative to the traditional safety net/ social support systems.

You may also have to reassure the extant design firms that you won’t be taking work away from them; a legitimate concern when we enlist our members to provide pro-bono services.  It’s a delicate balance, but we can manage this even with those firms who have performed the work on specific projects for the cities to-date.  We’ve done similar things in the past.  In the long run I believe that if the program is fair, above-board and inclusive, we will be able to make it work by including these firms in some capacity because this sort of work always generates more for everyone.  Regarding the timing and anticipated recovery, we should still try to initiate the program even though it may overlap with any recovery since the design professions will be slower to recover.

The construction activity outlook just released by the AIA forecasts an upturn in 2011.  The conventional wisdom is that we back out of this approximately six to nine months for the design work, which would place a start to the design services recovery at about mid-year 2010.  This is a forecast; private lending has not changed nor do we see it changing.  It would have to change in order to give developers and other organizations the ability and confidence to begin the work because even though they may be able to build they may not be able to lease or sell their buildings even in a recovering market.  I don’t believe they will be able to begin their work until well into the next year.  This points to government and institutional work carrying the burden until funding flows more freely and the markets can absorb new product at near normal rates.

Once the recovery begins, design firms are very slow to hire, using their existing staff to pick up additional work until they are forced to hire new personnel.  The transition is going to be a long one with the first hires being young professionals for the most part.  Many of the firms will want to train intermediate professionals to step up into more responsibility – it has been the business model of the past twenty years – and because the economics require it: the young professionals come out of school with more capabilities in design software, more tools than any of the intermediate and senior professionals can hope to obtain; and, design fees will remain low for the next few years, forcing firms to push the younger professionals to take on more because it will continue to be the only competitive and profitable route for the firms.

For individuals, brand-maker designers, artists and others, this will be an easier transition provided they are all included from the beginning.  Many will start their own firms which will increase the potential for growth in the industry.  They will be able to market to non-traditional clients based on their civic and institutional work and experience gained from this program.  Generally, the program will allow us to develop their potential opportunities while we work through the remainder of this recession.

Many have just received degrees and, having overcome many obstacles just to get into the design professions, are now faced with having to do something else.  We don’t want to lose any more professionals.  We need to keep the design professions open so that anyone who wants to become a designer will be able to move into these fields.  This will assure the diversity necessary to compete globally and expand upon the body of design work for our society and culture.

I understand the challenges before you are great, that this is a small group of our community and that it appears to be a monumental task to put in place.  I am hoping you will see something in this proposal that is similar to a program others have suggested or that it can be applied to a broader segment of the population, making it easier to execute and distribute among the different groups across the country.  I would also hope that those who know more about these things would be able to make it work for everyone. As always, I am willing to serve in any capacity that I may help to make this program work.


Mark E. Sorenson, A.I.A.



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