Interview with James P. Cramer

James P. Cramer, chair of Greenway, offers additional insights and commentary.

James P. Cramer is founding editor of DesignIntelligence and cochair of the Design Futures Council. He is chairman of Greenway Group, a management consultancy.

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AR: Why did California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo get the top ranking for its B. Arch. program? Cornell University's architecture department often takes that spot.

James P. Cramer: I really don't know why. I don't see it as an indicator of quality, since they both have great programs and consistently make the list of top 5 undergraduate architecture schools. Let's see if it becomes a trend over the next few years.

What about the general fluctuation in rankings? For example, Rice University is fifth in top 10 graduate programs for 2014, although it ranked 15 last year. The University of Michigan and Kansas State University also landed in the top 10 in graduate programs this year, while both placed lower—in the top 20—in previous years.

Since rankings depend on firms' responses, it might be that the same firms did not participate this year. If firms only respond every other year, it can affect the statistics. Furthermore, a dialogue between the school and the profession, which Rice does well, is important. One mistake schools make is to communicate only with alumni. You need to let both national and international practitioners—the people who are hiring—know what your school is doing. Most firms don't come to campus to recruit, so you have to reach them. Schools do it through a strong website, or by e-mail, letters, videos, or conferences. It's not a good idea only to communicate with firms when you want to raise money.

Why do the same small coterie of schools remain dominant?

Obviously, a long-standing reputation helps. Schools such as Harvard and Cornell turn out students who will become leading practitioners. Graduates who form global practices create a large international network of foreign clients and practitioners, which continues to boost the rankings at those schools. Harvard, for one, is very responsive to the profession; it creates an active dialogue among the faculty, students, and professionals through its weekly lectures and frequent symposiums.

Why is a Harvard architectural education so admired?

Deans and chairs from other schools cite its availability of resources, emphasis on theory, focus on global practice and international connections, and its faculty, among other things.

What else improves rankings in schools?

Often a new building helps a school gain visibility. But the curriculum is so important. The differentiation between disciplines is blurring because of the speed of project delivery, which is calling for more integration of abilities and skills. Schools with crossover curricula—and which teach business principles, communication, and leadership—have a better chance to improve their rankings with architecture firms.

Are there particular programs on the horizon that you find commendable?

The University of Minnesota's College of Design includes—besides architecture, landscape architecture, housing studies, graphic design, interior design—apparel design, retail merchandising, and product design. This keeps students from staying in a silo of one discipline, which can be stifling. Other schools are putting construction management and architecture in the same program—California Poly at San Luis Obispo, Texas A&M, Georgia Institute of Technology, to name a few. It creates a new DNA that leads to a design-build orientation. Not only are architects forming design-build practices, but construction companies are bringing architects into their firms. And they recruit at architecture schools, as Skanska has with Georgia Tech. The construction companies want architects as CEOs or owners. We'll be seeing more mergers and shared ownership between the construction industry and the architecture profession.

Another unusual collaboration is between the University of Tennessee's College of Architecture and Design and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. They are teaming up on a program of research and innovation in energy use and urban design, and plan to bring in an architectural firm.

What about the integration of business and architecture?

Business and design schools are already doing this: Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins, in partnership with Maryland Institute College of Art, offers programs on design leadership. Parsons The New School for Design is rolling out a master's in Strategic Design and Management, and the new Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University offers courses in business and management training. Architecture schools need to pay attention to this trend.

In the list of five significant issues that deans and chairs care about, integrated practice and interdisciplinary education is No. 1. But design quality isn't included in the deans' and chairs' top five—although it is top for firm leaders. What's that about?

I suspect that deans and chairs are mentioning the key issues they see emerging. They take design quality for granted. For that same reason, deans and chairs put working with the community on low-income housing or emergency projects in the top five, but you don't see it on practitioners' top five. But so many practitioners take on pro-bono projects, perhaps they take it for granted.

What about teaching design per se? Will programs have time to do this if you are focusing on those other skills?

Design and design thinking can be taught as process and product. Design studio is where you teach marketing and business. Design is so important. But if it is not taught well, it can do harm to the environment and the community. To be a good designer, you need to constantly learn and adapt to change. It's a major competitive advantage, for otherwise the profession will be irrelevant. And education must be a continuing process all through life. In fact, we should set up postgraduate programs for the profession on campuses to encourage dialogue and advanced learning with practicing architects.

You mentioned that communication skills need to be taught to architecture students: how so?

Presentation and communication skills are necessary to give more voice to the importance of design. Students need to take courses or be coached.

What is the main challenge for educators in attracting students to architecture programs?

Now that unemployment is down, we are facing a future with an undersupply of talent. We need talented architects. But education is costly, even if it varies widely in accredited schools. For instance, at Cal Poly Obispo, the B.Arch. program is now $8,724 for an in-state student and $19,884 for out-of-state. The University of Southern California, a private school, charges an undergraduate tuition of $46,038. Yale's graduate tuition is $44,125, while Kansas State is only $8,870 (in-state) and $21,815 out-of-state. It gets harder to pay back loans when graduate students only start off earning about $41,300. While that figure goes up 5 to 9 percent after licensing, it is not much compared to other professions.

How do you advise schools to face the future?

Besides more business education, I would suggest mixing design studios with online education. Stop treating digital and face-to-face settings as two separate learning categories. Architecture skills in design, operations, finance, and marketing can be taught digitally. Technology is the educator's and the architect's friend, and new tools are available every semester. So make it part of continuous learning and adapting to change. Don't be a “designosaur.”

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