Three Firms Chart the Future of Architectural Work

SOM, CannonDesign, and Rapt Studio sketch out a vision for how the next generation of designers will practice.

 A two-year pandemic and big changes in how architects work mean that design students are graduating into a field rife with uncertainty. Though it can be an intimidating time to be looking for a job, progressive design firms are taking big steps to improve the experiences of young architects who join their workforces. Discussions with three very different architecture firms—Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), CannonDesign, and Rapt Studio—yielded anecdotal evidence of robust hiring practices in the coming year, after a lull in recruitment during the worst days of the pandemic. 

Along with that uptick in hiring comes a suite of initiatives like flexible work schedules, diversity-oriented recruitment, and an abundance of mentoring, to make full-time architecture work jibe with the next generation’s understanding of what a job should be.

Gone are the days of working long hours and late nights in the office, and it’s not only the pandemic that has given workers the flexibility to work from anywhere. According to Adam Semel, a managing partner in SOM’s Chicago studio, his firm’s flex work policy allows employees to choose two days a week to work from home, shift their schedule by two hours a day for a flexible daily routine, and even work remotely two weeks out of the year, in addition to paid time off. “Had the pandemic never happened, we still would have put a remote work policy into effect,” he says. “It supports the individual doing their best work while creating autonomy for them.”

a worker with a laptop on a couch
Architectural work today takes many different forms. At Rapt Studio, a firm that combines architecture and interiors with branding as well as website and graphic design, the office reflects that eclecticism.

That autonomy, along with new mentoring practices and hiring initiatives, will be key to attracting and retaining the next generation of designers that the profession needs to thrive during the current building boom. 

“This year may be a record in terms of new hires,” says Charlene Miraglia, director of human resources at CannonDesign. “This contrasts with 2020, which was pretty quiet due to the pandemic. Work was constantly stopping and starting; it was like hitting the gas pedal and the brakes at the same time.”

To find their next employees, all three firms are expanding their search both to find top-tier talent and to build a more inclusive design profession. “We want a diversity of viewpoints, and we’ll find the best talent out there by looking as broadly as we can,” says Semel, who also says that SOM has come a long way since the 1950s and ’60s, when the firm employed mostly men from the Ivy League. “We cast a wide net now,” he adds. “We recruit at schools all over the country. We continue to transform ourselves and embrace new ways of thinking.”

Both SOM and CannonDesign have forged relationships with historically Black colleges and universities to recruit African-American candidates. These include Howard University in Washington, D.C., and the Atlanta University Center Consortium.

Miraglia shared that CannonDesign has been trying to diversify leadership teams, seeing more women and minorities take such posts: “We’re really intentional about spreading leadership opportunities for the diverse range of talent we have here.”

architects in meeting room with whiteboard
Above: Young designers brainstorm ideas at CannonDesign; in recent years the firm has launched several initiatives to support new hires. Top: Architects explore SOM’s expansive material library.

For Rapt Studio, an unusual firm with a broad range of services that includes not only architecture and interiors but branding, website design, naming, and graphic design, recruiting is about finding unique talents and points of view. “[We’re looking for] an innate curiosity that makes a person want to do things differently,” says David Galullo, the firm’s CEO and chief creative officer. “Our process relies on having multiple points of view, multiple backgrounds.” 

At all three firms, new hires can expect the sort of mentoring programs that help young architects develop as professionals and transition from the relative freedom of being students to the more structured, if now flexible, lifestyle of working in an office. 

Miraglia points to a suite of programs CannonDesign has launched to support its younger designers: “We have programs like CannonDesign Academy and New Hire Buddies. We also do a lot of well-being programming with a heavy focus on mental health and stress reduction.” They’re also launching a support group for employees working toward their license. At SOM, Semel says, it’s the firm’s Year One program: “It’s an initiative that brings an incredible range of exposure and experience, everything from supporting licensure to asking new employees to give a presentation of their school or early career work.”

As for Rapt, “Our studio kind of defies description in many ways,” says Galullo. “We offer a diversity of mentoring from different design directors and teams. Team members are not just getting a single experience—they’re getting multiple experiences. A young architect might be mentored by a graphic designer, or vice versa.”

The most important thing for young designers, Galullo points out, is to start building those relationships with coworkers and team members, whether virtually or in person. He says, “The last few people we’ve hired have opted to do an in-person onboarding to immerse themselves in all of the relationships they’ll need to start building.”

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), CannonDesign, and Rapt Studio were sponsors of the 2022 Metropolis Future 100.

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