Battered by the recession, architects pursue new lines of work.
Photo © Sye Williams
Yeekai Lim started a coffee company in 2009 due to a slowdown in architectural work.

The recession and its aftermath have clearly taken a toll on the architecture profession. In May, during the AIA’s annual convention, Kermit Baker, the institute’s chief economist, reported that 60,000 payroll jobs had been lost at firms over the past four years, with 36,000 of them being designers and architects. Of that group, about a third have found work outside of architecture, according to surveys conducted by the AIA.

Roughly 6,000 of these architects will likely quit the profession for good, the surveys found—a move that could have serious ramifications. This doesn’t even account for recent graduates who, unable to find jobs at firms, may pursue work in entirely different fields. According to sources we interviewed, these new career paths vary widely, from culinary endeavors to digital game design.

“I hung on to my desk as long as I could afford to, but I realized I wasn’t going in nearly as much,” says Yeekai Lim, 39, who ran his own practice while also holding down jobs at various firms over the years. In 2009, he decided to pursue his second passion: coffee.

For years, Lim had been experimenting with beans and brewing styles at his California home and had become “obsessed with this notion of the perfect cup.” This ultimately led him to found Cognoscenti Coffee, which began as a coffee cart. Today, Lim has six employees and two coffee shops: one in Los Angeles and another opening soon in Culver City. Moreover, his business is turning a profit, he says.

Lim hasn’t abandoned architecture entirely. He designed his two stores, and he’s working for a client on a restaurant in Los Angeles. He doesn’t know if he will ever return to architecture full time, but if he does, his coffee company experience will be a boon. Pouring lattes “has definitely provided a lot of insight on client-architect relationships,” he says. “I better understand the service side, which is what architects should be focusing on.”

Also drawn to food service was Natasha Case, who, after graduating from UCLA in 2008, went on to design hotels for Disney. But after her six-month contract wasn’t renewed due to the recession, Case started an ice cream company in 2009 with a friend. Coolhaus—whose name is an amalgam of Koolhaas and Bauhaus—now has 10 trucks, two carts, and an L.A. storefront, where customers can choose flavors such as Louis Pe-Kahn and Mint-alism. The company’s ice cream sandwiches are also sold in certain Whole Foods Markets. Case says her architecture know-how has been helpful, particularly in regard to packaging design. “I’m obviously not working in CAD,” she says, “but there’s a huge amount that has translated from my background.”

Some architects determined to stick with the profession are expanding the services they offer. Robert Vecchione, of Sarasota, Florida, has run a private practice since 1997. Two years ago, he began advising nonprofit clients on how to drum up additional revenue in the face of declining public funding. He helped the Easter Seals of Southwest Florida, for instance, conceive a plan to sponsor design competitions for toys that can later be sold in stores.

Vecchione encourages clients to take a more studio-style approach to brainstorming sessions. “I tell them, you can’t just sit there with a pen and paper hunched over a table,” he says. Better is to hash out ideas with brown paper, on a wall, and black markers. Like architecture, it should be a “visual, creative process,” he says.

For aspiring architects, finding a job is no easy feat. Those who recently completed undergraduate architecture programs have the highest rate of unemployment, at 14 percent, of any profession, according to a recent report from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. (In contrast, the rate for those working in law is 8 percent; for journalists, 7 percent.) These headwinds come against a national overall jobless rate of 8.2 percent.

Some graduates are forced to take drastic measures. Drew McNamara, 22, finished his MS.Arch. degree—which combines architecture, engineering, and construction—in May. Unable to land a job, he’s considering enlisting in the Army or Navy, where he hopes he’ll be tapped to do design work. He adds that joining the military would help him repay “tens of thousands of dollars” of student loan debt.

His plans came as a shock to many of his peers, who think his talents would be wasted in the military. “My classmates think that architects should follow a narrow path” to a private firm that designs homes and offices, he says.

For others, the graphic design and tech industries are providing opportunities. To wit: Evan Sharp quit the M.Arch. program at Columbia University to take a product development job at Facebook. In 2011, he launched Pinterest, the popular photo-sharing site.

Kemper Smith, 30, who was laid off from a Mississippi firm, is now working with Pitch Interactive, a Wisconsin company that creates eye-catching infographics for magazines like Wired. “I’m kind of the oddball with the architecture degree,” he says, though discussions among the staff about form versus function recall critiques from college.

Smith says he doesn’t mind the change of scenery. His work “is by far more egalitarian compared to architecture,” he explains. “Politics, connections, and money are much less of a factor.”One field that’s expected to lure architects moving forward is digital gaming, where CAD skills are a huge plus, explains Brandii Grace, creative director for the game developer Transform Entertainment. Salaries for designers usually start at $30,000 and rise to $80,000, though the sector is hard to break into and turnover is high. Still, Grace says architects often excel as “level designers,” who create realistic-looking rooms. “Architects are good at designing corridors where the walls slant inward, creating a claustrophobic feel. Or they might bevel a window to force players to look out of it,” she says. For some architects, designing for the virtual world may end up paying their real-world bills.