February 6, 2009
  James P. Cramer, Hon. AIA

by Heather Livingston
Contributing Editor

Summary: Jim Cramer is the founder, principal, and chairman of The Greenway group, a strategy consulting and business networking firm for the design and construction industry. He is the author of Design Plus Enterprise: Seeking a New Reality in Architecture; co-author, with Scott Simpson, FAIA, of How Firms Succeed: A Field Guide to Management Solutions; and editor of the Almanac of Architecture and Design. Cramer is the former chief executive officer of the AIA and the American Architectural Foundation. In addition to his role at Greenway, Cramer is co-founder and president of the Design Futures Council, a think-tank devoted to advancing innovation and shaping the future of the design industry.

Northern State University is where I started in Aberdeen, South Dakota. I went to the University of Minnesota from there. I got my master’s degree in higher education at the University of St. Thomas.

During the time that I was at the AIA, I wrote into my contract that I was required to have a week of professional continuing education every year, so I went to the Wharton Graduate School of Business and earned seven certificates, ranging from Effective Executive to Advanced Management to Human Resources to Marketing Excellence. It was one of the smartest things that I ever did, because it got me out of the AIA for a week and into graduate education and business. It has served me well throughout my life.

What are you currently reading?
Last summer, I read Atlas Shrugged for the second time. I wanted to read it again at this stage of my life—I was turning 60 years old. After that, I read a book on the life of Charles Handy called Myself and Other More Important Matters. He’s a management guru, and I’ve followed him throughout my life. He is a wonderful, common-sense, wise mentor. I do think architects would enjoy it a lot. “Handy is at his best: humane, thoughtful, and serious,” says The Financial Times.

By the way, The Financial Times from London is what I read every day. We had two client projects going on simultaneously in London, and my hotel gave me The Financial Times every morning. I’ve been reading it ever since. It’s a newspaper that I think is as close to being indispensable as any publication can be. I recommend it to all of our clients.

Career path
When I was in college, I worked at the YMCA. When I went to graduate school, I became the inner-city program director for the St. Paul YMCA, but I was still in school. Then I started a program called Arlington House, which was for disadvantaged and delinquency-prone adolescents in St. Paul. I got my graduate schooling and became the head of community education for the University district, which was a joint appointment between the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis public schools. I ended up being on the faculty of the University of Minnesota for six years, including the period of time before I became executive vice president of AIA Minnesota. I became the executive vice president of AIA Minnesota and served on the national AIA Board—two years as president of CACE. I then came on the national staff.

What was your first position at AIA national?
President of the AIA Service Corporation and publisher of Architecture magazine … I migrated from that to the senior vice president of the AIA and president of the American Architectural Foundation, later to become deputy CEO, later to become EVP and CEO of the AIA.

Why did you found The Greenway Group?
This is what I always wanted to do: spend my life doing something that would improve the lives of architects in a more energized way than I could do in an association position. I really wanted to be a management consultant, and I also wanted to edit what was then a newsletter [now a journal] called Design Intelligence. I wanted to work with architects and other creative professionals to help them to be better, happier, and richer than they were.

I also felt that my time at the AIA had been very well used, but that it was time for me to celebrate what I had accomplished and move on and let someone else come in with their level of energy and do what they could do. I think running the AIA is a lot like a relay. You have to keep passing that baton to the next generation of leadership. When you’re EVP of the Institute, you’re running a sprint, not a marathon. You’re sprinting and getting ready to pass that baton, and I was ready.

I also wanted to form a think tank that would be independent and include all of the design professions. We, as a management consultancy, could serve architects around issues of strategy and this would help them achieve levels of success that could create the kind of change they would need to reinvent themselves. I also discovered that I could be a great advocate for the AIA in my more independent role as a management consultant and chair of the Greenway Group. At every speech that I have given—and I give quite a few every year—I always talk about the value of the AIA to the profession.

You’ve been working with architects for a long time. How has the profession changed?
I’m doing a program at this year’s convention called “Diversity and Demographics,” and I talk about the shifts that are taking place in the profession. The baton is moving from the Baby Boomer generation to Generation X, and there are a lot of hugely talented people in Generation X.

The architecture profession was a relatively stable profession, and it now is becoming much more dynamic and entrepreneurial than it was when I started with the AIA in 1978. At that time, architects were more solo artists. There’s a much more collaborative design team orientation today. There’s much more diversity in firm cultures today. Much of the discussion at that time was about solving discrete problems, and now it’s more about managing ongoing dilemmas, including some problems that architects just can’t solve by themselves.

We, of course, have a big emphasis now on integrated project delivery. During those days, everything was linear and oriented towards a sequential handoff. Now, everything is about integrated delivery teams and simultaneous processes rather than linear processes. While we had two-dimensional CAD in those days, now we have BIM. BIM is a much more dynamic sharing of technology that makes teamwork between the professions in our industry and the contractors much more dynamic and, I think, more satisfying.

It’s also true that clients are more sophisticated than they were then. I think that we were designing for average clients: school boards, church committees, and corporate clients who were not terribly sophisticated. The clients have become much more expert now. As a matter of fact, many client organizations now are led by architects. All over the country, the officers in charge of design and facilities and real estate management are architects who may have been in private practice in the past but now are leading major enterprises, so you see more architects both in the public and private sector than we used to.

Where do you see the profession heading beyond IPD and BIM?
The profession is getting stronger, and some of this is born in the schools. Architecture schools are getting stronger. In fact, we should celebrate the new alignment that’s taking place between architecture education and the profession of architecture. There used to be a lot of whining about the disconnects, and I would say that it’s time to start celebrating the many ways that schools are better preparing their students for the future of architectural practice.

Beyond that, I see it heading into leadership positions, because as we head out of a silo into these more integrated professional opportunities, architects—by virtue of their training and their left-brain and right-brain talents—are in the best position to lead the entire design and construction process from imagination through delivery and commissioning. This is the most exciting time for the architecture profession, and we must have the strength to be the leader that the world expects of us.

How do you think the current recession will alter practice?
First of all, the recession has slammed a lot of firms. We’re going from a time of full employment of architects to probably a 14 percent unemployment rate by this summer, so architects are going to learn to handle this situation and have a new level of understanding and sensitivity. It will destabilize the profession momentarily, but I believe that people will come out of it stronger. We’re going from a period when we were in growing markets, and we’re now in a time where there are shrinking markets.

Also, there was a dominance of private funding. About 56 percent of all fees in the architecture world were from private funding, and now we’re going into a dominance of public funding, so it’s going to be very different. But it will be a test, and the profession will come out stronger. The survival instinct is very strong and the ideas that I hear in firms today are innovative and futuristic. By the way, we’ve learned from past recessions that many firms actually get larger during recessions because they’re getting more innovative and stronger. These recessions also give birth to new firms that in the next generation will become strong enterprises as well.

What advice would you give to young architects?
I would advise young architects to coach themselves to be particularly resilient during this time and not to get beaten down because a stronger profession is emerging around the corner that needs their talent. I believe they will find a great career ahead on the horizon. Stay involved with the AIA. Stay involved with AIAS. Network with people.

Once, when I was working with Norman Foster, he told me that there were two main things that affected his success as an architect. The first is the people with whom he networked and chose to spend his time. He said he learned so much from these people. The second thing that impacted his life were the books he read. The combination of the books that enriched his life so much and the network of people whom he chose as friends is where the quality of his life and the meaning of his life stood. He was so thankful for that. Take that kind of stand and then keep your eye on what’s ahead to anticipate the many opportunities. It’s easy to get down in these days of depression, but if you anticipate the opportunities ahead, even in this economy you can get excited about the future.

We have to value imagination over rationalization. We can deliver on what we imagine so we can make what we imagine real. I’ve probably been inside more architecture firms than anyone else in the world, because we work in almost all continents. I’ve never met an architect who’s making a difference in the world who isn’t optimistic. Successful architects are optimistic. The difference with them is that they’re strategically optimistic, not blindly optimistic. This vision that they have of being strategically optimistic, even in times that are pretty sober, even dark, this determines the great architect. They can rise to the occasion. I don’t think it’s ever been easy to be an architect, and I don’t think it will ever be easy, but I can’t imagine a better profession.


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For more information on The Greenway Group, visit their Web site.

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Photo of Jim Cramer courtesy The Greenway Group.

Design Futures Council logo and Design Intelligence images courtesy the Design Futures Council.

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From the AIA Bookstore:
Design plus Enterprise: Seeking a New Reality in Architecture & Design, by James P. Cramer (Greenway, 2002).

How Firms Succeed: A Field Guide to Design Management, by James P. Cramer and Scott Simpson (Greenway, 2004).

The Next Architect: A New Twist on the Future of Design, by James P. Cramer and Scott Simpson (Greenway, 2006).