Where does the architecture profession go from here? There was a time in 2007 when the profession was expanding so rapidly that there was a shortage of architects to fill the amount of work being demanded by clients, keen to ride the bubble. However, every downturn in the economy in turn brings retreat for the architecture profession.
The architecture profession is on the forefront of any murmurs in the economy and is vulnerable to any rises and fall in the construction sector. During every recession clients look to cut costs and the architect is often the first consultant whose fees are cut. In response, we the architects look at absorbing these cost cuttings and taking a hit on our profit margins, putting at risk any chance our business has of surviving the recession. The only area for us to manoeuvre is around the scope of works we provide to our clients. With decreased fees we look at decreasing the amount of work we provide to our client. However this strategy is bound with risks; it jeopardises the quality of the end product and questions the role of a fit and proper architect. In addition to this, as every business owner, we use cost cuttings measures to reduce our overheads, reduce our base salary costs, reduce marketing costs etc to ensure our books are balanced. One might argue that in a free market every recession allows businesses to cut the fat around the edges to ensure companies run more efficiently so they can provide the best value to any client. I would argue these are just bandaid solutions to the bigger problem ‐ ‘the change in the role of the architect.’
I remember when I was going through the registration process there was a fair amount of project manager bashing and blaming the current state of the profession on previous generations of architects. The profession today is faced with a number of different challenges; many different and unique models of procurement, competitors such as project managers, building designers etc challenging what we provide as our core service. One area that has been significantly hit has been contract administration. Procurement methods such as design and construct (D&C) contracts and the use of project managers have resulted in the role of the architect in contract administration changing significantly. In my own experience, I notice clients using D&C contracts to manage the overall costs of projects but still demanding architectural services that are equivalent to lump sum contracts. We as a profession are not helping ourselves by providing additional services for free. The biggest asset we have is the knowledge base to achieve the project. Hence, we as architects need to educate and manage the client, project managers and our own staff in identifying where the value and margin is between what we provide as a service and the fees we are paid.
As our scope of work decreases, so does the quality of our training, resulting in a change to the perception of the role of the architect. I was recently out to lunch with someone who is a registered architect but is now working client side as client manager; we debated the decreasing skillset of architects and how frustrated clients were about the lack of co‐ordinated documentation, the lack of basic construction knowledge amongst other things. I asked him if in recent memory he had awarded a project to an architectural office with full scope of services. The answer was no; so I asked him what he expected, if he didn’t provide us with the fees to do a job properly? I further reminded him that his job as client manager existed because the fees and scope of architects were being cut and redirected elsewhere. This idea of the reduction in our skill set has been further highlighted in job recruitment procedures. The need to jump onto the BIM bandwagon has meant that that first question at any job interview is ‘do you know Revit, 3d max, rhino etc?’ Students that come out of university have beautifully presented portfolio’s, but ask them what a joist is and a lot of them struggle. This is a perpetual circle, as our skill set decreases so does the demand for us ultimately making us no more than cad monkeys or graphic designers.
So where do we as a profession go from here?
I am of the belief that knowledge and creative thinking is our greatest asset. Our first and foremost job is to communicate. As a profession the better we get at communicating what we do and what value we that provide to a client, the greater the likelihood of increased fees. While traditional work for architects with full services might be on the decline, there has never been a better time for non‐traditional job opportunities. Over recent years there has been a shift away from star architects to a rise in ‘public‐interest design’ serving the needs of more marginal groups within society. This new form of business model often involves a component of non for profit in partnership with an NGO, university, private institution or government agency. In Australia examples of this range from Architects for Peace, CO‐Habitat and Monash Architecture Studio. International examples include Project H Design, Architecture for Humanity, MASS Design Group and so on. Buro North who describes themselves as a practice delivering evidence‐based solutions that are creative, measurable and meaningful working across the disciplines of graphic design, industrial design and wayfinding is another example of a different business model stretching the idea of what an architect does. Similarly on the client side demand for professionals with expertise greater than project management is in high demand.
The value the architect provides to each one of these business models is design‐thinking skills applied in an environment of process, procedure & policies. Architects are perfectly suited to environments where there are complex problems that require input from multiple stakeholders across a spectrum of cultures, incomes and public and private sectors to achieve an outcome. It is our ability to understand the problem and communicate it effectively that allows us to rise above many of our competing professions. In a 2010 survey of 1,500 CEO’s conducted by IBM, 60% of those polled identified creativity is the quality most valued in their employees whilst ethics came in second. Innovation has become the differential factor between businesses, with our ability as architects to think laterally a valued asset.
As the population grows towards 5million people in Melbourne there will always be a need to design houses, museums, schools and universities. The volume of work for architects can only grow. The profession should recognise the decrease in demand for the traditional architect and diversify with new business models that address the changing climate that promotes the value an architect can bring to any venture.
Ajith Kuruvilla is an urbanist and director of Grayspace, architecture, urbanism and public art
Follow him on Twitter @Grayspace_Ajith