Here’s our chance to show our worth

To grasp the huge opportunities of today and tomorrow, architects need to find the keys to the hearts and minds of clients, says Stephen Hodder

The roundtables  are part of ongoing work to help architects unlock opportunities and enhance the essential relationship with clients.
The roundtables are part of ongoing work to help architects unlock opportunities and enhance the essential relationship with clients. · Credit: Wilde Fry

Significant opportunities await us as architects. That may seem an outlandish statement to those who believe our role has been emasculated, and to those who feel that the value our profession offers is poorly appreciated.

Massive forces are fundamentally altering our society and the buildings we need. Huge distribution sheds servicing on-line shoppers are displacing consumer palaces. Employees increasingly hot desk or work from home. Coffee shops pop up, patronised by professionals tapping laptops.

Fears over the environment are prompting governments to regulate how resources are consumed, changing what and how we build and how we use buildings. Iconic buildings reshaping skylines in major global cities stand testament to the flow of global money, feeding the desire among huge international corporations for worldwide prestige.

These are early signs; the full force of change lies ahead. The process of interpreting this change and realising the future is where the skills, imagination, vision and craft of the architect come to the fore.

One statistic hints at the scale of the challenge and the size of the prize. The UK built environment in 2013 was officially valued at £6.4 trillion. Almost half was the value of the land on which the buildings stand. That’s important to note. 

Nobody can predict the exact shape of things to come, but we know that how we use the built environment is in rapid flux and transforming today’s built environment to meet tomorrow’s needs is an immense task. 

History shows us how powerfully radical shifts in the economy and society can impact on what we build. The late 1970s saw the UK shift from an industrial to a post-industrial economy. Then, a third of employment was in manufacturing and about a half in services. Today services accounts for 80%, manufacturing just 10%. By 2000, commercial work represented about a quarter of all construction, five times more than industrial.

With hindsight that huge transformation seems obvious and straightforward in terms of technical challenges and business models. Knocking down factories and replacing them with shops, offices and homes is not simple, but the intellectual, financial and technical apparatus was pretty much in place.

What buildings and structures we will need in future is far less obvious. How to fund the transformation is, perhaps, even less certain. How will investors and government most effectively inject their capital to create value, capture it and make the best return?

Architects create more worth than can be expressed through the capital value of buildings. Without even debating the scale or where this extra value lies we can see that it exists in the nation’s balance sheet. The asset value is far greater than the build cost.

We found clients eager for the skills, insight, creativity and leadership we can offer

Some of the value a building creates spills over, as externalities, to benefit neighbours. This means there will be value generated by the architect that is hard for the developer to capture. Bad buildings can destroy value in the location where they are built. These realities test us as architects. For all this, the challenges offer a better opportunity to display our worth than for a generation or more.

Shifting social and economic pressures will bring subtle transformation. It will not just be about large projects in major cities, but a whole range of work taking place on the high street, in commercial centres, in cities, towns and villages, much of it organically. People – citizen architects – will reshape buildings to meet their needs. 

We will succeed by using our talents to interpret these complex changes and what they say about what people really want and need. We can envisage new and reconfigured buildings that work best for the users and make a sufficient return for the developer to prompt them to invest. We can show our clients how to unlock value. From there, entrepreneurial clients can create business models that best capture the value generated to finance and construct a built environment for the future.

The potential opportunities in the UK may seem huge, but are dwarfed by the global market. Here RIBA members benefit. The nation’s regulatory history, stability and rigour, makes the UK and its professional practices highly attractive to international clients. 

So why should we be anxious about opportunities? They appear there for the taking.

There is one significant proviso. We need to find the keys to the hearts and minds of clients. This may seem daunting to architects who feel their value is unappreciated. It need not be. We found clients eager for the skills, insight, creativity and leadership that we can bring to the design and construction process.

We need to grasp the opportunities to bolster the perception of our worth. This report, and the ongoing work, aims to help architects find the keys to unlocking opportunities and develop the essential relationship between client and architect. 

Click on the links below to read the cross-cutting findings of this research.


FINDINGS championing the vision

FINDINGS listening and understanding

FINDINGS engaging with people

FINDINGS delivering technical content

FINDINGS learning and improving