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Why architects must fundamentally change the way they practise

Tim Bailey

How are the pressures and unpredictability of practice affecting the business model in architecture? Is the quest for the perfect design undermining project viability? As part of RIBA Horizons 2034, Tim Bailey of XSite reflects on the business challenges ahead

Hill House and Shoe Lane Library redevelopment in the City of London by APT has just received planning consent. But delay to a planning application cannot be planned for and consent is often burdened with new costs to meet conditions and planning gain.
Hill House and Shoe Lane Library redevelopment in the City of London by APT has just received planning consent. But delay to a planning application cannot be planned for and consent is often burdened with new costs to meet conditions and planning gain. Credit: Designed by Apt. Image copyright of WAX Architectural Visualizations

Macro-economics is fascinating to watch unfold – and speculation about the effect of world events and trends on everyday lives and architectural practice has been the subject of coffee shop and public house conversations for as long as anyone can remember. Climate change and global financial strains inevitably influence practice and the wider construction industry – as the RIBA Horizons 2034 pieces, looking forward to a decade of built environment economics, demonstrate.

Practice pressures in context

But what does that speculation look like from an architect’s desk? We are one quarter into the 21st century; uncertainties abound and we are  contemplating phenomenal change. While we can have little direct influence on global shifts we are nonetheless very conscious of these pressures on practice. We want to get ahead of the curve – but how can we do it?

By its very nature, practice is a contextual response to circumstance. Decisions made today are different to those made 20 or 30 years ago and will be different to those in 20 or 30 years’ time. Legislative and regulatory frameworks, trends and sector standards, the market place and the standard metrics of a project, quality, time and cost all affect the architect’s choices. Materials, spatial relationships and procurement decisions must take into account the possibility that the project metrics will change – potentially making the fee base unviable. 

In the background, but exerting undoubted influence, are the fundamentals of your architectural education and ambition. How you feel about the design process, how much time you have to develop a design and today's relevant standards will affect your ability to make sound economic project decisions in the context of the fee and sustaining your practice. These things have been incrementally changing the way in which architects maintain a business for years but we are arguably on the cusp of change that is faster and more challenging to the essence of professional practice. If left unchecked it could alienate the profession from the rest of the industry.

Practice is a contextual response... decisions made today are different to those made 20 or 30 years ago

Damaging work patterns

The routes ahead are fed by societal trends, legislative frameworks, flat-lining national and international economies, construction skills shortages, long vapour trails on property and land prices after the global crash, the now in-built financial stresses from recessions and the political groundshifts in their wake – alongside the quiet demolition of workplace norms and employment trends launched by the pandemic. As we adjust, perhaps we have all become too used to the head wind. Looking ahead, we face decisions that will challenge many of the norms of traditional practice business models. 

Flexible working patterns are damaging the collaborative potential of teams. Collaboration is important for the inclusive and diverse thinking needed for problem-solving, and for the osmotic transfer of knowledge and experience to staff – especially those at the outset of their careers. Flexible working can damage natural mentorship because every on-screen situation is transactional and omits the lessons learnt from observation, overhearing or general office interaction. Rather than letting these trends erode the potential for the team, architects must work harder to establish the opportunities and places where creative and productive practice can thrive. This is fundamental to our value in the construction process.

Yesteryear’s pace of decision-making has gone but as many will recognise, the cogs of the built environment machinery move at hugely different rates. This has had a big effect on the economy of practice and threatens the viability of a key employment model. Delay to a  planning application cannot be planned for and consent is often burdened with new costs to meet conditions and planning gain. This can result in redesign and recosting to meet the new budgetary condition but also extends the period over which the fee has been used.

We face decisions that will challenge many of the norms of traditional practice business models

Quality vs fees

Employing people on permanent contracts is becoming marginal, certainly in smaller practices, because the work pipeline is so unpredictable. Sit that with employee desires for four-day-weeks, flexi-hours, etc and there is reason to suggest that employment should become goal-oriented with tasks rather than time allocated a fixed salary. This incentivises efficient working in a way which traditional employment relationships do not. At the same time this shift in focus might address three other issues that plague architectural practice – a tendency towards perfectionism, striving for originality at any cost and under payment.  

Productivity in practice has suffered for years from an unwillingness to move away from the university-embedded notion that ‘this next project is the one’, that originality is more important than creativity and that everything must be the best it can be rather than just fit for purpose. Most of an architect’s work could be systemised to a greater degree, and resistance to that is cultural.

These factors eat into the fee from the outset. Very few clients are willing to pay for what they perceive as the whim of an architect so keen to win the work that it offers an ‘if everything goes right’ fee. Time lost internally, delays from third parties, added time to get back on budget and over management of the construction process all effectively diminish the fee. With less reliable work pipelines, smaller practices take on increasing numbers of projects in an attempt to reduce the gaps in workload caused by cashflow delays or cancellations. This has a direct impact on quality; either that or the timeline suffers.

This conflict between time and quality makes resource management and productivity hard to control. An architectural practice cannot adopt a production line mentality – can it? Well, look at the best product design, the result of design-led, repetitive processes that hold their value in the market and are highly regarded by customers. Compare that with construction’s missed ambitions for offsite manufacture, design for manufacture and assembly, and high precision with components, and you have to ask why we are so unwilling to change.

We face decisions that will challenge many of the norms of traditional practice business models

Towards the 90% architect

Legislation arriving over the last two years – primarily the Building Safety Act and rules on biodiversity net gain – is welcome, and is what should have been happening all along. The effect on practice though is significant. As specialisation increases – in elemental design, facades, materials, sustainability, health and safety, building regulations and fire – and high levels of knowledge become key to the efficacy of a project, these roles become full-time. But only larger practices can dedicate time to develop expertise. It makes sense that one expert assisting 300 people is more affordable than that same expert serving 8-15 people.

In our practice we are moving away from the individual who knows only a smaller part of the job while traditionally relying others to provide expertise, to a smarter model, the ‘90% architect’, where the individual has the skills to cover most of a job and any unavailability by another colleague does not slow it down. This is where advances in digital technology will bolster the architect’s role, creating an immediately available wider knowledge base, supporting drawn and written content and driving better, more appropriate outcomes after ‘real scenario’ planning. This model combined with other changes identified above will herald the practice that can compete in the marketplace for a healthy fee based on its reduced unit cost base.

Multi-disciplinary practice will grow but increasingly be populated by multi-disciplinary individuals. At the moment PII keeps those disciplines in silos and prevents design decisions being made quickly. What if architects were deregulated? And were able to decide whether to offer PII cover or not? There might be room for other insurance models, with artificial intelligence ensuring that most of the output will be predictable and low risk. The future of the profession will be determined by how well we can demonstrate additional value and creative decision-making beyond the mechanistic familiar. 

Inequalities are baked into modern practice, be they geographical, size-related or subject to chance. Like most inequality it will not be quickly eradicated, but vocal advocacy and strategies to minimise its impact using innovation and creativity will help close the gap for many.

What is certainly true for practice for the foreseeable future is that cost will drive and delay decisions and, just as much of the built environment does not involve an architect because we failed to demonstrate value, we will continue to be marginalised if we do not respond to these fiscal challenges and present a convincing case for why we should be hired. 

Tim Bailey is founder of Xsite
For foresight on the economics of the built environment and other subjects search RIBA Horizon 2034. RIBA Horizons 2034 sponsored by Autodesk



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