Why aren’t architects better at business?

It’s not just about design: RIBA Ambassador for Business Skills Chris Williamson is working to bring an essential skill to the profession

Chris Williamson
Chris Williamson

As architect Chris Williamson sees it, business skills are scorned by the profession. This is a hangover from the Victorian Age when post-Grand-Tour gentlemen could pursue pure building design without fretting about the vulgar exigencies of getting paid. Cross-fertilised with the 20th century’s ideological experiments, professional attitudes mutated after WW2 into the idea of architect as noble artist of the people, for the people. Architects became the sole arbiter of good taste and morality in building design, infallibly guarding the common man against the depredations of big business and aesthetic faux pas. What’s more, in a pre-digital, information-poor world, clients kowtowed to them.

In the second decade of the 21st century, clients are better informed and are no longer quite so easy to impress. Unless architects are born rich or married rich (to paraphrase Philip Johnson), today they depend utterly on wealthy clients and funders or the public purse for their commercial survival. They are no longer the unquestioned leaders of project teams. Indeed, often they are just part of the supply chain.

This of course changes everything. Architects now have to justify their value. They have to fight for work against stiff competition. They have to collaborate constructively with fellow consultants. They have more to learn and to keep up with. They have demanding business costs and a sea of regulatory red tape to navigate as employers and business owners. Trouble is, generational and institutional inertia means that many architects haven’t quite realised all this yet, and until the penny drops, the architect’s star will continue to wane.

This is the thinking behind Williamson’s Architect Skills website and blog, his first move on becoming ambassador for business skills. The site gives him a public forum for promoting events, expressing opinions, and for grouping together useful video resources. A related LinkedIn group encourages discussion and information sharing. He’s coined the #savvyarchitect and #realizearchworth tags, and hopes to stage a Dragon’s Den-type event to give young and trainee architects the chance to hone their business pitching and presentation skills.

Not surprisingly for a one-man effort, engagement is slower than he’d like. Not that Williamson is pessimistic. Far from it. Inspired at the age of 12 by the first moon landing, he has, as he says in his essay in the future-gazing book Retropioneers: Architecture redefined, ‘had a clear conviction that humans can solve any problem and rise to any challenge.’

Perhaps the most successful part of his campaign to date has been his breakfast business seminars. Hosted at the London office of his own firm, Weston Williamson+Partners (WWP), he has staged three which all sold out, attracting about 50 people each. Themes are how to manage your practice, the client-architect relationship, and growing your business. ‘Most delegates go away quite evangelical. None of us wants the reputation of being poor project managers. We need to respond to the RIBA Working With Clients survey findings.’

According to Williamson, the industry’s obsession with promoting only the luxurious or glamorous makes it look like that’s all architects are interested in. What’s missing is a piece of paper that evidences architects as trustworthy managers and good entrepreneurs.

In particular, he thinks the RIBA should run a business skills certification scheme, something that would encourage clients to choose qualifying RIBA members ahead of other kinds. He has also suggested to president-elect Ben Derbyshire that the RIBA should celebrate good architectural management and business skills with an award that has ‘equal weight’ to the Stirling Prize.  These ideas are merely a twinkle in his eye for the moment. ‘Getting them off the ground would require considerable resources, institutional will, and a u-turn in mindset,’ he says.

He feels that the economic and political turmoil of the 2008 recession and the current Brexit uncertainty have concentrated minds on the need for strong business strategies. Having just come back from MIPIM, he’s been reminded not only of the powerful connection between macroeconomic churn and property, but also of the fluidity of money. Investment capital swirls rapidly around the globe on currents that the average architect simply can’t see. If you’re not careful, though, they will sweep you out of business.

Infrastructure specialist WWP has recently rethought their long-term business plan. The directors accept that Brexit change is inevitable and so he has been catching red-eye flights to drum up business – with considerable success – in what Theresa May calls ‘the rest of the world’. ‘Projects that we’re working on – Crossrail and HS2, and some residential – they’re all directly connected to that bigger picture,' he says. 'That’s why we’re diversifying our portfolio by trying to win work in Australia and Singapore, which I talk about in Retropioneers.’

 

 

'Projects that we’re working on – Crossrail and HS2, and some residential – are all directly connected to that bigger picture. That’s why we’re diversifying our portfolio by trying to win work in Australia and Singapore, which I talk about in Retropioneers.'

That said, he’s unusually sanguine about Brexit, and thinks architects, with the support of the RIBA, should just get on with it. After all, the EU is unlikely to want to cut off its nose simply to spite its face, and in any case, we already deal with, hire from and operate in the rest of the world. If we want it badly enough, visas and recognition of qualifications can all be worked around.

Of more concern to him is the anti-elite, anti-expert, post-truth sentiment influencing electorates at the moment, most notably exemplified by Donald Trump’s election as US president. He likens it to an ‘X-factor mentality’ where people believe that everyone’s opinion has equal weight. ‘If that’s true, it means that we can all design buildings and need not rely on an architect. It’s not true, of course, but because of how we get our information, it is a compelling argument for a lot of people.’

This fires his passion for education. He’d like to see business skills taught in CPD and in schools of architecture, something that, in his view, the RIBA education department should formalise. ‘At the moment, schools just concentrate on design – everyone’s got amazing computer visuals. But I also want them to consider the overall business case, cost and programme, even if just at a basic level.’

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Acknowledging that the education system does not produce office-ready architects, Williamson takes the responsibility to mentor and train seriously. Recently he was chatting to the young practices occupying the RIBA’s incubator studio at 76 Portland Place, offering them the benefit of his experience.

Their preoccupation is about how to break into new commercial sectors. ‘I told them that what really interests clients is your detailed design approach, which means having something to show them.’ That’s how WW+P won the commission to design a laboratory. ‘We simply dreamt one up on spec, got it published, exhibited it at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, and subsequently snagged an interview for the Genoa Research Institute.’

Williamson believes in giving things a go and persistence. Even if you don’t win, entering competitions bulks out your portfolio and allows you to organise your thinking. In his philosophy, one thing leads to another. ‘The more your name is mentioned, the more work you get. That’s how you build a reputation. And then you have to deliver.’


Retropioneers: Architecture Redefined is published on 1 June. With opinion pieces by all the RIBA Ambassadors and other leading construction voices, it sets the scene for how our industry will look in the future and the role that architects could, and perhaps should, play in this new world.

Pre-order your copy now with the discount code retropioneers5 and get £5 off. Full price £19.95.

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