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Maria Smith

Is the industry as we know it en route to self destruct?

Architects grow ever more frustrated with low fees. Unpaid and underpaid work abound, especially in the earlier stages of projects. For the client, until sites are bought and planning secured, every penny feels like a potentially fruitless spend. Meanwhile university fees go up, and up, and up, and employers and employees grow increasingly frustrated by universities not equipping students sufficiently for the complexities of professional life.

The non-design aspects of the architect’s role are undervalued. Architects are too busy whinging about design being undervalued to notice. Clients are too busy whinging about having to pay for unusable designs to care. Planning success fees grow more and more common so many architects work on a no win no fee basis. Planning insurance comes in. Insurers offer payouts for unsuccessful planning applications. Premiums are exorbitant but reduce as practices aggregate a track record of successful applications. So architects work on spec for hefty success fees but, coupled with towering university fees, the barriers to starting a new practice become insurmountable to all but the independently wealthy.

The financial incentivisation of conservative, planning-friendly schemes and associated deft navigation of the planning system fundamentally alters the architect-client relationship. Financially viable practices negotiate expertly with planners and the client is edged out of the conversation. Developers, having capitalised on and encouraged the transition of the business of architecture into an endeavour more closely resembling their own, have inadvertently written their own obituary. The financial landscape of practising architecture now involves speculation, risk management, bank loans, investors and such like, so architects increasingly see no reason not to be their own clients. Soon the only developers left are those with enough prior design conceit to hire in-house architects.

The plan of work is unceremoniously dumped. A witty columnist in an industry magazine remarks that the architect’s role is now more akin to a lawyer’s: navigating complex, archaic processes and gloopily wading through the inertia of bureaucracy. Smart students with disdain for the procedures of their parents’ generation, notice the irrelevance of their curriculum to practice and drop out of uni to work on the factory floor of development architecture. If they exhibit the requisite aptitudes, they work their way up. Architecture schools contract to offer architectural philosophy courses to the wealthy and contrary.

Commercial development, private commissions and public procurement skip hand in hand over a cliff

The true legacy of protection of title but not function finally reveals itself. Government responds to the apparent de-professionalisation by redoubling standards, regulations, planning processes, quality management procedures and generally attempting to treat the symptoms with the disease. Planning insurance premiums go up to compensate for the increased risk. The profits of development decrease. While the financial rewards available to both the architect-developers and developer-architects previously allowed both to take on consultancy work for private and community clients for fees more akin to those of the early twenteens, this becomes less and less possible. Commercial development, private commissions and public procurement skip hand in hand over a cliff.

In an effort to reignite construction, government seeks to increase planning success rates by overhauling the planning system. Planning departments are dissolved and planning officers invited to apply for new roles as Built Environment Advocates. Architects, excited about an anticipated return to great design, unhampered by committee-minded conservatism, don’t apply. Each project is assigned an advocate for the development and an advocate against the development. District judges hear both arguments and determine Consent to Build, which unofficial policy for a limited period is to almost unequivocally grant. Construction comes out of hibernation to take advantage of this window of laxity. Architects feel vilified and a ground swell of radical designs briefly emerges. Yet the inevitable return to conservative aesthetics nips this in the bud. The public can object to developments but only with petitions carrying large numbers of signatures. Social media obliges. Sexy renderers never had it so good. Consented schemes are sold to contractors whose in-house BIM-icians develop designs to construction with the supply chain.

A market for private Built Environment Advocates quickly presents itself. Universities fall over each other to provide specialist courses. The advocates become the primary gatekeepers of built environment knowledge and are soon appointed to maximise chances of success. Larger companies invest in celebrity advocates. The building industry at last becomes something worthy of TV drama. Applications for university places on the advocacy courses sky rocket: the ambitious looking to win consents for the tallest skyscrapers, the idealistic wishing to represent the city, defending it from unethical dross. In this exciting, litigious landscape, nobody uses the term ‘architect’ with reverence any more. Nobody is impressed by that job title at parties. Journalists stop using phrases like, ‘the architect behind the initiative was...’ Nobody writes books called The Architect of Victory. 

Maria Smith is director of architecture and engineering at Interrobang



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