No doldrums for architects

... not yet, anyway, if the figures are to be believed. A shifting landscape of practice is looking dynamic

How has the landscape of architectural businesses changed since 2010 as Britain’s construction industry lifted itself out of a deep recession?

The Office for National Statistics does a count of UK businesses, and a look at the data for ‘architectural activities’ – aka sic 71111 – is fascinating. It shows some quite remarkable shifts.

First off, the number of enterprises fitting the bill for the sic code is estimated to have risen from 9,650 to 13,520 between 2010 and 2016 – a 40% jump. That’s faster than the 25% rise in employment within these enterprises over the same period.

This points to a rapid expansion in small firms. This certainly appears to have happened. The number of firms employing fewer than five people has leapt 50%. The number of firms employing five to nine people has risen 6%.

Perhaps more interesting, though, we have also seen an apparent doubling in the number of businesses employing more than 250 people. This figure, however, must be treated with caution and seen as indicative rather than accurate, given the small number involved and the rounding of data. Meanwhile, the number of firms in the 10 to 100 bracket has remained fairly static and there has been a fall in the number of firms employing between 100 and 250.


So the expansion in the number of architects and other staff employed within practices is resulting in an overall pattern that increasingly emphasises both larger and small operations, with established practices expanding and new practices forming, as we see in the Chart 1.

It is also important to note that consolidation of architecture-specific practices into larger multi-disciplinary organisations means that some heavy concentrations of architects may well not be picked up in the narrower definition of architectural activities. 


Messy definitions

As with all definitions, these can become a bit messy. The Inter-Departmental Business Register (IDBR), from which the data are drawn, classifies according to the main activity, selected by employment. So if architecture is a large but secondary activity on numbers employed, the firm is unlikely to be classified sic 71111, architectural activities.

But we can learn much from the data on the core businesses within the definition.

Interestingly, the growth in businesses has been fairly well spread across the UK, with the exception of Northern Ireland, where numbers have fallen. This can be seen in Chart 2, which compares the number of architectural activity enterprises in 2010 with the number in 2016. The enterprise is basically the overall business, while a local unit is a workplace or site. Again, it can get a bit muddy.


The growth in practices does not seem to be influenced simply by economic growth. The North East has seen significant increase in architectural enterprises despite some of the lowest economic growth. As we see in Chart 3, however, the North East has – on a par with Northern Ireland – the lowest number of enterprises, which is not surprising given its relatively small population.

In terms of micro businesses, the North East has seen the fastest growth, with 280 enterprises employing fewer than five people in 2016 compared with 160 in 2010. 

Table 1. Click to enlarge
Table 1. Click to enlarge

Scratch deeper and we find other intriguing trends. The legal status of architectural enterprises has shifted dramatically since 2010 (Table 1). There are fewer partnerships, down from 850 in 2010 to 495 in 2016. There are fewer sole proprietors, down from 1,985 to 1,400. There were never many non-profit architectural enterprises, and the data are rounded, but the number was put at 25 in 2010 and now stands at 20.

Today within architecture the company structure has increased its dominance, with the number of architectural companies growing 71% from 6,785 in 2010 to 11,605. The percentage of companies among all architectural enterprises has risen from 70% to 86%.

Table 2/3 - Click to enlarge
Table 2/3 - Click to enlarge

Looking for hot spots

If we seek to find where the highest concentration of architectural practices are the results probably come as no surprise. Nor is the changing pattern of hot spots.

Looking at the total number of practices and local outposts (local units) by local authority it is Camden and Islington in London that top the list in 2016, with Westminster slipping from top to third (Table 2). The greatest increase in numbers have been in Camden, Hackney and Islington (Table 3). But if we look where the percentage growth has been greatest we see less central boroughs like Barnet, Brent, Enfield, Greenwich, Haringey, Merton, Redbridge and Tower Hamlets popping up – along, interestingly, with the City of London.

Outside London, it is Bristol, Leeds and Sheffield that appear to be seeing the most notable growth. Meanwhile, it is worth noting that numbers in Belfast and Edinburgh have fallen.

Table 4/5 - Click to enlarge
Table 4/5 - Click to enlarge

Looking at the concentration of architects by parliamentary constituency, which tends to provide smaller more evenly balanced areas, we see a similar pattern. However it shows more finely the most popular (Table 4) and the most up and coming hotspots (Table 5) for architects to locate.

Taking constituencies where the quantity of local units is 40 or more, the big growth in terms of numbers has been in some of the more established areas. But it will come as little surprise to many to discover that proportionately areas such as Hackney North & Stoke Newington and Poplar & Limehouse have seen the greatest expansion proportionately since 2010, with both locations witnessing a more than doubling of local units. In London, Finchley & Golders Green also seems to have doubled the number of architectural practices since 2010.

But there are clearly hot spots emerging outside London – Sheffield Central, Bristol West, Leeds Central and Manchester Central have all seen solid expansion. Were we to look deeper down the list below the table provided and outside London, we would see constituencies such as Castle Point, Harrogate & Knaresborough, Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire, Lewes, Winchester and Tunbridge Wells all seeing increasing numbers of architectural practices establishing.

Looked at from the perspective of the growth and spread of practices across the UK, the architecture industry seems to be in vibrant spirit.