Employment and value in the architecture economy

Creative? Moi? Brian Green investigates what and who make up the creative economy and where architects fit into that.

This month saw the release of a host of data under the heading Creative Industries Economic Estimates that puts the value and employment structure of architecture in the UK economy in clearer focus.

These estimates weren’t released by the government’s business department, BIS, which oversees construction. They come from the Department of Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS). This tells us something. Officially architecture is not just seen as part of the wider construction family, but is recognised as wearing two hats – construction and creative.

OK, we knew that. But it’s reassuring that in official circles architecture is seen to sit equally comfortably among computer games, publishing and performing arts businesses as it does beside plant hire firms and civil engineering consultancies.

The data are well worth a gander. For those with limited time or a limited taste for statistics, here are some highlights of jobs in the creative economy of architecture. We’ll focus later on economic aspects that show just how valuable architecture is becoming to UK plc.

Occupations, industries and creativity

Before delving into the data, it’s worth getting some definitions and meanings of the statistics straight. Architecture for statistical purposes is classified both as an occupation and as an industry (or business sector if you prefer to see it that way). The occupation in these data is seen to embrace architects, town planning officers, chartered architectural technologists and architectural and town planning technicians. The industry is the businesses that fall within the standard industrial classification 71.11, architectural activities.

Naturally there are architects who work outside of the industry and people who are not architects employed in architecture businesses.

A further smart question you might, quite rightly, ask is: ‘By what definition is the architecture industry and other industries in the group deemed “creative”?’

If more than 30% of an industry’s jobs are deemed creative it is a creative industry. For the record, architecture as an industry scores more than 60% on this measure, so it’s pretty high up the list.

Here DCMS employs a neat trick, the idea of ‘creative intensity’. This measures the proportion of people in an industry that do ‘creative jobs’. There’s a list of what are considered creative industries and lots of other useful background and links in the associated report. But basically, if more than 30% of an industry’s jobs are deemed creative it is a creative industry. For the record, architecture as an industry scores more than 60% on this measure, so it’s pretty high up the list.

The definitions may seem tedious, but they’re very important to understanding what is actually being measured. Chart 1 illustrates the relationship between the occupation and industry and the combination, minus the overlap, that represents the whole architectural economy. This includes all those in creative occupations plus those working in the architecture industry that are not in creative occupations.

Working patterns

OK, on to some titbits on employment.

One that might surprise is how in the architectural economy, industry and occupation, as defined above, employment fell in 2015. By 5% in the case of the economy. Given the positive data on employment expectations, as tracked by the RIBA Future Trends survey, we’ve seen over the past two or three years, we might have expected continued expansion. But as Chart 1 shows, it was the shrinkage of the architecture industry that was most marked, down 11%.

We can expect the underlying data from surveys that measure the number of architects employed in the UK to be quite bouncy, so year-to-year changes should be treated with some caution. But if the picture painted by the statistics seems to go against your instinct, it is worth referring back to the definitions. They matter. 

Fluctuations can be caused by businesses being taken over by others with different industrial classifications, or for their activities to change sufficiently for them to be reclassified. Construction, for instance, grew statistically by about £2 billion last year because of a shift of one very large firm moving into the sector from a service sector. Whether the services business transferred included some architects we don’t know, because of anonymity.

Normally we’d not expect such large changes, but corporate activity inevitably reshapes industries and has to be taken into account in the statistics. The effects can appear clumsy and cloud interpretation.

So, an architectural practice being taken over by a large multi-disciplinary organisation may fall out of the data. The architecture occupations should be captured within the data for the architecture economy from the occupations component, but support staff would move in the statistics to another industry. This may be part of what we are seeing here.

Another notable set of figures in the data show that 20,000 of the 53,000 architects in the UK do not work within the creative industries and perhaps unsurprisingly, two-thirds of the town planners not working in the creative industries either. In fact, the number of architecture occupations, as defined above, is rising faster outside the creative industries than within (see Chart 2). This supports the view that there has been quite a bit of movement across the statistical boundaries.

And, as Chart 3 shows, a large proportion, about 40%, of the UK’s architectural economy is based in London and the South East. Here you might expect quite a bit of absorption of practices into multi-disciplinary consultancies.

On some thorny issues – such as the gender, social and ethnic mix in architecture – the picture remains mixed. There appears to have been a rise in the number of women working within the architecture economy in 2015, while the number of men fell (Chart 4). This could be a statistical quirk, or, taking a more positive view, it might be that we’re seeing a higher proportion of women among the new recruits predominantly displacing men who are retiring.

However, turning to the ethnic mix, there appears to be no real lift in the numbers of black, Asian and minority ethnic employees within the architecture economy, which has meant a fall in representation.

On socio-economic groups the picture is quite clear. The architectural creative economy is staffed by the more advantaged in society, almost exclusively. This however tends to reflect the fact that most employment is high-value added and heavily populated by people with higher qualifications.

There may be little that jumps out and surprises in these data, but they are well worth a visit to gain a bit more texture and answer a few more questions than we can here.