Like Martin Sheen in the above image most architects in Australia are barely surviving. Their heads are just barely above water. Like the Doors song “The End” one must question if the profession is heading down the gurgler as I noted in a previous blog. For those of you reading this in larger practices with lots of awards and institutional work or from the comfort of the large multi-disciplinary practices or consultancies spare a thought for the noble and small architectural firm. The tribal firm, protecting its own local territory and connecting to community, and yet struggling to survive. These firms exist in a highly competitive climate; most do housing , competing with every other wackadoodle price cutting, project manager, builder or huckster, and most are struggling to survive.
Without new industry wide strategies and approaches aligned with effective industry development the long term survival of these firms is not sustainable. We are possibly about to reach a tipping point as baby boomer firm directors retire leading to even less critical mass in the profession. A tipping point and mass extinction.
Chart 1: Outsourcing is widespread
Technology and Disaggregation
A few quotes from the architects who responded to our recent surveys will suffice:
“We see that conventional Architectural Services are not going to be sustainable in the future and are looking at other services and models of practice to survive.”
“Specialist Services, sadly, are a precursor to the the shame of the an industry being eroded by the increasingly acceptable practice of piecemeal delivery”
and this doosey from a practitioner working in the housing market:
That market is highly competitive and the fees were not sustainable and the liability was enormous. The role and respect for architects in those areas has dramatically reduced over the last 15 to 20 years.
In the practice class at MSD this week we had a Q&A panel on documentation. A practitioner who runs a documentation outsourcing company came and spoke. He is at the cutting edge of disaggregated services. He fills the gap for architects who can’t document or administer contracts. Some of the work of this practice is outsourced to documentation factories in South-East Asia. Increasingly technologies such as BIM are driving the commodification of architectural services. Design Development is almost non-existent these days. Ever tried explaining to a client what DD is?
Chart 2: Competition is Intense
Strategy and business plan education
Architectural education at large, alongside the accreditation standards, basically doesn’t give a fuck about anything outside of the box ticking. By this I mean any curriculum or syllabus, that might suggest that architects are more than just a profession of digital building technicians; more than a profession plying commoditized knowledge and processes. The univerisites simply want fee revenue, customer satisfaction and graduate employment outcomes. All of which conspires to corrode our discipline of architecture. Worse still, our own accreditation standards have been built around activities that, are not about analysis, entrepreneurship, strategic thinking or innovation but are about simply “doing it.” Doing the old SD, DD, CD, CA dance is what it’s all about. Thank god those national competency standards still at least cover a knowledge of history and theory. It won’t be long before the university’s replace those aspects of our architectural education with CNC fabrication subjects.
Business planning or strategy specifically tailored to architecture students is scant. Much easier to get the commerce faculty to give them a dose of generic marketing and branding. In response to our survey questions it is obvious many architects do not have business plans and I suspect this is because they are just struggling to get the work at hand done.
Chart 3: Too few business plans
Demographics and Diversity.
Yes, we still need more data and research into the demographics and underlying industry diversity. But the problem here I think is that architects think they are already diverse enough when they clearly are not. This is still a white Anglo-Celtic male dominated profession. This has hampered the profession at large from rejuvenating itself from within. It may be the efforts to rejuvenate the profession by correcting its misalignments with gender, race and class may now be too late.
Check out this great video and then think about the profession you know.
The architectural profession in Australia has had no research infrastructure for some time. As a result, architects have little knowledge about their own industry structure. Profitability, what segments of the market they dominate, various practice financial demographics, and the impact of technology. are all mostly mysteries. In the battle for survival it is always the larger firms that win out in driving industry policy, research and shaping industry structure. The problem is all of our current research on our industry, fostered by the peak bodies and associations, is catch-up research. Very little of it will add to the competitive standing of architects. It’s mostly about understanding how things stand. Not about how architects can get better at innovating.
My own bitter experience suggests that the ARC research system, with few exceptions, has not served us well at all. As far as many architectural researchers are concerned it is a broken system. A few years back myself and two other middle career researchers joined with a small firm to submit an ARC Linkage proposal focused on small practices and BIM. We got excellent peer review reports back. The other researchers thought it was in the bag. One of them even had dream we had got it. But in that round the big money went to a project with eminent and credentialed researchers with a big practice partner focused on health. In the ARC system its much easier to get funding if you have been to an elite uni overseas and sometimes you don’t even need a PhD. Fair enough, that’s how the system works. It would be a better system if it was blind reveiwed. But it’s a system that is killing a profession that needs effective bottom up research as it struggles to survive.
The Perfect Storm
It’s a perfect storm. Of course its easier to think that everything is ok. But everything is not ok. Architects in Australia may be at a tipping point. The profession is in a parlous state and even though I believe architects have much to offer our society and culture it is tragic many ordinary practices are stuck in the constant game of survival.