Architects and Risk: The personal connection.

Thank you for all those who have completed the Surviving the Design Studio: Global Research Survey. The results and comments so far have come from all over the globe. It has given me much food for thought and the results will be shared here as blog post, or two, in early March. I would like to thank everyone for the comments and certainly the next research Survey I conduct will be better again. In the meantime we are rushing to prepare the Practice subject for the beginning of semester at MSD in two weeks.

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The Myth of the Digital Superhero

For most architects the drive of the architect to be a digital superhero, a creative celebrity, or a young Instagram genius, obviates and perhaps erases the necessity to focus on risk mitigation. But, regardless of the efforts to fashion a stable, if not stellar, identity in the vain hope of surviving financially, the overwhelming focus of attention for both employed and self-employed architects is risk mitigation. This has a personal dimension.

Yes, like most architects when I hear or read the word “risk”, my eyes glaze over and I think about hopeless project managers and all those risk matrix forms we sometime have to fill in the workplace. Like everyone I ahte thsoe cheesy Risk Management powerpoints.

For the majority of small practices and employee architects managing project risk appears to be dependent on the procurement path that has been chosen for any individual design or project. Yes, of course, managing project and design risks has been inculcated into architects since architecture school. But sometimes, like the dmeolition of Robin Hood Gardens, everyhting goes pear shaped.

Risk and the everyday life of architects. 

But, there is another aspect to the predominant approaches to managing risk in architecture that has, I think,  been overlooked. Whilst rarely stated project risk, the risks managed by architects as they undertake projects, and the risks they must manage in their everyday lives are linked; individual architects and small firms are required to manage their own personal financial risks in the face of volatile cash flows.

More alarmingly, given that the majority of architects either work in or a part of small SMEs project risks can easily impact on an architects individual economic circumstances. These risks may include:

  • The architect being sued for perceived or actual negligence.
  • Insolvency as result of not recovering client fees.
  • Insolvency through individual mismanagement; either time or financial management.
  • The need to use individual resources to rectify a design or construction error.

To reiterate, all of the risk events can connect to and impact individual and personal circumstances. But small firms often have few resources to manage the risks they face. They are often locked into cycles of inadequate fees, over work and conflicts in their work-life balance.

Fighting Risk

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Arguably, in Australian risk management is only partially inscribed in the competencies that determine architectural education. Yes, many of the architectural associations, wherever they may be in the world, have tried to plug the risk management gaps with professional development programs. In other words, the first response, the fighting response, has been  to build capability and knowledge about risk management.

 In a study of risk management practices in UK SMEs including architects (64 small practices and 49 medium practices) noting that risk regulation frameworks have been extensively studied and proposed. Yet, it was found that there is little understanding of how these frameworks are implemented in SMEs. The studies suggest that the resources required to adequately manage risks, in particular to implement risk management techniques, was often prohibitive because it was “unrealistic for SMEs and beyond their capability and affordability.” Despite this limitation he concluded that small firms required appropriate organisations structures, tools and organisational culture in order to implement effective risk management in order to gain competitive advantage.

Fleeing from Risk  

Recently in a discussion in an architect’s office it was put to me that in some ways architects have run away from risk. It was stated that in some respects architects had actually de-risked their practices but done this in a way that has given away ground to our competitors.

Because of a lack of resources individual architects have not resisted, and perhaps been complicit in the de-risking that has come about as result of external factors including: competition from project managers, disintermediation across the practice life-cycle and the increasing  availability and lower costs of digital tools. We have to stop doing Trash-for-Cash-Jobs. 

As architects we are best able to manage design and construction risks. But too often we perceive ourselves as the victims, of clients, developers and contractors.

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The personal dimension

But as suggested above, risk for many architects also has  personal dimension. This is often missed in the risk management literature. In the UK in 2009 a study of architectural job satisfaction, found that:

“20 and 40 percent of respondents are dissatisfied with their rate of pay, practice management, promotion prospects, working hours and opportunity to use their abilities”

In contrast self-employed architects appeared to experience better occupational well-being. In contrast self-employed architects had more satisfaction because they had more flexibility and control over their workflows. However, there were issues for these architects, particularly in the area of job security as well as greater conflicts in their work-life balance.

In another similar UK based study focused on architects similar findings are confirmed. However, these researchers point to the:

 “a seismic shift in industry culture is required in order to address issue around flexible work practices, effective time management and workload planning⁠.” 

Mental Health: the real risk.  

 

Another area of personal risk for the architect is in the area of mental health.

In a landmark survey of existing research commissioned by the NSW registration board and the ConNetica.

There exists a dearth of research around the mental health concerns facing architects, when students, when seeking employment, and when employed.”

But perhaps, more importantly, As the study states in this conclusion:

“The perception of architecture as a profession that is male dominated, that involves excessively long study hours and intense commitment during education, and excessive work hours and intense, often isolating, project focus in practice, suggests there are elements in the profession’s culture that could be contributing factors in mental health concerns. Whilst research to date has addressed the mental health of students (with some addressing architecture students specifically), There also are concerns in regards to women in architecture, given that it is considered a male dominated industry, and that their mental health may be at risk as a result.”

Architects, as a profession, need to think about risk in both deeper and broader ways. But it also makes me think that in Australia we need an Architects Benevolent Society. 

Robinhood images are from Deezeen and the Architects Journal