Architects are on fire but the designer types are in La-la-land.

The recent issues surrounding the Shergold Report, the Opal Tower and the VCAT decision concerning the fire at the Lacrosse building raise severe questions for Australian architects. These questions are broad but centre around issues concerning architectural education, the pricing of risk, contracts and procurement and most importantly the culture and tenor of architectural practice management. As well and in addition to these issues are broader issues of public policy.

Now of course as some of you will know I sloshed my own way through the Archi-Prac classes and my efforts in the specification class were feeble, and similarly in the cost management class I didn’t really give a toss. Like many architecture students, I was obsessed with design. But of course to be a great designer I also needed that special special pedigree and I also really needed hair. I have written about all that here. All I can say is having the hair and the gendered pedigree to win the competition or network the room doesn’t mean you are the best architect to manage risk.

Where are the voices of designers?

So these days, in my life limited dotage, I have to be content with involving myself in seemingly very mundane matters in the great canon of high architecture such as gender equity, intersectionality, pay and working conditions, public advocacy and policy, risk management and in fact anything to do with management at all. None of these things has anything to do with design? Or do they?

They call themselves designers, but by not discussing what is actually happening in the profession the so-called designers are selling architectural design down the river.

opal-tower-investigation-final-report-2018-02-22_Page_01When I see the pictures of buildings cracked, facades burning or even just sloppy slack BIM style detailing it makes me angry to think that architects might have any part to do with these travesties. As I followed the Opal report and then read the Shergold report, I thought oh wow. This is great for architects we can really use these events to advocate for the importance of our role in the industry, the importance of our professional regulation, and the importance of our education and knowledge. The developers, builders and the building regulators have sidelined us architects for so long. Anyone can call themselves a Project Manager.

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Lacrosse 

But then came the Lacrosse VCAT report. It is a long read, but every architect in the country should read it and reflect. It is a report that raises serious questions about many things concerning architectural design practice, architectural team leadership, and practice management. How architects outsource is another issue? Do architects really understand the fundamentals of risk and reward? High risk leads to high rewards. But, might high rewards also mean there are high risks to manage?

You can make your own judgments about the Lacrosse VCAT determination.

The Shergold report, Opal and then Lacrosse and the “follow up” by the federal Building Ministers forum points to the policy spinelessness of politicians in favour of free markets, the unchecked greed and rent-seeking of developers, and the complexities of risk management for architects. The Building Ministers forum has yet to produce a response to its “joint implementation plan setting out the direction of the proposed reforms” in response to the Shergold report.

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Cover of the Shergold Report 

Novation

For me some of the practice issues that architects need to address include issues around the inherent risks of signing novated contracts and consultant agreements. As well as considering the various power asymmetries in the relationships between architects, contractors and developers; if architects need to act with responsible care and are liable under different contract formats, then we need to be able to exercise our full knowledge forcefully to manage risk in complex situations.

But as well as this, how do we educate architects to manage these risks in a way that delivers excellent design outcomes?

It all makes me wonder why can’t designers engage with the real issues surrounding the profession? Why can’t designers develop theoretical and political approaches steeped in reality? Why don’t designers come and talk at the events to do with gender pay gaps, flexible work and the like? I would really love to hear a designer talk about some of this “practice” and “practice management” stuff instead of the endless word talk like: “new ways of making”, “spatial immersion”, “eco-anything”, “textured materiality”, “bounded boundaries”, “interstitial nooks”, “ design interrogation’’ “cosmopolitan traces”, “new institutionalism”, “distorted geometries”–and anything with the word future in front of it –“Future practice”, “Future identities,” “Future Fucking Futures” and those weird words with trivial capitalisations like “ReCast.” And “Award-winning” is another bit of word soup I hate every time I look at Instagram. Its all like something out of a Rem-Bjarke-Assemblage-Log-Volume dictionary. I forgot to mention the word “Paradox” or Journal’s with names like “ReInflection” or is that “Infection”?

I hear and read all this stuff and then I want to throw up and weep and stab myself in the eye with a biro. It makes me want to speed life up and take cocaine and do heroin mixed with serepax. After those feelings pass all is left is the sense that the profession is on fire, and the designer types are in La-la-land.

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