The same old mistakes: Emerging practices, the cult of timidity, underpayment and overwork.

Last week, two things happened related to early stage architectural practices. Firstly, it was related to me how a young architect had started working with a larger practice because she was sick and tired of the overworking, underpaid and disorganised nature of the seemingly emerging practice that she was in. A practice that might be described as a social media icon. I then went to the Architeam Awards, and it was great. This is my favourite tribe of architects. Of course, as everyone knows I am positively biased towards Architeam after the RASP project.

Architeam Awards

It was a great party, and for those who know me I am trying to party as much as possible during this end of year architectural season, and it makes the AIA awards seem like a dreary and pompous affair with the alcohol. The Architeam awards are a fun, less formal and more casual party where everyone gets to mix and actually talk. No long drunken monologues form the small coterie of architects who get the awards all the time. Architeam is a diverse organisation with its base in the architectural community. It is a cooperative governed by a diverse elected board. This year there were six judges for all the awards categories, perhaps a better system than what the AIA does.

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As my favourite professor once said to me, “just tell the practice students it’s all about the money.” As a small practitioner or any kind of practitioner for that manner, it is much cheaper to be involved in the Architeam awards than the AIA awards. They even have a Youtube clip by Bowerbird to help architects prepare their award for the mass media.

One of the more exciting awards was for the Contribution & Innovation Category.  This Award is to recognise contribution and innovation to architecture beyond the design and production of buildings.

Commendations were jointly awarded to 4 entries in the Contribution and Innovation category: Accessibility in the Built Environment by Visionary (now that I am actually disabled I think Mary Anne Jackson is excellent): New Architects Melbourne (NAM) by New Architects Melbourne (NAM); Sydney Architecture Walks by Eoghan Lewis; and Our City Our Square campaign by Citizens for Melbourne – all contributed greatly to Australian Architecture in a variety of innovative ways.

It was great to see Our City Our Square campaign by Citizens for Melbourne get an award as well as (NAM) by New Architects Melbourne. I am not sure either of these groups would get an award in the AIA system.

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Emerging Architects and Politics?

But lest you think this blog is just an Architeam love fest: one of the more interesting comments made to me by a winner on the evening is that “young architects are not interested in community advocacy and politics” and seemingly uninterested in being engaged in public advocacy.

Both of these tales, made me wonder if our young early-stage practices are making the same mistakes like those made in the past.

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Mistake One: Not speaking out (plus mistake 1A misuse of social media)

A disengagement with urban and local politics motivated by the fear of not getting work if a particular practice or a group takes a position or a stand. Let me be savage and cynical, I am over the wishy-washy view of architecture with its comb-over of good intentions: sustainability, saccharine placemaking and a residue hipster style social media presence.

For some, it’s all about the emojis and the insta-likes. Oh, gee whiz, I just posted another exotic image of a long-lost fragment of brutalism. Let’s see some insta-images from architectural influencers that mess with people’s heads rather than saccharine gumpf (mistake 1A). I am over the mild-mannered, but a little bit quirky, modernism; you know a little bit Eamesy, the limed wash joineries, the laminated timber tables, the affectation of funny windows, the micro snapshots of architectural ephemera, and the cult of vibrant youth studio pictures. It looks all so perfect, but is it? How can it be perfect when everyone is getting overworked and underpaid.

It goes without saying that architects will not add value to public debates, or achieve a policy presence unless the emerging networks of young architects are more militant. Policy advocacy and militancy are sorely needed in the profession.

I don’t know what it is about the AIA that makes them so weak. Others would use harsher terms. Sure, I know lots of people on the various chapter councils. Many are excellent and notable architects. But maybe it’s something to do with governance, the lack of leadership and management capabilities, or the spineless devotion to not rocking the boat. Meanwhile, all of the other interest groups in our broader industry have no compunction in pushing their own agendas.

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Mistake Two: The same old same old of traditional practice. 

Small and newly formed practices have a chance to make it different. Practice culture is set in the first year of practice. Sure, small scavenger practices are all desperate to get jobs and survive. But overwork is not going to get you there. Have a business and marketing strategy and shit have an actual business plan. Get your practice organised with a few basic systems at the beginning of the practice. Basic business accounting systems, contact databases, timesheets and actual strategy.

Think about how you will manage staff and outline some goals. Pick up on a few managerial skills. Learn how to collaborate with others. Go and network and coffee with other people who are not architects even if that means not getting desperate about cutting your fees for that next miserable job. Talk to some of the marketing consultants who know the profession well. And for fuck’s sake don’t underpay, or overwork, your female staff members compared to your male staff.

All of this is about building your small practice infrastructure and capabilities ahead of time. Instead of falling into a miasma of panic, desperation and making it up as you go along.

The design studio cult of overwork, underpaying staff, long hours, bidding for low fees, should not be a part of the culture of newly emerging practices. Starting a practice is an opportunity to change this and set a new culture and explore new ways of doing architecture. The firm’s that do this now, without following the path of traditional practice culture, will be the ones that will survive and prosper in the future.

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Getting back into it 

If I was to start practice now, rather than when we did in the early to mid-90s, I would probably do it all differently, everything has changed, but its like we keep making the same mistakes.

Yep, even I would be up for starting a small practice and this time around I am thinking of a ground-up tribe of practitioners working collaboratively, with great governance, considered strategy and an activist architectural politics. Not only do we need ground-up professional organisations but we also need ground-up and community-based practices.

Let me know if you are up for it. I reckon a collaborative group of six to twelve architects (plus a few poets or painters or performance artists) would be enough to keep everyone employed and well as enough to quickly kick ass. The time of the traditional practice is over.

 

Strategic vs. Project Thinking: Sticking your head up the dead bear’s bum of Projects

Here at this low class, sex, drugs and rock and roll, architect focused, in-the-gutter blog it helps the blog stats to write popular tags like “Sticking your head up a dead bear’s bum.” Sticking your head up bear’s bum” is one of those lost, and now inappropriate, Australian sayings that thankfully is no longer in use. It can be used in a derogatory sense as a direct call to action—best not to overthink that—or it can suggest a kind of head in the sand attitude. The original line comes from the Australian film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, and I have adapted the line here for my own purposes.

In my lovely mannered, patrician and bland-boosterish world of academia, it is not a saying that I am loathe to bandy about that much.

So, enough of the self-indulgence, the point is that for far too long architects have stuck their head up the dead bear’s bum of projects.

What Architects are good at 

Architects are great at spatial thinking, great at design thinking great and great at integrating knowledge across the construction, engineering and most consulting disciplines. Architects are good at looking at details (for those of you who can still actually detail) and then look at the larger urban scale all in the same breath. They are trained to shift their view to focus at different scales. As a result, architects are great at managing ambiguity and tackling the wicked problems.

The is what architects are supposed to do and what architects are good at. However, all of these skills and unique ways of thinking are hampered by the fact that architects are too often are stuck and blinkered by the project mindset. Everything is about the project. In practices large and small it’s all about the projects: big projects, little projects, built projects, or unbuilt projects, school projects, retail projects, domestic projects, commercial projects and urban design projects. Bathroom and toilet projects. Architects compare themselves to other architects through the lens of projects; their awards systems are based around projects, and the internal management systems of firms are founded, not around strategic management, producing design knowledge or the talent but the holy than holy projects. It’s always about the project.

The curse of the Project Centric

This project-centric focus keeps architects chained and enslaved in their own small pond. This pond is becoming increasingly smaller because of this very focus. Broader, market trends, macroeconomic changes, and the impact of future technologies on the profession often go unnoticed. Architects are clueless because of this lack of strategic thought. The profession is still only just grappling with the idea of advocacy; let alone producing any industry research about the impact of future technologies on it. Many strategic decision makers in practices medium, small and large are so project focused that they cannot see the forest for the trees.

As a result of this overbearing project centricity, the competitive advantage and value of architects is slowly being eroded. We have already lost construction administration, and Design Development is hard to argue the value of, design thinking has been taken, and repackaged by the graphic and industrial designers. A raft of new technologies, such as Big Data and AI, is slowly eating away at our design thinking skills. Some architects still think a digital strategy is about getting onto Instagram.

Architects are going to lose 

So if my argument is correct, that architects can’t think strategically outside of the project mentality, it follows that this lack of strategy, will in time, diminish the domain and agency of architects. We have already lost project management, and the banks are screwing us over our contracts. So where might the next pinch points be?

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Maybe it’s time we stopped letting the special technical nerdy types from running the IT department in practices. Maybe uni administrators should stop thinking that just teaching software skills or techniques is all we need to do in Architecture schools. Alternatively, we should stop thinking that being “strategic” when it comes to new technologies, is about curating the images in an Instagram profile. Wooo Hooo. Half the Instagram profiles of practices in my city say the words: Award Winning Architects. So what? However, it’s all about those projects, isn’t it? The elusive award-winning project. The one we would all die for.

Drinking the kool-aid 

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Architects have really drunk the Parametric and BIM kool-aid but at the cutting edge of practice as well as in the teensy weensy practices, and in the so-called professional associations. However, did anyone ever stop to think how architects might manage these new technologies in a strategic sense? All too often, architects have a kind of buy it and plug it in and play mentality when it comes to new technology. The new technologies are the kinds of things that make the project go faster, or cheaper or maybe sometimes better.

Architects have not been able to manage IT within their practices strategically. Yes, they have jumped onto BIM and the people I hate it when the students say: “why don’t we learn BIM at architecture school.” For the universities administrators BIM, and all other such widget technologies, is precisely the kind of curricula that they would love the architecture students to learn: easy to teach, the students think they are learning a skill (even if they are not learning to think) and a great way to make money. I mean WTF?

Architects might still have an opportunity to shape digital strategy. However, if they are not careful the digital strategies in the property and construction arena will be taken up either by new specialists, marketing, and asset managers who can run the data analytics. In workplace design, Big Data and associated analytics and AI are going to sweep the floor. Architects need to figure out how the Internet-of-Things is going to change things. Moreover, How will BIM data be connected to other broader IT data systems and analytics?

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Big Data, BIM and AI and will get together with the property and construction types, and before you know it, we will lose Feasibility Studies as a source of income. God help us when the nerdy nerds start thinking about data analytics in construction. As BIM and AI conjoin, the result may be a new take on generative designing, and then as AI begins to develop options to make design decisions where we will end up then? Just following the pack I guess.

General and strategic management skills

One more thought I would be rich, if I got a buck for every time, someone said we don’t teach business skills in architecture, or when people say architects lack in business skills. Teaching ourselves a few numerate business skills is not going to help and I am beginning to weary of this mantra. It’s the general, and strategic management skills architects don’t have I tried to find those in the Australian AACA competencies, but hey who wrote these new competencies? These are skills are critical to understanding all the activities that architectural practice encompasses. They are critical to understanding the universe outside of the architect’s bubble. Sticking your head up the dead bear’s bum of Projects is not doing us any favours.

Yep, maybe I have been hanging out with the copywriters too much. However, seriously, for those who know me well, I guess I am wondering how much truth-to-power stuff I can actually get away with these days now that I have some kind of immunity in my own version of Survivor. So stay tuned and we can see how outrageous I can be in the face of mediocrity.

Boom times but Australian Architects still facing Mutually Assured Destruction

Shaun Carter’s recent piece on architects fees and money is something I think everyone should read. You can find the full article here at ArchitetcureAU.  Shaun is a past president of the NSW Institute of Architects Chapter.  I thought it would be worth commenting on some of the questions and issues that he raises. Everyone architect in the country should read this article.

The old joke 

He starts with an old blokey architects joke.

Did you hear the one about the architect who won the lottery? They kept on working until they were broke. This was my introduction to architecture. I thought it was a joke. Now I’m not so sure.

This was a fine joke thirty years ago. It has a little bit of the boom-bust mentality about it. Plus a tone of altruism. In other words, architects get money and then spend it on architecture. They get money and spend it on design hours. They do this because of a love and passion for architecture and society.  But as a joke it implies architects always go back to zero, or square one, when they go broke.

The usual catastrophe 

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However, while the joke might contain some sublte truths, the problem is as that architects don’t just go broke to the point of zero dollars. They go negative, and the financial and emotional toll on themselves their families and their profession is enormous. No adequate superannuation, no assets no worth in their small businesses when they retire, its worse I guess for employee architects who are inadequately prepared for their later years. Working from contract to contract, below award wages, no paid overtime, moving from poorly managed firm to poorly managed firm isn’t really a recipe once you are past 50 or 60 for a comfortable grey life.

Exploiting the talent

Last week a graduate came to me and said he had been offered a casual job at 17 bucks on a kind of “training” basis. Anyone reading this can look up the award. Sometimes I wonder if one of the best things that could happen to the profession is that the Fair Work commission starts to prosecute architectural employers for not paying award rates. Under the award, a graduate architect on a casual rate should get $31.09 an hour and if full time or part-time. $24.87.

The Scourge of Fee Cutting 

However, as Shaun says the real problem is price competition and fee cutting:

I talk to architects all the time and in almost every conversation hear stories of outrageously low fees and cutthroat fee gazundering. Economics 101 taught me that when a good or a service is in high demand and the supply is limited, the cost goes up. So why is it, then, in this boom time for architects, that we have managed to slash our fees in a desperate race to the bottom? He then goes on to say: If we are to achieve major reforms and be respected as a profession, we need to be not only financially viable, but financially successful. Otherwise, how are we to achieve gender equality? How do we stop our practices becoming sweatshops of juniors working long and late hours?

Shaun Carter proposes four areas where he feels that architects need to change. These are architects, clients, regulation and cheap overseas labour (WTF?).

Idolising the creepy architects

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Shaun argues that architects need to be better at business and that being poor at it is “just plain dumb.” I agree with this but to change this architects really need to shift their culture around. As architects, we have to stop idolising and revering “bad boy” designers. These guys are mostly creeps and yet they are the ones that get all the symbolic capital in our profession. Plus they know nothing about business or management. Or for that matter anything really. But hey does it matter when you get all the street cred.

Sludge 

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However, he argues that architects need to collectively bargain minimum rates of fees and architects need a “strict ethical and moral code to prevent rogue architects from damaging our profession.” Fair enough, but try telling that to the AIA which as an organisation appears to have governance and decision making processes that are slow bureaucratic and easily hi-jacked by ego-driven personalities. Witness the recent hoohaa around the AACA vs. the AIA. Hence reaching any consensus that might translate into policy or advocacy approaches for architects is like wading through sludge.

Going for the Mandate 

Carter calls for minimum fee guidelines for the entire profession. He argues that governments should then follow these guides as well. However, I am not entirely sure how this might work in practice, and I am concerned in legal terms it might be seen as being anti-competitive. But hey if you are starting a practice, it would be great to get an idea of what you should be charging. I think one thing that all of our professional groups and associations could get behind is the idea (suggested to me by Vanessa Bird previous president of the Victorian Chapter). This is the idea that it should be mandated that every building project in Australia, over a certain amount, should have an architect. I am not sure how this kind of regulation would work in detail. But as Shaun Carter argues:

Regulation has been a dirty word these past 30 years of neoliberal and trickle-down economics. What we know of this period is that the failed economic model has advantaged the few at the expense of the many. Economic literature has thoroughly documented the failure of loose and limited regulation and the way this has run down professions and reputations.

Mutually Assured Destruction

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Shaun’s third notion for saving the profession from the “existential cliff” and “Mutually Assured Destruction” as he calls it is to limit university places in architecture degrees linking this to the outsourcing of architectural work offshore. As he says:

“If the profession is going to send our future architects’ jobs offshore, then let’s stop the cruel practice of offering them meaningful employment with one hand and ripping it from them with the other.”

He then goes on to say:

Perhaps the most controversial reason for the erosion of fees is firms employing cheap overseas labour to undercut the market. I believe that this is the emperor’s new clothes of business school management. It drives down fee expectations that will be difficult to claw back, while limiting employment opportunities for our young architects because their jobs are being sent overseas, all at a time when we are enrolling and graduating architects at record rates.

Protectionism?

I am not sure about this line of argument because it starts to sound a little “protectionist” and raising the spectre of “cheap overseas labour” suggests stereotyped images of what that labour looks like. Think, call centres full of Revit CAD monkeys in large second-order centres full in South, South East or North Asia. Nonetheless, I certainly dont think that Shaun Carter is intending to cross the lines into Trump Tariff and Immigration territory. But really what is being suggested here does raise questions about some of the current dynamics in practice. This includes the globalisation of competition between architects and the commodification of architectural services with the rise of new technologies. Despite all the BIM hoopla are we really ahead of the technology game?

Too many at Architecture School? 

As for the numbers of architecture students in the Universities and how many graduates are produced in Australia I might leave that to a later blog. But needless to say in 2015, the universities made $225 million bucks out of architecture (Check that out here). I also doubt that very much of that goes back into research of direct benefit to the profession. On the plus side, the Architecture Schools do support the professions with lots of sessional teaching contracts. However, is that enough given how much money the Universities are making out of architecture? For Australian Universities, Architecture Schools are a valuable cash cow. However, Architecture Schools are by no means the largest of their international education cash cows. The universities also love architects, and they love architecture schools because it all adds to their branding, reputation status and symbolic capital.

However, I don’t see many of the 18 schools of Architecture joining these debates about the value of the profession and its worth. Most architecture schools and faculties are struggling to manage the strictures imposed on them by central university executives who think that having an architecture school, in the portfolio, is a bit valuable and kind of quaint. If that is the case, maybe those same executives can give architecture some more research money.

We are family

To overcome the malaise that architects find themselves in the architecture schools, the professional associations, and the AACA need to lobby for the worth of architecture collectively. A fragmented and ungovernable architectural community will not solve the problems architects face. As Shaun Carter argues fee cutting is a recipe for Mutually Assured Destruction.

I am almost on annual leave between semesters. In the next few weeks expect to see a few more relaxed beach blogs and tweets from Italy and the Biennale. If you want to know more about our RASP research project you can find it here

Rising and Falling Stars: Australian vs. Global architectural firms

This last week or so at my graduate school of architecture the students were lining up for selfies with Bjarke when he came as a part of the Beulah International competition. It was quite a commotion. Initially, I wanted to puke, there was a lot of black, and I mean a lot. Black tees, black jackets and black horn-rimmed glasses. Everyone looked liked gangsters on a Eurovision set. Most people who read this blog know how jealous I am of Bjarke’s hairstyle.

After my initial revulsion, I calmed down and realised that Bjarke was here for the Beulah International competition to design a mixed-use high rise complex on Southbank in my City of Melbourne. For Beulah quite a few of the local firms got together with the stars.

Beulah Competition: The Local-Star Match-Ups 

  • Bjarke Ingels Group with Fender Katsalidis Architects
  • Coop Himmelblau with Architectus
  • Mad Architects with Elenberg Fraser
  • MVRDV with Woods Bagot
  • Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) with Conrad Gargett
  • UN Studio with Cox Architecture

In December the South Australian government announced the shortlist for the Adelaide Contemporary Art gallery. This list was as follows:

  • Adjaye Associates (UK) and BVN with Steensen Varming, McGregor Coxall, Barbara Flynn and Yvonne Koolmatrie
  • Bjarke Ingels Group (Denmark) and JPE Design Studio with United Natures, Arketype and BuildSurv
  • David Chipperfield Architects (UK) and SJB Architects with Jane Irwin Landscape Architecture and Arup
  • Diller Scofidio and Renfro (USA) and Woods Bagot with Oculus, Pentagram, Katnich Dodd, Rider Levett Bucknall, Arup, WSP, Deloitte, Kaldor Public Art Projects, Klynton Wanganeen, James Sanders, Dustin Yellin, Right Angle Studio and Garry Stewart
  • Hassell and SO-IL (USA) with Fabio Ongarato Design, Mosbach Paysagistes and Fiona Hall
  • Khai Liew, Office of Ryue Nishizawa (Japan) and Durbach Block Jaggers (Australia) with Masako Yamazaki, Mark Richardson, Arup and Irma Boom

Rant Free Zone

Firstly, I will try and avoid a rant about how much I hate the star system and the paucity of risk-taking on the part of our institutional decision makers. Yes, it was great to see some emerging practices and voices in the Adelaide lineups and a focus on indigenous narratives for some of these teams. As time goes on, I think this focus will increasingly have to be a consideration for public commissions. But what does the overall inclusion of so many stars say about architecture in Australia? Have we lost our nerve?

Local Grunt with Super Star Strategy

In strategic terms what do these collaborations say about global competition, competitive advantage and the branding of architects in Australia and Australian architecture as a brand across the globe.

What struck me was that there is no single stand-alone Australian architect in this bunch. In both of these competitions, the short-listed firms are Australian architects aligned with the so-called star architects. Now far be it for me to preach some kind of little Aussie battler nationalist bias. But it is nonetheless vital to ask a few more questions about this situation:

As a strategy is it wise for local architectural firms in Australia to collaborate with these so-called stars architects? The old aphorism is that the local partner brings along well needed local expertise and on the ground knowledge. In other words, the international star designs and the local, seemingly domestic, partner implements.

Are Australian architects the documentation drudges of the global system? In these competitions have the Australian firms, in these collaborations, become global lackeys. The so-called second rate “drafties” of the global system? But is it really as simple as this? And in an increasingly media driven international marketplace for architectural services perhaps this strategic rationale is only partially valid.

Outsourcing 

In this context, one could argue that the Australian firms might provide the local technical grunt. This is in line with the overall trend towards the global outsourcing of documentation services. Across the global system, privatisation policies, and shareholder value practices have led to a situation where there has been a rise in outsourcing for architectural and building documentation.

The rise of digital technologies and the labour rates in the so-called global south have led to an increase in digital outsourcing for documentation. The late Bharat Dave in his own work noted the rise of offshoring architectural services which began in the late 90. Outsourcing has coalesced in places where there is an ICT infrastructure aligned with skilled workforces and low labour costs. Dave noted in 2010 a situation, that is now commonplace, where designs in one country are modelled in another, documented in yet another and then fabricated in another. It is not hard to concur with his conclusion that this situation necessitates the need for the “reconfiguration of practice in the long term.” ⁠

This situation has only accelerated in recent years, and it is perhaps naïve to think that the reconfiguration of practice is solely about the outsourcing and subsequent commodification of the services, such as technical documentation that designers seem to loathe in the first place.

The problem with partial services 

In these matchups, local architectural firms ruled by economic survival might find some comfort in being more easily able to modify the range of services they provide; being able to provide the technical grunt. Yet this flexibility poses a dilemma: to be more profitable, these firms need to offer a complete range of services. But as a result of changes in technology, partial services are less profitable and also readily supplied by non-architectural competitors. Consequently, many middle-ranking and larger firms have no choice but to provide limited or partial services despite the fact that this only encourages, and leads to, further disintermediation, and commodification in their markets. Providing partial services may be unsustainable in the longer term. For the local collaborating firms it might be a vicious cycle.

Mapping Strategy 

There is another issue that these two competitions point to, and that is the role of the internet and media to shape perceptions and the branding of architects. The following strategy diagrams map media impacts of the collaborations in these two competitions. I charted media hits (as measured by Google) of the stars against the reach of the local firms (number of Australian plus Internationaloffices of the local partner). I will let you make your own analysis of what all this means. My take is that clearly for some offices the match-ups appear to be ad-hoc and without any strategic intent. For other practices, the diagram shows who might gain or lose from the collaboration.

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Clearly, it also suggests who might win these competitions if this was the only criteria. It also shows which local firms may be using the collaboration to either extend their range or extend their brand by being attached to a star architect.

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For many Australian architects or any firm on the periphery of the global media starchitect system, such collaborations are perhaps necessary.  Since the early 2000s if not before, architects are no longer grounded in a particular office or geographical location. Competition amongst architects is global in the intense global competition for architectural services, arguably Australian firms need to extract value from networks and systems of patronage no matter how distant they may be. The star architects are better able to do this because they operate from larger economic centres.

Commodification of Design 

In any case, this all points to the ongoing commodification of design services. Perhaps the local/star matchups, point to the dumbing down of design into seductively drawn products with market signals that scream out “star-designer.” This is regardless of the fact that these designer products, seem to retain a threadbare relationship to what might have formerly been regarded as a traditional design process. Many of these designer products, indicate no interest in the memory of city or any sense of freedom and politics to be found in local communities.

Taken together, Australian firms need a renewed emphasis on strategic thinking, better management, a recognition of the media landscape, and internal research to gain competitive advantage. Otherwise, Australian firms will be doomed to be secondary actors, and lackeys, swilling around in the global system of architecture.

Architects are living in La-La-Land: Project tyranny and network fantasies 

Traditional logic suggests that architects are focused on project networks rather than projects. But architects we now are witness to a rise of the project network organisation. This new form of organisation has arisen as a result of project complexity requiring greater degrees of specialist knowledge. Such organisations are seen as being the best way in which complex tasks can be achieved by bringing together heterogeneous and diverse skills and knowledge. Project networks are argued to be more flexible and creative.

As soon as project outcomes have been achieved the knowledge network is dismantled and reconfigured for the next project. According to this body of theory projects now embody “temporary systems” and that these systems are “constituted by multiple individual or organisational actors” (see: Whitley, 2006; Manning and Sydow, 2011).

In this context the challenge for architects, is to adapt in a competitive global system that is increasingly flexible and indeterminate. This is a system where the project itself has, in a manner of speaking, disappeared. As a result, architects now face competition from project delivery actors who are better, because of their agility, at project control and management than architects ever were.

Project tyranny and the genius

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ear of an architectural genius 

It is reasonable to ask in this context, if architectural firms are sufficiently flexible, both internally and in their external facing guises, to adapt to the demise of the project. Certainly, architects focus on projects but increasingly utilises and connect to various knowledge networks outside of the firm. This suggests the line between project based organisations and network organisations is in theory at least increasingly blurred. For architects there is still a tension between being project-centric and the idea that projects are themselves temporary systems.

In other research, focused on consulting and knowledge based firms, it is contended that: projects are exclusively customer or client centric, leading to a kind of “project tyranny.” This tyranny does not allow for or easily accept competing, flexible or organisational principles and dynamics.

All of which struck a chord with me because architects seem dangerously focused on the designed project with a capital P and this approach this is linked to the inflexible postures of the creative designer. In combination project centricity with the current culture of design leads to inflexible, archaic work and discriminatory work practices. The tyranny of client centric projects alongside inflexible organisational hierarchies and haphazard infrastructure reigns supreme within many firms.

Network fantasies

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Potteries Thinkbelt Cedric Price 

But for architects there is another danger: the allure of the internet as a distributed technologies. Architects have been obsessed with networks for a long long time. There is a superficial resemblance between the project networks that architects seek to build and the internet technologies that facilitate these networks. In the strategic thinking of some architects these two different types of networks are conflated. This conflation is exacerbated by the optimistic and utopian rhetoric’s that surround the ongoing development of technology in architecture. Every architecture school in Australia has robots, we are getting workshops technologies and software shoved down our throats at every turn. Yet very little of any architectural school’s curricula is devoted to how to manage these technologies. As I was reminded in a recent ACA webinar architects aren’t even taught how to manage projects. Design them: Yes. Manage them: No.

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Cedric Price and the windscreen wiper goggles 

For architects technology networks are seen as a realm of possibility rather than a realm that threatens to limit the agency and range of architects. Emerging technologies may be the architects worst enemy. There emerging bunch of technologies (I won’t name the usual suspects here) are arguably broadening the size of our professional service markets, market geographies and worst of all reducing differences amongst competitors and increasing the proliferation of substitute services. Oh, and I forgot to mention, the internet allows suppliers of knowledge to reach end users more directly. Yet architecture students are frigging around in every studio workshop across the globe with little bits of laser cut timber.

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Collaborative Leadership

On the one hand, architects may survive in a scenario where projects are organised around a temporary teams, enabled by technology, that is both mobile and fluid as it connects and reconnects to different networks. Arguably, it is the architects, organised around teams with good studio based leadership, leadership that is collaborative and inclusive, rather than the old creative design genius style, design leadership needs to be about gathering, configuring and integrating design knowledge, from within and across networks, in order to design and produce through temporary project systems. Not just stamping your ego and whims on a project.

La-la land

In the future survival and competitive advantage will go to those architects, who cling to the notion of the designed project but also recognise the indeterminacy of both projects and networks. As well as this architectural survivors will reject, the fallacies of technology, and its associated hyperbole, and opt for models of collaborative leadership. Anyone else is living in La-la Land

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It has been a hectic week: Architectural Practice at MSD has started up, I have discovered WeChat, my son has started his final year of school, and we have been busy organising our Practice Night for the subject on the 13th of March. Wow !!! we have about 24 practices across Melbourne involved. Thank you so much to those firms who have agreed to participate. It will be quite a night, especially on Social Media. Not only that but the rescheduled Faculty Christmas party is this coming Friday (lets hope I survive it).

Rebranding the Architectural Firm: a brand framework for architects.

This week I spoke at the M-Pavilion and I got a little carried away talking about branding in relation to the Apple Store and Federation Square in Melbourne controversy. I will write more about that in coming weeks. But in the meantime, here is my first take at thinking about branding and architects.

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Intro

In the wonderful world of digital advertising. The subject, tone and style of a campaign needs to be delivered to a customer within the first 9 seconds of a digital advertisement. But architectural branding is a different kind of beast. Architectural services are not a fast moving consumer good (FMCG), like a Mars, Bar, or a product that requires a simple pay wave transaction. Branding and the elements that constitute an architectural brand are a little more complicated.

The Problem: How to change your architectural brand

The lead times in running an architectural practice are quite long. Sometimes it may take a practice up to 10 years to achieve stable and less volatile income stream. But in my experience the branding of a firm is often set very quickly within the first few years.

Late last year a friend of mine said there were two types of larger architectural practices those with “family” brands and those with “corporate” brands. She wondered how do you change an architectural brand once it has been established? This made me think about what the elements of branding is for an architectural firms. Once that branding is set how might you then change it? In other words how do you change the branding of a firm that has been going for 10 years or more.

The Elements of Architectural Branding 

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In my framework the three elements that make up an architectural brand are Knowledge Creation, Knowledge Delivery and Knowledge Style.

This is because I think a Knowledge Management approach is the best way to approach thinking about branding in architectural firms. Forget about the focus on designed objects. It is better to think about:

  • What design knowledge is being created?
  • Then, how is that design knowledge then delivered to clients and others?
  • Finally, and in doing the above, how is that design knowledge expressed in terms of an expression or style?

Knowledge Creation: What knowledge is created

You can see from the diagram that elements of this include the kind of architectural types your firm works, on or the size or scale of projects, the regions that you work in and create knowledge about, or the different kinds of expertise your firm is known for.

This may also be a proportion or mix of different elements.

Knowledge Pathways: How is knowledge delivered? 

 How you deliver this knowledge also contributes to your brand. Is your firm only interested in time or cost outcomes. Or maybe your firm is focused don generating concepts or iconic architecture. Or maybe it’s just about getting awards.

Knowledge Expression: How is knowledge expressed?  

 How your brand is expressed is also another aspect of this framework. Part of this is how an architectural firm creates knowledge that helps to brand its own clients.

  • Is it focused on informal styles where the firm does not have to structure the expression or aesthetics of design knowledge.
  • Or is design knowledge expressed somewhere in between. This is when the firm employs a mix of formal and informal signifiers and design knowledge to help brand groups or communities.
  • Or is the style of the brand, what I have termed high style, where the firm is focused on Iconic Symbolic Capital at a National or International Level? Where design knowledge is highly structure and bound by aesthetics.

Family vs. Corporate brands. 

Family brands are common in architectural practice. These are architectural firms that employ or hope to employ family members as leaders within the firm.

This has a number of advantages:

  • The value created by hard won financial stability over a long period of time stays within the firm.
  • Personal networks and connections vital to business can be maintained.
  • Succession problems are easily solved
  • Directors have more control, and incentive, over design decisions rather than giving these design decisions to managers.
  • In practice a “family” architectural brand might have this kind of mix.

The corporate branded architecture firm is different:

  • The brand may not be determined by a name associated with familiar and long standing networks or particular design approach.
  • Corporate style architects rely on the portfolio of projects within the firm.
  • The project portfolio, as whole then partly determines how the form is branded.
  • Managers, including designers, have more incentives to get projects which in turn determine the brand.

 Rebranding: the all important question. 

So if you need to change your brand or even rebrand your firm you can then look at this framework and decide which things you need to shift to achieve this. For example, a family brand wanting to be a corporate brand can see which elements to change.

In other words, the framework helps architects to decide which elements to change or transform and it also suggests that changing or rebranding necessitates changing more than just one element. Many architects fall into the trap of getting in a few new designers and fresh design ideas in the hope this will change the brand or how the firm is perceived. Or they think they can do it by, going after a new types of projects they havent done before, or by developing new types expertise.

It doesn’t really work like that because too often the other elements in the mix are not changed.

This is the first real post of 2018 and I would like to thank those of you who read and visited the site over January. Quite a few of the greatest hits posts from previous years were more popular than when they were first posted! The site has had a bit of a makeover and I am hoping to renovate it a little more in coming weeks.

Business Suits vs. Designers: Why architectural practice is going down the gurgler.

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This was another popular blog post from the last year or so. Many readers contacted me to comment on the post. Most were in general agreement with the sentiments expressed in it. Re-reading it now, I am more emphatic in my thinking, and wonder how does a profession or a domain of knowledge expect to survive? Especially, if it gives no priority to educating its best and brightest about economics, finance, business strategy and management.  

Down the gurgler is Australian slang for: down the plug hole; something has failed; wasted (as effort, money, etc.); ruined, destroyed. 

Before you read this you may be interested in the:

SURVIVING THE DESIGN STUDIO: 2018 ARCHITECTS GLOBAL RESEARCH SURVEY. 

At the 2106 ARCOM conference I attended I met a few other researchers working in the area of architectural services. One was from Western Australia and the other was from Delft. Delft is one of the largest and well regarded architecture schools in Europe. At Delft my friends there have a large EU research project looking at the nature of architectural services and their value. Whilst standing at our conference having a cup of tea one of them mused that architecture seemed to have a global ideology. I asked “What do you mean?” thinking that perhaps the counter is that architecture is something that is pretty much formed by what Kenneth Frampton called critical regionalism.

The great divide 

She went on to discuss that no matter where you went in the world in architecture there was always an insanely stupid divide between the creative designer’s and the so called “business” people of architecture. At her architecture school the “in-crowd” of design professors turn there nose up and reject the so called “business side” of architecture. I agreed and then thought more about it. This divide is contributing to the demise of the profession. It prevents big practices from integrating knowledge and going upstream; it cripples small practices because they often do not have the business skills needed to make them sustainable.

It’s not real until it’s real syndrome

This divisive refrain has often been driven home to me in the architectural practice classes I teach at MSD. Every semester students question why we would do business plans in the class as part of the syllabus. Of course, when I talk to practitioners and I tell them we teach business planning in the class at MSD they say that’s awesome. When I tell they students this they don’t really care and they don’t really get it until they themselves become practitioners. Even when I say: “you will be more employable if you understand this stuff”, they still don’t seem to get it. It might be the it’s not real until it’s real syndrome.

The “practice” lecturer syndrome 

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How “design” architects see “business” architects

Also, as the so-called “practice” lecturer I constantly, get the impression, that  in some way I am written me off as some kind of accounting value managing drone who hates architectural design because I have an MBA. Yet, I love Debord and Deleuze and Guattari and late Foucault just as much as the next theoretically inclined architect.

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D & G 

Of course, in other fields it is different. For example, in advertising, the dark heart of capitalism itself, the collaborative tensions between the creatives, the so called suits and the production people are acknowledged and managed well. Agencies still manage to produce great work that moves people and contributes to brand survival in the spectacle.

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“Design” architect complete with mandatory jacket. 

What exactly is the business side of architecture? 

Thinking about it I am actually not sure what is meant by this. It is such a vague term and ideological prejudice. Does it mean you just want architects to make money (don’t we all want this?) Does it mean if you are “pro-business” you just do what aesthetically ignorant clients do? Does it mean you hate design and design processes? But just maybe actually, paying attention to the “business side” means architects need to pay attention to the following: Diversity,  in our team structures, strategic positioning, innovation systems, knowledge management processes, technology implementation and how we respond to emerging forms of procurement.

Oh and there is that that other area of academic and professional study that is often ignored in architecture schools, and missing from our competency standards, also relegated to the “business” side: Leadership.

Long hours, price cutting and other structural problems of the profession 

As the Sydney architect Clinton Cole eloquently argues, amongst other things, the profession is beset by a number of structural problems that impact on its well-being and competitiveness. He cites the “hugely entrenched cultural tendency to perform long hours” combined with truckloads of unpaid overtime, anomalies in charge out rates (Charging staff out at 40 hours per week but working more than this). As Clinton points out these practices disadvantage women in the profession. Or anyone else, for that matter, seeking a reasonable work life balance.

Oh and I forgot to mention  the other structural problems such as fee competition (the persistent rumours about large practice cartels price fixing low fees) and the push in some quarters, even by some so called-architects themselves, to deregulate the word architect.

The need for industry research 

Industry development backed by evidenced based research is the key to help architects  argue their case. But, as far as I can tell the AIA has had no real research function for years. The Government Architect’s across Australia are also generally deficient in this regard. So it’s great to see the Association of Consulting Architects taking up this mantle and filling some of the basic research gaps with the fine work of Gill Mathewson.

As suggested above, there is a whole range of research areas, that architects could collectively pursue for the benefit of the public, policy makers and even their clients.

7 tips for bridging the divide despite the horror of small practice

Lets face it in small practice organising and scheduling time, managing cash flow, preparing marketing materials is extremely boring. But it is stuff that needs to be done. In larger firms, let alone any firm for that matter, strategic thinking, marketing and branding, HR and management policies that promote diversity and creativity are vital. So if you are a small or solo practice in the outer suburbs or inner suburbs of a large city. What do you do? How do you avoid the quagmire of overwork, high stress and the feeling that you are always reacting from crisis to crisis.

In my experience the following things are all definitely worth considering to bridge the divide.

  1. Don’t cut your fees just to get the job.
  2. Have a business plan even if it is only two pages long.
  3. Calculate charge out rates that allow for fair work hours and profit. Stick to them.
  4. Work on your business systems.
  5. Take the time to constantly market the value of design.
  6. Do what Google does and don’t work for half a day a week. Just think or meditate.
  7. Do some research that will help strengthen your knowledge base.

Unless a practice considers acting on the above 7 points it will always struggle.

Design value and design fees are positively correlated

Of course I fear, that if you mention business systems to one of those big name alpha-male architects  that adorn the global system of architecture they look at you as if you some kind of pariah. They always leave it to someone else. As a result our profession is getting killed. It struggles to argue to clients why there is a direct relationship between design fees and design value. It struggles to shake off the overall prejudices that the broader public have about architects. More importantly, it is currently struggling to compete with other professions that claim to offer similar services.

The business-creative divide and corresponding global ideology has crippled architecture and threatens to hasten its further demise as a domain of knowledge. As a result the viability of architecture as an profession is increasingly at stake. Unless the divide is bridged we remain a naive profession full of poetic and narcissistic dreamers who are rapidly losing ground.