Ten Challenges / Ten Actions

Leone Lorrimer , 15 December 2014

Leone Lorrimer outlines ten challenges facing architecture and ten actions we can take to turn these challenges into opportunities.  

Australian architects have been staring into the headlights for far too long. It’s time to use those headlights to illuminate our future and to change the conversation. 

Let’s reconsider the role and importance of our profession and explore how to work together to secure and expand our critical role in the future of the built environment. 

As architects, we have the capacity to conceive, visualise and inspire – and this cannot be replicated by clients, project managers or contractors. It’s ironic that our value proposition is invention, yet we seem unable to (re)invent ourselves. Set out below are ten challenges for the profession and suggestions for how we, as a profession, can (re)invent ourselves to turn these into opportunities.

1. The architecture profession is in transition

Yes, there’s a lot of change, but there always has been. And we’ve adapted before – remember washing the Rotrings, scratching with razor blades and inhaling ammonia?

The first digital natives are entering the workforce, with high design aspirations but lacking the necessary knowledge to detail, direct and coordinate. Fee pressures can mean that older architects simply don’t have time to provide an apprenticeship. Many firms are top heavy with experienced architects who can’t draw (electronically), so they balance the books by hiring graduates who don’t know how to put a building together. This is not a recipe for speed, innovation and efficiency, nor will it reduce stress levels or long hours.

Bright ambitious designers, if stuck doing renderings, will leave. Gen X-ers, who bear the brunt of mentoring the grads and are denied real skin-in-the-game will also leave, taking with them a decade of knowledge and relationships.

The profession needs to provide clear career progression, structured experience and comprehensive skills development to allow for mobility for individuals and flexibility for the organisation as a whole.

2. Improving business outcomes for clients

Competitive environments affect corporations, healthcare service providers, educators and retailers alike and the costs of assets and operations are increasingly scrutinised. Architects are recognised for their ability to translate requirements into solutions that demonstrate higher productivity, enhanced brand value and higher levels of staff and customer satisfaction. The profession must campaign to promote these skills that deliver huge value to clients over many years and underpin the sustainability of client organisations.

3. Procurement processes

Development risks have increased significantly with land shortage, complex regulatory environments and competition for unique product. Government is subject to its own unique challenges. Time and cost pressure can lead to procurement processes that increase risk and allow little time for options to be developed and evaluated. Yet, allowing time to be spent exploring and evaluating a diverse range of options could produce more innovative and profitable outcomes.

It’s ironic that the same clients that squeeze the front end for local architects seek ‘internationals’ for our most prestigious projects. These firms have honed their skills in locations where clients place greater emphasis on taking time to explore options during the conceptual project phase. Firms that excel in competitions explore a range of options before selectively developing preferred ones, then the final solution.

Greater understanding of client issues will allow the architecture profession to be more persuasive about process change. We have seen examples where government entities have adjusted their processes as a result of direct lobbying. The trust built up with repeat clients has also demonstrated the capacity of the profession to influence procurement processes to achieve value-creating outcomes.

4. Competitions

Competitions are becoming an increasingly common way of procuring design solutions. Clear competition guidelines are available from the Australian Institute of Architects and no firm or architects should enter into a competition that does not comply with these – at minimum – with regard to the competition process, fair remuneration and the protection of copyright and the ongoing commission.

5. Consolidation

The engineers have been consolidating for the last decade, resulting in the global firms on a huge scale, such as WSP, Jacobs, Aecom, Arup, HDR, Meinhardt and GHD, many of which have significant architectural practices within. Arcadis (Netherlands) sits behind brands like RTKL, Callison, Hyder and EC Harris. These companies scale up to mirror their clients globally, entering and controlling new markets. Their scale allows back-office efficiencies, more diverse expertise and sophisticated processes. Chinese construction companies are purchasing well-known brands like PTW, HBA and Wilson, in order to vertically integrate their supply chain. Many large developers now control design in-house, providing a different kind of employment for architects as in-house specialists and design managers.

To maintain their point of difference, local practices need to specialise, collaborate and increase the quality and effectiveness of their services, through consistent, expert teams. It is also likely that local practices will be targets for acquisition.

6. Specialisation

Regardless of scale, being expert at one or a few selected building typologies is a way of remaining architect of choice. This means gaining a deep understanding of that client’s imperatives, whether commercial, operational, pedagogical or model of care. Quality design is a more fluid skill and must integrate with both the local site conditions and with the sector specialist requirements. Building a reputation in a particular typology not only builds brand and market, but also opens up the potential for higher levels of efficiency. This efficiency can take the form of object libraries/families, room data sheets, planning modules, standard details and knowledge of codes.

7. Virtual building modelling

The architect takes the lead design role, fulfilling the client’s brief and safeguarding the design quality throughout the project. Architects now excel in virtual building modelling, leading the process of coordination and clash detection for complex buildings. The architect creates the virtual model during design and progressively integrates subconsultants’ models. 

We own this space, not project managers or contractors. We have the potential to expand our role and influence by increasing our expertise in model management and integration and by demonstrating the value that can be created for clients throughout the building’s lifecycle. As a profession, new tools for mobility, collaboration, communication, automation and cloud open up further efficiencies, speed, accuracy, integration and cost reduction. These can benefit practices of all scales and allow small practices to compete in wider geographies.

Early contractor involvement is a growing trend, leading to an enhanced role for the profession to establish the integration protocols for contractors and subcontractors so that the virtual building model can be used for cost control, construction sequencing and procurement.

The further shift towards fully integrated BIM provides the tantalising promise that the model can progress through the building lifecycle to achieve the vision to create data once and use it to improve process, quality and communication.

The release of the Australian Construction Industry Forum (ACIF) Framework, which outlines activities required to successfully implement BIM across government agencies, private sector clients and industry service providers, is just one initiative towards standard protocols for BIM and Project Team Integration. The profession must engage in leading technical transformation, not watch it pass into the hands of others.

8. Earlier contractor involvement

Contractors are becoming involved in the procurement process earlier and earlier, as clients seek to shift risk through PPP, D&C and other forms of packaged procurement methods. Such packaging works best if the client brief has been clearly articulated and if the client continues active involvement in the design process. There is a major role for architects, as specialists, to work with clients to develop such a robust and flexible brief and to assist the client with ongoing independent monitoring. At best, early contractor involvement can result in a more holistic approach, tap into a more diverse range of skills and solutions and enhance the overall knowledge of our professionals.

9. Popular appreciation of the value of design

The digital era has allowed for the easy sharing of images. Popular access to high quality design through apps and media has created an awareness of the benefits of good design amongst the general public. Perhaps we are not yet at the stage where everyone is a design connoisseur, but it is widely accepted that poorly designed buildings are hard to sell and lease.

Uninformed clients may use images as a guide for briefing – is this a mistaken belief that clients can simply pick a design off the shelf? I think not. We use images too – to elicit a response or to clarify an approach – we just call them mood or concept boards. 

10. Urbanisation and the role of design in creating better cities

Urbanisation is a global phenomenon. Governments and private developers are preoccupied with creating better cities and sustainable communities; from the regeneration of Detroit to the vision for the Bays Precinct. Such focus provides the perfect platform for architects to find their voice, not just on a single plot, but at the scale of the precinct, district and city.

Architects should be leading the debate about our future built environment and challenge whether we are even asking the right questions about our cities. Let’s imagine the future, inspire our politicians and engage with local communities.

Conclusion

Rather than stare into the headlights of what we have lost, let’s expand our influence through providing better career progression for younger generations, lead the process of virtual building modelling, promote the benefits we bring to clients and lobby to change risky, short-sighted procurement processes. Let’s engage in the debate at all levels to change the paradigm for our profession.

Ten actions, as a profession, can (re)invent ourselves to turn these into opportunities.

Top ten actions

  1. Build core capability in the profession at all levels.
  2. Campaign to promote our role in enhancing business outcomes through design.
  3. Lobby for change in the process of design procurement towards value creation.
  4. Refuse to enter design competitions that do not comply with Australian Institute of Architects guidelines.
  5. Expand service offers and capacity through collaboration and increase the quality and effectiveness of services.
  6. Specialise in selected building typologies.
  7. Increase technical expertise in virtual building modelling and a range of other applications.
  8. Embrace early contractor involvement to your own benefit.
  9. Engage in popular design debate.
  10. Inspire politicians with your vision for a better built environment.

Leone Lorrimer is CEO of dwp|suters. This piece was written in response to John Held’s position paper “Deskilling and Reskilling Architects”. 

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