ACA President’s Comment – March 2020

John Held , 24 March 2020

As architectural practices face uncertain futures, John Held discusses the importance of sharing stories, ideas, and love and consideration for each other.

I can’t say I’ve ever finished a book by Gabriel García Márquez, and the books by my bedside go unread as we deal with family and work disruptions caused by COVID-19. The dramatic shifts in messaging are unsettling enough for business owners, and the prospects for many architectural practices are bleak over the coming months.

ACA’s focus has been twofold: discovering the main concerns of practices, what their futures are and how well they are set up to cope; and at the same time providing resources, links and, most importantly, stories from other practices. We also hope to expand the variety of CPD and other events available online.

Our Pulse Check No. 1 Survey generated an enormous response; since then we have heard of many more projects cancelled or put on hold. We will repeat the survey next week, to understand just how severe the problem is and whether assistance packages for small business are correctly targeted.

Government assistance packages are welcome – although it’s important to note that many practices adopt a cautious approach to finance and would certainly be reluctant to take on more debt to keep trading. Badly planned stimulus measures are also often counterproductive. Of concern to many are the relaxation of director’s personal liability for trading insolvent and extension of bankruptcy provisions. It might be good for you, but not if your client is insolvent and not paying you. The other fear is another race to the bottom on fees, damaging the long-term future of the profession. There will be ruthless clients out there trying to get something for nothing; we can only stop this by collectively understanding the value of what we do.

Many practices seem to have advanced plans to work remotely and are quickly setting up videoconferencing and VPN/remote working systems, but such things take time and distract from project work. Many practitioners are also missing the collaborative nature of our profession and voicing concerns about the added complexities of mixing family and working life. Many sole practitioners would just say – “I told you so”. But for those with work, it puts added pressures on deadlines.

For those whose projects have disappeared, the future is concerning. This brings us back to the profession as a community – one that can share stories, ideas and a bit of love and consideration for each other. The themes emerging from our ever-expanding interviews emphasise patience, kindness and good communications with staff. They will be stressed. Your clients and consultants will be stressed. Being the owner of practice is sometimes a lonely experience, and owners will also be stressed – and need to be able to talk through the challenges with others experiencing the same issues. At the ACA – SA (virtual) committee meeting last week, we went around the (virtual) room sharing our stories. We are now trying to spread that idea – asking each committee member to contact six practices for video catchups to ensure people have someone to talk to. You could do the same thing in your state!

In the words of Fulton Trotter’s Justine Ebzery in one of our recent case studies: “Communicate regularly, utilising every type of format available to you, and be patient and kind to each other.”  The ACA aims to communicate regularly, utilising every format available to us. The rest is up to you…

John Held is ACA National President and a director of Russell & Yelland in Adelaide.