Architecture's State of Play: Where to Next

Michael Pilkington , 20 May 2016

Michael Pilkington takes a close look at the ACA – SA State of the Profession research, and argues we must take a ‘let’s make the cake bigger’ approach to both practice and the way serve the community, “because, simply, we can and we do live fundamentally for some kind of human-betterment”.

Michael Pilkington

This is part of the ACA’s Where to From Here? series, which invites reflections on the recent ACA – SA State of the Profession research to provoke discussion about the future.

Over the last three or four months a palpable energy has been building around three exciting events in Adelaide. You know the big one – $50 billion will procure 12 submarines in partnership with France. We are now officially a ‘sub-city’, if you had ever had any doubt! The other two items are more precisely architectural in nature. Firstly, the ACA has released its preliminary research into the state of the profession of architecture in this state, providing a snapshot of how the Australian profession might be travelling. Secondly, after 20 years, we received a sensational cross-section of brainpower, excitement, achievement and vision via the annual Australian Institute of Architects National Conference in late April.

I’ve been asked, as a practitioner, to comment on the take-outs. I’d like to interweave the two via international speaker Thomas Fisher’s presentation and my own observations, honed over 10 years in other people’s practices and nearly 24 years in our own.

The ACA research project comprises three parts: a Census data analysis (reporting on and comparing both SA figures with national ones), a view from the APBSA Board data, and a ‘State of the Profession’ survey. So, a mix of statistics and opinion is on offer. They are all attractive documents with good, clear graphics, plain-speaking text and introductions and conclusions. I strongly recommend you have a look.

Census Data Analysis

The Census study finds that:

  • The profession in SA is slowly growing, while not matching growth levels in other states.
  • There was a flat spot in 2011, when we all seemed to work fewer hours!
  • We have lower income levels than the rest of Australia, which will not surprise local readers or those interstate.
  • We are behind the remainder of the country in terms of a gender-balanced workforce.

Growth in the 10 years from 2001 has delivered 13% more architects per capita, but the age profile did not budge much in the same period. Working hours show a reduction in long working hours and a corresponding increase in shorter hours and in part-time work. This reflects our own practice’s experience of the younger ‘non-business-owning’ members of our team: family, holiday and social times are paramount and diligently pursued – good on them!

So, there are more of us collectively, we are working fewer hours and achieving less remuneration. No particularly fresh news there, but nice to have it quantified by the Census. Over the same 10 years, women in SA have grown in the architectural workforce from 18% to 23%, while the proportion in Australia as a whole grew from 20% to 28% – a stronger outcome.

Turning to income, a very strong pattern emerges in SA of a smaller average income compared to architects in Australia as a whole. By 2011, 47% of recipients in Australia were earning more that $1,600 per week, but here in SA we had only 41% in that higher income band.

Conversely, Australia-wide 20% were earning less than $1,000 per week, but in SA that figure was higher at 25%.

The study partly concludes by warning that the SA economy ‘is not able to support architecture firms to the extent that other states can’, and that the profession ‘is growing but is not in as strong a position as that in some of the larger states’, and that ‘some well-established practices have a very marginal existence’. So there we have it.

I’m sure these kind of Census-based factual statements merely confirm many readers’ direct experiences of the everyday in practices across the state.

APBSA Board Data

The board, the APBSA, obviously has details on numbers of registrants, their sex, patterns of change over time, and company registration levels. The report’s conclusions are:

  • Registrant numbers have increased in actual terms, but there has been a recent dropping off in both total numbers and per capita numbers.
  • An increasing proportion are women, but we still lag behind other jurisdictions.
  • Numbers of registered companies remain relatively stable, showing steady growth of 32% over the ten years from 2006–2015, with a quicker 16% growth rate total over the last 4 years from 2012–2015, and a slower 16% total in the previous 6 years from 2006– 2011.

This last figure means that the sudden influx of new practices reported some four to five years ago has translated into a faster registered entity/corporate rate, and is possibly coupled with an increase in the numbers of interstate practices registering for projects in SA.

All well and good, maybe, apart the very pressing issues of overall economic sustainability, gender balance, marketplace competition and overall remuneration levels – not small things in anyone’s language! The very stuff of life! How can we repair our fortunes? Please keep those issues in mind as we venture below into part 3 of the ACA research.

State of the Profession Survey

So, now we turn to the big one – the temperature of the patient, their aspirations, observations, temperament and emotions. How is it all really travelling out there on the coal-face of day-to-day archi-practice?

Firstly, the survey was very eagerly responded to – there were 131 submissions, of which 83 were fully completed and there are apparently the same number of local Institute A+ practices!

As you would expect, many were very eager to share their wisdom and accumulated experience! I’ll summarise what I think are the most-interesting answers:

  • Procurement of architectural services remains largely ‘traditional’, with 82% of respondents providing full services, concentrated in particular work sectors.
  • The ‘snapshot view’ – of practices mostly involved in traditional building procurement strategies (hard-money tenders), but with increasing D and C and Managing Contractor work – is one that is increasingly multidisciplinary, mainly SA-based, collaborative with other practices, undertaking significant unpaid work, and has low net income levels, particularly for sole practitioners and small practices.
  • Those smaller businesses are mainly working in the residential field, with the larger guys mainly working on government, commercial and institutional work.
  • There are very few women at director-level and also a surprisingly low level of women graduates employed.
  • There are plenty of women in practice administration and interior design, which may skew the ‘look’ of practices as a gender-balanced workplace.
  • Work practices are also traditional, with most people employed as full-time, with only very low staff numbers in part-time or flexible hours work.
  • Fee shrinkage is the single greatest challenge facing the profession, closely followed by greater risks and fierce competition from allied sectors of the economy.

The survey also asked for discursive comments and here is where the soul of the profession is bared:

  • Sole practitioners and small practices do not feel that the professional bodies are meeting many of their real needs.
  • Fee levels and returns are disappearing fast in a competitive ‘race to the bottom’ of the barrel.
  • BIM and 3D modelling are seen as a chance to redress the above race, I presume by offering enhanced, superior money-saving and/or return-generating services that appeal to clients.
  • ‘The importance of design must be promoted for architects to have continuing relevance’ – (study’s actual words).

Alright. Now some specific items, randomly selected:

  • More than 75% of responding entities worked in ‘Single Residential (new)’, but it provided only 24% of their fee income.
  • More than 12% of respondents considered the kind of work to be highly dependent on the economy (what? … only 12%!), with private clients declining in a downturn and social infrastructure work increasing – an exact description of the 2008–2010 Federal BER educational building program.
  • Some firms had managed to ‘move sideways’ into other sectors of work, but most seemed to take whatever came their way.
  • Single residential and education accounted for nearly half of the work in ‘over 30% of workload’ category.
  • Changes to this figure over time generated some interesting answers, which are all listed as diminishing architectural scope of services or changes to builder procurement models.
  • Of the 97 practices that responded, very high numbers of practices (93,91,93 and 81) were involved in the delivery of the four main stages named A1, A2, A4 and A6 of any project – a strong endorsement of the ‘traditional’ delivery model.
  • Anecdotally, respondents commented on changes over time: smaller and more bitsy residential projects leading to larger time commitments; less on-site work; ‘design review’ has meant that this stage is more ‘involved’ (time-consuming); lack of commercial work means having to ‘go into’ residential work; extended contract admin times; clients expecting more (design?) work prior to engagement.
  • 37% of respondents had done unpaid speculative work for an existing client (my underline). 32% did pro bono work for a non-profit organisation.
  • Very Interestingly and very damningly, figure 26 shows the percentage of practices doing unpaid work: only half of smaller practices engage in this type of activity, whereas 75% of larger practices do it! This must reflect on the scale of work undertaken. Although absolutely no-one can afford to do this type of thing, larger practices more regularly take this (previously illegal) action in order to secure the very type of larger projects that sustain their practices. No practices should be asked or expected to do this: they simply cannot afford this strategy. Can you imagine asking your dentist for some initial free work to see if you want to go on with it?
  • As I once read in an Institute Practice Note, providing too low a project fee is a sure way to bankruptcy, as there are insufficient funds to do a proper professional job and your name will then be be-smirched (probably during construction with those massive VOs, beloved by our friends, the builders). Then, of course, you’re unlikely to get asked again or get any reference, leading to a future of no work!
  • Again, some comments: sometimes design work is part of the tender process (!); court proceedings by architects to recover unpaid fees when a client ‘runs with the design’; and an extremely worrying attitude about unethical clients being able to get away with it, even with client/architect contracts in place.
  • Practice policies of no free work for any new or existing client as it breaches ethics and devalues the standing of the profession.

We then come to the composition of the profession. There were 94 practices comprised of 417 FTE men and 147 FTE women, for a total of 564 persons, of which 63% of men were registered and, this has surprised me, 58% of women were registered. With the previously advised practice composition of female staff in some non-architect roles, doesn’t this mean that most, or very many, women architects are registered?

That’s an impressive figure and bodes very well for the future gender balance of the profession. That are also many men inside practices who can’t or won’t actually get registered! But, of course, as those men retire, the female percentage will grow.

At director level, 90% are men, while at senior and director levels it becomes 80%. At the other end, the graduate of architecture level, only 27% are women, which is much lower than recent graduation figures.

Revenue rates were answered by 86 practices, with 25% earning less than $50,000, mostly one-person practices. Worryingly, 3 practices in this bracket were 2–5 people, and one was in the 6–10 size – how could that possibly work? There were 17% in the $100,000–250,000 bracket, and 17% in the $2–5 million band. This paragraph concludes that some well-established practices have a very marginal existence (my underline).

Generally, fee calculation methods have changed from lump sum to hybrid forms, but one other respondent reported they were slowly moving towards lump sum. More hourly rate work was also identified. 15% of practices had worked overseas, mostly in China, the Middle East and SE Asia. Interestingly, 55% of practices were quite happy not chasing overseas work.

OK, we clearly face some challenges and the study graciously allows several pages of free-ranging text extracts, which are well worth a look. In summary, though, the two big ones are fees and relevance. BIM opportunities were mentioned and, of course, a picked-up economy. The top five professional challenges (out of 13 listed) were:

  • Fee shrinkage
  • Shifting project risk onto architects
  • Competition from other sectors
  • Competition from other architects
  • Unfair contracts

Unfortunately, there was no listing of gender equalisation as being a challenge!

I was interested to read that of the eight practices who thought that ‘fee shrinkage’ was not a challenge, four had been in operation between 1–5 years, which I think means that they are making up their own way of establishing fees, probably with less-experienced clients. The medium and larger practices who work for longer-established clients are often told how and what the fees will be in a ‘hey, take-it–or-leave, we’ll get someone else’ fashion.

The final eight pages is a grab-bag of soul-searching and uncovers some gems: removal of fee scales (by the ACCC); clients just not knowing what architects can actually do for them; would you recommend this profession to your kids?; not considered a trusted advisor of all-things built; the need for education of the public about the value of architects; competition from non-architects; competition from interstate and now, increasingly, international architects; the very small SA economy.

There’s some optimism, too. Future opportunities were identified: gaining territory from project managers; gaining more overseas (less locally-dependent) work; encouraging public respect levels, which are improving; undertaking our own developments; broadening our client base; partnerships with builders; prefabricated housing models and environmental sustainability expertise. BIM is listed as both a possible blessing and a curse!

Thomas Fisher’s Future of Architecture

It’s about now that I need to bring in Thomas Fisher, from the University of Minnesota, who has been patiently waiting in the wings while that survey detail was digested. Thomas was a recent visitor to Adelaide courtesy of the AIA Conference, ‘How Soon Is Now?’ where he was one of few speakers whose interest lay in the nature of architectural practice, rather than our primary outputs. It was ambitious for a conference to consider this, but the nature of the future of practice, comes in under ‘soon’ and ‘now’, like ‘urgently’.

Fisher has an intense interest in the ways and natures of the practice of architecture from an academic perspective – not just the existing methodologies, but searching for examples of elevated, genre-bending practices and practitioners who might be the outliers of future practices that could be soon, if not quite right now.

His historical perspective was to quickly look back to Gutenberg’s press, which created ‘pattern books’ of how architecture just should be, a middle time of modernist interruption/revolution (following a cataclysmic World War) through the Corbusian creation of ‘building platforms for human activity’ (machines?), leading up to the now and the near future of the iPhone-age.

Here is a sequenced grab-bag of some of his thoughts:

  • History has given us the first industrial age (steam), the second industrial age (the car) and now the third industrial age (computers: 3D printing cars/buildings).
  • ‘Third wave thinking’ changes design outcomes from deductive to inductive, by absorbing existing conditions, rather than imposing them upon users.
  • A shift from ownership to access will enable cities that have preserved their best aspects over time, to survive and thrive.
  • Architects can develop systems that enable people to determine their own layouts – a ‘letting-go’. Designers become editors/provocateurs/facilitators.
  • Most cities and suburbs are insolvent, as there is just not enough income for services. Increased densities will be necessary to resolve some of this.
  • We must create ‘new land’, not use existing, diminishing our reliance on arable land e.g. ‘air-rights’ use over highways, intensifying unallocated/under-utilised ground, once thought of as expendable or just wasteland.

You can see where this line of exploration is heading – that the noble profession of architecture will, in the future, be called upon to exercise its ‘design thinking’, creativity, question-asking, fundamental understanding of materials and their manipulation to help and serve humankind across myriad built outcomes. They will be asked to explain their position, their services, their attitudes – the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of what was previously just the ‘what’ and ‘where’. You may argue this is what we have always done, but here the vision to is to win respect for our ways of thinking that could save money (be rewarded saving the client money), or technological advances in areas that are not usual for the profession to be aligned with (such as manufacturing building systems, integrated environments, energy production or food maximisation).

In Summary

So, looking back over my own years of practice, this ACA stock-take survey and the intense mind-and-eye-game of stimulation from the recent Institute conference, how does it all sit and what does it illustrate about the nature and patterns of architectural practice?

Some local concerns are transparently clear and will apply nationally across the country and indeed around the world. One of the most common themes at the conference was poor remuneration for architects globally (it is not just us, here) and the time-consuming nature of the work. I’m sure everyone has had their share of complete incredulity from a client at the end of a good job about ‘how much time that all just took’. For the next one, they’ll know! So:

We know that the business has suffered terrifically at the hands of fee-shrinkage, courtesy of the ACCC. Fee tendering practices award projects on the lowest of unsustainable income levels, while architects do themselves a great disservice by massively fee discounting and then hoping ‘she’ll be right’. Competition from allied industries (such as builders, drafters, project managers, interstate/international architects or ‘architects’) is rife and killing us, and maybe not at all slowly, let alone softly!

We also know that architects’ salaries are the single lowest paid of any group involved on site in building and construction (information from the CareersOne website). Do you think many people know this? (Ironically, the highest paid are the estimators – good fees for not many hours of work!) We need to broadly share this reality – a worthy endeavour for the AIA and ACA to consider. Note that the survey group included all people: trades, surveyors, consultants, managers, interior designers!

And yet, another way of practice may beckon, one that connects with less-aspirational clients – those with less money, who aren’t affluent, who can no longer afford to pay ‘traditional’ design services, but are quite happy to experience design thinking, who are hungry for informed built outcomes, seriously environmentally aware and are happier with smaller outcomes. Those who are not so-driven by the style media. This is kind of the ‘let’s make the cake bigger’ approach.

Again, the ever-increasing plethora of built-complexity, specialists and consultants to be synthesised into the built outcome, the continuing sophistication of the resultant environment, one which the builder is rewarded for by rising building costs, massively impacts on our work by the driving-down of efficiency and a significant increase in the number of tasks expected to be undertaken.

Policy-wise, we need to let clients and governments in on the secret that although the consideration of our aesthetic, Beaux-Arts-based liberal education is a foundation, just because our time-consuming work involves the creation of assemblies of everything, we are not just slaves to beauty. Those days are long-gone. Today, we seek to re-define it (and what design is) for every generation because, simply, we can and we do live fundamentally for some kind of human-betterment … and we must in order to create a true ‘triple-bottom-line enterprise’ with an environmentally sustainable, joyous and significant focus to life on earth!

Michael Pilkington is a director of Phillips/Pilkington Architects.