Architecture’s Gig Economy, COVID-19 & Building Resilience

Peter Raisbeck , 10 August 2020

As the global pandemic hits architects hard, Peter Raisbeck proposes a few ideas about how to build professional resilience.

Architects have always been trapped in our version of the gig economy. We are the uber drivers and precarious labourers in the market-oriented design and construction economy. The incomes of architects and architectural firms are precarious. Architectural firms move from commission to commission. Moreover, there is no guarantee that commissions are cumulative over time and many employee architects drift from contract to contract, with no formalised career path. Architects often take what they can get with no certainty that the next contract or commission will come along. This depiction of architecture suggests why, when architects gather, we easily slip into a vortex of despair in our conversations.

However, what is now painfully evident as a result of the global pandemic is this: The gig economy of architecture has not helped architects to build resilience across the profession. So how, as a profession, should we now build that professional resilience? This question is now harder to answer given many architects are about to hit the bottom of the boom-bust cycle. To answer this question, and to avoid the banality of the “architect as an economic victim” syndrome, let me propose a few ideas about how architects can build resilience.   

Fees 

Fee cutting is only ever, and has always been, a short-term solution. Why cut fees amid a recession or depression? To get the job? Architects who cut fees to get the job (even if to pay their mortgages) destroy more value than they create. 

The ACA Time/Cost Calculator is Australia’s most essential and useful instrument for calculating fees, and the best tool to use to avoid the horrors, indignity and stupidity of fee-cutting. The ACA Calculator directs architects to determine their fee proposal in five categories: overheads, profit margin, innovation and commercial risk. But how many architects even think about the last three of these? How many architects price their services and the risk we are managing with innovation and commercial risk in mind?

I fear that many architects are just getting to grips with the idea of having adequate profit margins, let alone pricing innovation and commercial risk into their fee regimes. The innovation factor in the calculator forces architects to put a value on the added value that the design service or customised design provides to the client. The level of commercial risk in the project should be determined by considerations such as the nature of the client (solvency and ability to pay), the type of contract being asked to sign (standard or non-standard), the procurement pathway (simple or complex), and the range of services. For example, novated contracts or partial-service arrangements incur more risks to architects, so architects should allow for these things in their fee calculation. 

Procurement policies

At a policy level, Australian architects have also made various attempts to build resilience in the profession by promoting and fostering the roles of government architects in each state of Australia. The rationale is that Australian state government architects can educate public sector clients and foster good design and design procurement through the use of architects in public projects. The Government architects have developed frameworks for so-called guidelines entitled “Government as Smart Client” to help various public sector bodies improve their procurement practices in relation to architects. Yet, despite these well-meaning efforts, the selection criteria of public sector clients too often fall into a spectrum between lowest price procurement to so-called value-for-money approaches. Few, if any of these selection criteria instruments put a value on design innovation.

Architects need to push governments and decision-makers for them to understand that good procurement decision making is not just about the lowest common denominator of “value for money”. Free-market tendering and price competition only cheapens everything these practices touch. For clients, without proper design and the input of architects, the result will be distressed assets and assets not fit for purpose. So why spend fiscal billions to produce crap? The aphorism, “sometimes you have to spend money to make money” springs to mind.

Time to stop grumbling about the surveys 

It never ceases to amaze me how often architects refuse to do surveys, and survey fatigue seems to be a thing. But in a fragmented industry (with lots of very diverse small firms), without accurate survey data – data that paints the real picture, beyond the anecdotal – we are lost at sea. Without comprehensive survey data, the peak bodies and associations, whoever they might be (ACA, Parlour, Architeam, The Architects Lobby, as well as the Australian Institute of Architects), cannot represent the interests of architects in broader policy forums. Next time you see a survey from one of these groups, do it! Next time you hear an architect talk about so-called “survey fatigue”, tell them to get their priorities straight.

Unicorns are not going to save the profession 

In the Zoom calls of the pandemic, for many architects, the words social housing have taken on a new currency. Perhaps this phenomenon is a reaction to the lockdown of the public housing towers; arguably, some of the most inadequate quality of housing in Australia. And no amount of maintenance is going to fix those blocks. Or perhaps it is because of housing issues that are emerging as a result of many people being unemployed. But for architects in their Zoomiverse, it’s like the government is going to ride in like a white knight, wave a wand and every architect in town will be working on social housing.

Policy advocacy

Aggressive policy advocacy is the way to go. One of the most successful examples of a policy advocacy group in Australian architecture has been Parlour. This is an example that we can all learn from. Architects can talk about sustainability, resilience and the value of the excellent design in urban spaces. Still, without strong policy responses and advocacy, all of this talk is just that – talk. So, rather than burying ourselves in clichés, what we need is a profession with robust and consistent policy positions. Do we need another round of peer awards telling ourselves how good we are?

Australian architects need a federated cabinet of professional associations, state registration boards and state government architects. These groups need to get together and fund a national policy position with the sole purpose of lobbying the government about the value of architecture. In light of the above, it can be argued that we need to design and build a new generation of resilient social infrastructure. Only architects can do that. But that will only happen if architects start to build resilience into their own professional culture in the first instance.

Dr Peter Raisbeck is a senior lecturer in architectural practice at the Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne. He is also research director of the ACA. Peter writes a blog called Surviving the Design Studio. His book Architecture as a Global System: Scavengers, Tribes, Warlords and Megafirms was published by Emerald in November 2019. His book, co-authored with Christine Philips, Robin Boyd: Late works will be published by Uro later in 2020.