Future Practice? Conversations from the heart (of architecture)

Sean Godsell , 17 August 2018

What would Macquarie and Greenway say? Sean Godsell reflects on the state of the profession. 

On 19 July, the ACA – SA branch hosted a luncheon to meet and hear from acclaimed architect, Sean Godsell. The following is a lightly edited version of his talk, which was originally presented in 2013.

When Lachlan Macquarie took up the reins as Governor in NSW just over 200 years ago, his primary mandate was to improve the (until then) appallingly poor quality of construction and building stock in the new colony. Amongst the convict population, Macquarie found Francis Greenway. (Greenway had been a successful architect in Bristol until his practice fell on hard times. In an attempt to stave off bankruptcy, Greenway stupidly forged a document and was sentenced to death. His punishment was commuted to 14 years if he agreed to be banished to the penal colony of Australia.) What Macquarie encountered when he arrived was an unregulated and disorganised building industry, dominated by builders and speculators with scant knowledge of ‘the principles of construction and mechanics’ and run almost entirely on a rum currency.

Macquarie needed an architect (Whitehall had denied him that request before he embarked) but in Greenway, Macquarie found a champion. He granted him a full pardon and gave him the title ‘Acting civil architect and assistant engineer’. Between the two of them they brought order, a system of regulations and, most of all, quality, to the design and construction of not only Sydney, but the entire colony. During the construction of his first commission – Macquarie’s lighthouse – Greenway took it upon himself to train the labourers in sound building construction techniques. When, in an attempt to protect building owners from corrupt contractors, Greenway introduced a method of progress payments to builders that in essence still exists today, the profession of architecture in Australia was born and the rest, as they say, is history … So, I wonder what the two would make of the state of the professional today.

ACA SA

As architects, our ideas are the most valuable things we possess. Our dreams are the only important reality there is – imagining a better way to live, to inhabit. This is what architects do. We dream of the possibility of a better world – then, if we’re lucky, build it. Ideas are hard to come by, good ideas even harder. Why is it then that in AIA-endorsed competitions and local, state and federal government funded commissions, we are usually compelled to hand over our most valuable possession for nothing?

For example, in the FAQ section of the competition guidelines of a competition run by the South Australian government in 2013, someone asked: ‘Who owns the ideas submitted?’ Good question. 

The answer is ‘clever’:

‘By participating in this competition, all competitors must agree to the Competition Conditions. These conditions require each competitor to declare that they own (or have the right to exercise) all Intellectual Property Rights associated with their submission, and that the competitor is able to grant the State unfettered license to use the Intellectual Property Rights associated with that submission.

As such, the competition does not affect the ownership of Intellectual Property Rights associated with any submission, but grants the State the right to freely use ideas contained within all competition submissions. For a full outline of all IP-related conditions, please refer to the Competition Conditions.’

Putting aside the appalling grammar, the second paragraph just kills me. No, we’re not trying to obtain your intellectual property … we’ll just take it … if you’re dumb enough to enter this competition. Read on and you’ll find that the government of South Australia’s lawyers (presumably) put their hands around the throats of would-be competitors. It’s all too common. In any government consultancy agreement, it’s the same – architects are expected to hand over our copyright, our moral rights, our intellectual property, our first born. Without even a whimper. 

When any architect simply gives away their ideas, they do irreparable damage to the profession. The ideas, the creative problem solving that architects bring to projects, have real commercial value. They lose their currency when we cheapen them by handing them over. Our clients don’t own our ideas. They purchase a licence to build (once only) a building designed on their behalf by their architect. The architect retains the ownership of the design and all that entails.

The issues of intellectual property, copyright and moral rights are topical and serious. Very suddenly, or so it seems, we find ourselves in a ‘free for all’ era. Notions of ownership, authorship, originality, creativity – once sacred ground for our profession – are increasingly marginalised by acts of appropriation, ‘sampling’ and, in some instances, sadly, bare-faced and brazen theft. It’s easy to look to the internet where free access to information is uncontrolled. For all its benefits, the internet still aids cowardly and dishonest actions. The threats to the profession that architects face right now aren’t only extraneous. The appalling and often defamatory behaviour online of architects towards their colleagues goes on unchecked. The onus is on all architects to ensure that our hard-earned qualifications and titles are not abused by our colleagues and that we, the architects, raise the bar on our professional propriety by being rigorous in policing ourselves. In doing so, we not only protect the value of our work but also our position in society.

There’s no question that the public’s perception of the profession has deteriorated. Architects can share the blame for some of that – examples like those I’ve cited above have become all too common – but there are other reasons as well. If we have lost a grasp on the value of our ideas and see authorship and intellectual property as a ‘free for all’, then what possible hope do we have in a marketplace flooded with architects all grappling for a piece of the roughly 1.5% of the population who commission the buildings that are designed by us? What value do we bring? More importantly, how are we valued? In 2013, a graduate in architecture started on an award rate of $44K per year. A kindergarten teacher graduate earned $49K and a school teacher made $58K in their first year out. A CFMEU accredited fourth year carpentry apprentice, on the other hand, earned $62K + $10K per annum travel allowance (and gets 26 RDOs + 1 picnic day on top of annual leave). In 2011, the old guy on the end of a broom during the construction of the RMIT Design Hub happily told me that he ‘cleared $130,000 a year’. Architects are now amongst the most poorly paid people on most building sites.

ACA SA

Under the Architect’s Act we are accountable at law to both the profession and the general public for our actions as architects. Each one of us is obliged by law to carry indemnity insurance and each one of us is liable for everything we do and say. Most of us carry and handle enormous risk across a multitude of projects over many years. We remain exposed to our own work even if it was completed and forgotten about decades ago and until quite recently our families and our estates remained exposed, even after we were dead and buried. In stark contract, project managers are not bound by any act of parliament nor are they required to have any particular training, or to go through (as architects are required to) a series of examinations before they can define themselves as ‘project managers’. Yet a review of job advertisements suggests they earn on average three times what architects do. They have all but supplanted us as contract administrators and are often appointed ahead of architects at the inception of a project. Some even become involved in the selection of firms of architects on behalf of building owners! What a joke!

Architects have been marginalised by the consistent slicing up of the pie that was ours in the 1970s – cost estimating, interior design, contract administration, project management, environmental design, town planning, design for disability are all but gone. Even things like specification writing and door scheduling are outsourced by some practices. To save on overheads many firms are now even outsourcing documentation to third world countries … Great. 

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One of the biggest mistakes we have made as a profession in the last two decades is to have subscribed to the use of ‘novation’ and ‘design and construct’ contracts. In simple terms, usually after the design development phase is completed, the architect ceases to be employed by their client. They are employed by the builder and are therefore commercially bound to do whatever the builder beckons. From where I stand, an architect who works for a builder is no longer an architect. They’re a builder and while there are some excellent builders in Australia they are not accountable to the general public and their peers in the same way as we as registered architects are obliged to be. It was explained to me recently that the only reason most builders even give in to having architects novated to them at all was so that there was someone to “pick the colours, pick the shapes and to blame when things go off the rails”. Most major building firms now have their own inhouse architects whose primary role seems to be to ‘value manage’. Once construction has commenced, ‘value manage’ means reduce cost and increase profit. We’ve all dealt with this – the builder suggests different door furniture ‘because there’s a three-month wait’ on the furniture specified. It looks the same but is cheap, etc, etc … Materials substitution has resulted in recent catastrophic outcomes around the world and is a real issue for our profession and the community.

What intrigues me most about the ‘design construct’ mindset is that it is now accepted by most building owners as an industry norm and a preferred procurement route. Building owners are prepared to pay for people who may or may not have relevant training, who are not accountable at law to a representative but independent body, and whose primary interest is either themselves or their shareholders. What was historically one of our greatest skills – that of acting as our client’s agent during the construction phase of a building project – has all but gone. That was sacred ground. The builders must all love it – the only people who forced them to be accountable during the construction phase are now working for them!

We need fee regulation. It stops us cutting each other’s throats to get work. The argument goes that it is against the Competition and Consumer Act to regulate fees. The anomaly in that argument goes back to the percentage of the marketplace that we actually deal with. Not the 24.13 million that the Act presumes but rather the approximately 1.5% or 361,950 Australians that actually commission the approximately 12,000 registered architects in Australia. Some of us can compete based on the skills that we offer. In an unregulated environment, the rest compete based on fees. (Of course, our professional liability doesn’t reduce when our fees do.) To protect the quality of our constructed environment and to ensure that we can continue to serve the community, professional fees for architects should go up from a regulated benchmark based on additional skills and specialities, not down based on cost and service cutting. I’d hate to be on the operating table with a surgeon who had been forced to cut their fees to win the chance to operate in the first place!

A further change in legislation that is long overdue is the mandatory use of architects for all building projects over a certain dollar value and all buildings of certain types, as is the case in most of Europe, for example. The marketplace in Australia is tiny and unfortunately architecture is not endemic to our culture. The mandatory use of architects on all bar the most minor projects, delivered using lump sum contracts, provides the country with the best possible built outcome … I can hear the project managers now! The tactic of branding ‘architects’ and ‘design’ as ‘high risk’ is clever. The marketplace has been polluted into believing that this is the case, so much so that one of our major banks is currently attempting to mandate that home owners who want to build new houses and who have chosen to have an architect involved in their project will not be granted a mortgage if they want to use an ABIC lump sum contract with the architect as contract administrator.

Since when did producing a work of architecture ever cease to involve ‘risk’ I wonder? At what point did architects suddenly become incapable of running a building contract on behalf of their client? How is marginalising the only professional person in the delivery of a building contract reducing risk? If a visit to your GP was initially controlled by the local naturopath and the administration of the doctor’s advice dispensed via the same unqualified, unaccountable entity, would you feel like you were in a better risk managed scenario than if the doctor managed your health directly? There are still a few practices – mine is one of them – that still provide full services in the delivery of a building, but our numbers are dwindling rapidly.

The profession must re-absorb ‘project management’ (what I always knew to be contract administration) rather than attempt to regulate it, as some are advocating. The question of how well trained we are to handle the delivery of building projects must be answered first by our academies. At present most of the schools shove the responsibility of training in project delivery back onto the profession (adding an additional financial burden to already cash-strapped offices). Practices are expected to train young architects in contract administration, including site attendance. To a point that’s ok, provided they come from the universities with a substantial amount of theoretical knowledge in all aspects of practice, including management. Degrees that once took five full time years and one compulsory year of office experience are now awarded in three years. Architects once held the knowledge of building science, building technology, professional practice and, of course, design, firmly in our grasp. It’s not much use for our schools to produce clever theoreticians if they can’t construct anything more than clever commentary. The profession needs to urgently review course accreditation with a view to reclaiming the ground that has been lost in what were previously mandatory components of our training. More than ever we need to hold onto the knowledge of technology and project delivery that, until very recently, set us apart in the building industry. We need better trained, not more architects, and I question the profession’s role with respect to the number of schools we currently have in this country and the selection criteria for entry to schools, which is less and less based on academic results. We need to be an intelligent, as well as a creative, group.

So, what would Macquarie and Greenway think if they could visit us now? Melbourne – the world’s most liveable city (again). ‘Design City Melbourne’? Or a bad case of the emperor’s new clothes? Would they see well-designed buildings in our towns and cities, built with quality? For the long term? Buildings that say ‘we’re here to stay’.

Macquarie would probably turn to Greenway and say – ‘what they need down there right now is an architect’.

ACA SA

 

 

Sean Godsell is Director of Sean Godsell Architects. 

Photographs: Brendan Hinton.

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