Going Global

Leone Lorrimer , 22 October 2015

The demand for architectural services in the developing world will continue to grow, thanks to new, emerging cities along the Silk Highway. Leone Lorrimer considers how Australian architects can make the most of offshore opportunities, and gives the government some pointers on how to help.

Australian architects are among the best in the world, both as individuals and as companies, so it is no surprise that we are working in locations across the globe. We are designing airports, stadia and large mixed-use developments, and master planning cities. The qualities we bring include enterprise, innovation and the will to succeed. However, there is no doubt we could be doing much more.

According to the World Architecture 100, compiled by Building Design, the top 10 Australian practices are earning about $550 million per annum in fees, with around 30% from offshore projects. There is significant room for growth.

Most of the larger practices have been working offshore for more than a decade and have made significant personal and financial commitments to underpin this growth.  These practices work through permanent offices on the ground, through local collaborations or a combination of both. The relationships and cultural sensitivities developed while working offshore also flow through to working with international investor clients here in Australia.

Winning work requires long-term relationships and every location has its unique language, culture, climate, regulatory environment and financial conditions. The financial pressures on a small profession can be huge, from the upfront cost of entering design competitions, payment of bonds and retentions, currency fluctuations and the difficulty of getting paid.

Government initiatives and support

There are many ways the government could get involved to assist the profession in growing their offshore business. It could provide timely, grounded advice, based on local intelligence. This may include forecasting advice, highlighting opportunities in growth sectors in various locations (aged care in China, for example). The government could advocate for integrated design capabilities. It could identify opportunities and connect Australian practices with those clients and projects. Fact sheets on regulatory frameworks, business, culture, customs and cautions would be useful, as would diplomatic support. Cox Architecture Tokyo Stadium is a good example of a project that benefitted from diplomatic support.

The government needs to recognise design as an export market. It needs to develop a comprehensive umbrella promotion methodology at the federal level for architecture and design. This would be an overarching narrative from which individual states could leverage. Tourism Australia is a great example of this.

The government could provide enormous benefit by showcasing specialist skills and innovations abroad. Another important initiative would be a comprehensive national register of Australian design service providers that showcases companies by sector specialisation. This would be similar to the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students, referred to in the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement of June 2015.

The export insurance scheme needs to be simplified to make it possible once more to insure architects fees through the Export Finance Insurance Scheme (EFIS). Improving technology through the NBN is another important focus.

Developing excellence in the domestic sector

We’ve seen a plethora of international architects working in Australia. What is it that they bring? And how can we change our domestic paradigm so that the profession in Australia is export-ready?

International practices bring a long tradition of innovation underpinned by research.  This is only possible through long-term collaborations with patron clients, who may be public institutions or visionary private developers.

In contrast, our governments at all levels implement procurement processes that are fragmented and price-driven. In the best cases, there are agreed price schedules and architects are commissioned based on merit for the entire project. In the worst case, public open tenders and re-tendering of projects at every stage result in wasted effort and poor outcomes.

In the private sector, the top-tier integrated development/design/construction companies are prepared to back their vision, take the risks and invest in the required research. They take a long-term view because they know that what is good for the communities that occupy the projects is also good for their share price in the long term.

Governments need to think hard about the difference between cost cutting and value creation. Architects need to be engaged on merit for the duration of the project under terms and conditions that are reasonable.

Architects translate aspirations into outcomes for the benefit of the investor, user and community as a whole. We bring design thinking to complex issues such as urbanisation, resilience and social cohesion to unlock value in economic, social and sustainable terms. Communicating the architects’ role effectively to key stakeholders and the community at large is vital.

Preparing a new generation for a more globally engaged sector

Australian practices need to work collaboratively with other Australian practices or local practices overseas to become export-ready. And the young people in the profession need to be more engaged at all levels. We need to change the traditional structures and cultures within our firms so that rising generations can actively participate and create a real and viable future for themselves and the profession.

Leone Lorrimer is the CEO of dwplsuters. This article is based on her presentation to the Architecture at the Table Industry Summit, 5 October 2015, the Sydney Architecture Festival, on behalf of the ACA. Her remarks draw upon information gained through a survey conducted by the ACA and conversations, as well as her own direct personal experiences of going global.