Welcome to 2019

19 January 2019

The year has begun with a big focus on quality – and the lack of it – in the wake of the Opal Tower problems. ACA President John Held considers what architects and the ACA can do to regain independent and trusted roles in the procurement and construction of our built environment.

The Association of Consulting Architects has a number of priorities for this year, including the appointment of a CEO (well under way); development of resources, sponsoring research, providing opportunities for mentorship and ensuring architects understand that unless they can manage their businesses well, they can’t achieve all their other objectives.

In a period when membership organisations are in decline worldwide, the last five years has seen the ACA reverse that trend, doubling its membership (with 50% of that growth in the last two years) to meet our target.

This ongoing and expanding growth is a testament to the ACA’s considered and strategic approach to delivering members with the tools, information, leadership and advocacy required to support a vibrant, healthy and sustainable architectural industry.

The ACA sees this growth in membership as both validation and a challenge. Our plan is to continue to refine, improve and strengthen the quality of our services to ensure that we remain resourceful, reliable and relevant.

One thing we hope we can continue to do is respond quickly to challenges in the profession, foster debate, provide leadership and make our voices heard in the wider community.

The recent issues at the Opal Tower in Sydney focus the mind on issues around construction quality, adding a different and dramatic strand to the many recent instances of cladding and waterproofing failures, among others. The interim report makes sobering reading, even if it only says what happened and not why it could happen. Why is quality such an issue? What can we, as architects, do to improve the quality of the built environment? Have we retreated so far from our traditional independent roles that we really don’t matter?

I’ve written previously about the Shergold-Weir report – Building Confidence. It probably doesn’t cover many of the issues leading to the current woes of the industry, but it’s a good place to start. It perhaps idealistically hoped for coordinated action across the nine state and federal jurisdictions, but events such as the Opal Tower have the opposite effect – states moving quickly with different legislation to be seen to be doing something.

What can we, as architects, do? What can the ACA do? Here are a few ideas:

  • Commission opinion pieces about achieving quality in construction. That’s already started, with a great article from GHDWoodhead’s Michael Hegarty on Clerks of Works. Those who started in the profession with Rotring pens in the 1970s (what??) will remember them as fairly common on larger projects – independent, on-site auditors of quality. They’re almost unknown here now, but common and valued overseas. Would anyone else like to contribute to this debate?
  • Make it clear that decisions about procurement, and where possible the retention of the independence of the architect, have a demonstrable effect on quality.
  • Organise discussions around the sustainable future(s) of the profession – something well advanced in the ACA – NSW/ACT branch.
  • Get better data on the connection between the reduction in fees and the quality and scope of architectural services.
  • Understand how newer technologies and processes such as digital engineering and Lean can solve some of these issues (whilst possibly creating new issues).
  • Conduct research on the state of the profession, to understand who we are and the diversity of what we do and how we organise ourselves and our practices.
  • Undertake proper and rigorous research on the quality of documentation and its effect on fees, cost, rework and quality of construction.
  • Ensure that as employers we are complying with the rules, and at the same time providing vibrant, enjoyable workplaces.

This week marked the hundredth anniversary of the Boston Molasses Disaster – a turning point in the public’s attitude to regulation and policy governing construction. Perhaps we, as architects, have a chance a century later to help extract the construction industry from the sticky mess it has created for itself.

John Held is ACA National President, ACA – SA President, and a director of Russell & Yelland Architects.