Architectural Economy

  • Building Design Expert
  • 9 years ago

“Boom and bust” is not an unfamiliar term. We have almost come to accept these cyclical events as one of those very unfortunate facts of our western economy lives. So yes, we have been in recessions before. They come, they hang around for a while, bleed us dry and then move on via some innate process of evaporation, and we are all back to fighting for the best seat again. Until now. It’s easy to say that the banks did it, because blameless they are not. But this boom ‘n’ bust’ appears to have turned into a recessional roller coaster with an automatically renewed season ticket. One minute it’s good, the next not so. Depending on your point of view, you could be cautiously optimistic and designate the bad times as behind us, or you might adopt the Bank of England Governor’s ultra conservative (small ‘c’) stance that pronounces that we are still very much in the woods, and we have only found a clearing.

The construction industry has it’s own version of boom and bust called ‘famine or feast’. The term may well apply to other industries, but we know in this one it is particularly prevalent with the SME’s. When times are good you have more work than you can you can cope with, and in those dips it’s quite possible there is no work at all. But with economic trends there is a background shuffle to the industry itself. Whilst it falls short of reinventing itself, ‘Construction’ will constantly adapt to suit the ever changing economic thread, with the advent of technology, there comes labour surpluses and indeed skills shortages. It doesn’t happen consciously, but all at once the industry rags are reporting a trend here, and a path change there, and before you know it we’re all on a new train heading east!

Architectural Design Fees
The feast, that was once gorged upon by the construction industry’s professional bodies, today looks like a plate of re-heated chicken left-overs. Corporate clients in particular started to fathom the depths that they might sink us all to a couple of decades or so ago. I remember distinctly the day when the senior partner in our practice walked out of his room into the main drawing office to announce that our best, and main-stay client had just told him the fee they were willing to pay on the next project would be four percent – approximately half of what we were used to. “That’s okay” said the project architect sarcastically “when I get to four percent, I’ll stop work”. Oh the naivety. Of course hindsight is the most wonderful of gifts, and he had no concept that he was actually trying to buck what was the start of an unbuckable trend. That was 25 yrs ago, and now we know that the trend became a popular (with the client that is), and long lasting fashion.

Not so much a trend, or fashion, but this was writing on the wall signalling that design team fee structures needed to be reinvented. The government’s office of fair trading implemented the EU Competitions Directive, forbidding all professional bodies to provide prescriptive fee scales. From the professional’s side of the fence this was just fuel for the fire that was already burning brightly.

So what about the building design professions then?

The RIBA has long led the way in the business of setting fees, and there is still unpublished and unofficial guidance to its members with regard to an accepted fee percentage, for those that require it. For the rest its ‘uphill’, survival, not of the fittest, but of those that have developed the metaphoric stomach required to continue to play in this arena.

It wasn’t too long ago that even one of our most successful starchitects was told he would not receiving an appointment because his fee was too high. So making the point that the threshold identifying superior design quality vs level of fee had been well and truly reached. There remains the “I’m not listening, la la la, la la”, culture just before they bury their head in the sand, hoping when they come up for air it will have all blown over. In fairness most have realised that it’s all here to stay, but it still doesn’t stop them bleating.

The CIAT practicing members are not immune from these fee injustices either. They are relatively new to the game, and adaptation should not be so hard, although you watch. There is still a die hard, long toothed brigade that may struggle.

Is collaboration such a difficult concept?

The CIAT started their very existence as support artists to the main act, so collaboration need not come so hard. Chartered members have seized upon their opportunity to practice on their own accounts, and whilst there is never any question of open comparison to architects there is that perception that as both disciplines prosecute a very similar trail, MCIAT is not going to come out on top of that one.

The progression of the Chartered Architectural Technologist must therefore be as a distinct profession offering something uniquely different to the Architect. Imagine a project directory that listed Architect, Structural Engineer, Chartered Architectural Technologist, Mechanical Engineer, etc. etc.

The USP of a Chartered AT is the ability to fully understand and shape the technology of building design, resolving the most appropriate detail design solution as a result. This is something the Technologist perhaps used to do as a ‘small boy’, or technician as that boy was commonly know. As he grew he went through puberty as a plain Architectural Technologist, emerging fully grown and Chartered. True, very many technologists work for architects still. The architect has the best of both worlds; they can taylor their own designs whilst the technologist picks up all the loose threads and ties them together.

So this begs the question can the Chartered AT drop building design as their main stay, and work in a harmonious partnership with the Architect as a general theme, with clear and distinct boundaries that only occasionally blur. It’s not going to happen wholesale, but as a starting point it will at least give both professions their own bubble and an opportunity to share in the Architectural Economy.

Want to know more about the current fusion of Architecture and Technology