I’ve been working myself up to review the RIBA Building Futures report ‘The Future for Architects’ for ten days since it was launched. For me, if writing a blog post takes that long it is usually because there is something bugging me, and there is.
Lets start with the nitpicking.
Firstly I thought – great, someone working for the RIBA has identified the value of infographics. (see the report and you’ll see what I mean) but then, I looked at the quotes and thought – no they don’t!
With help from Cindy Frewen Weullner who quizzed me from across the pond about the facts behind the stats (via the hugely useful twitter private backchannel) I noticed juxtapositions that were incongruous.
For example, on page 23 the quotes say,
”In the 1970s 50% of architects were employed by the public sector, now less than 9% are.”
“Over 50% of the construction value of UK architects’ workload is for contractor clients.”
The first of these refers to architects EMPLOYED in the public sector, i.e. number of architects as employees within the public sector, ie in house architects departments, for example in Local Authorities.
The second statement refers to the workload of architects practices, half of which is being carried out for ‘contractor clients’ but NOT contractor employers.
Placing these two quotes next to each other on a page without any context is very confusing, misleading and unhelpful. They don’t help to explain what is going on, they don’t simplify things, they shroud them in more confusion. This is exactly the opposite of what a research report should do. In fact many serious researchers go to great lengths to try to place their report synopses beyond misinterpretation. It is hugely important for them not to be misinterpreted.
However, quite the opposite has happened with this report. It has been simplified and misunderstood wholesale. Not only has BD screamed “Change or die, RIBA tells architects” in their news coverage but I see the quotes from the report lifted out of context and shared across the internet without any detail, context or analysis.
Ok so that’s the nitpicking out of the way. Next on to the meaty bit.
Check your Sources
The first thing you should do with a research report is to look at where the information came from. In this case the information came from interviews, conducted with a group of ‘architects and designers’ a group of ‘clients’ and a group of ‘students’.
I was drawn to look at the contributors to this report when I read this paragraph from the report:
“Parts of the industry that could remain relatively stable:…
4) Traditional regional delivery driven practices
Will be judged by their ability to provide cost effective, process-driven services to lay clients who have little interest in design for its own sake.
When commissioning buildings, the vast majority of UK businesses are driven by practicality and price. These clients are not interested in ‘fancy architecture’ and are most comfortable working with local practices that are known through the local business community and where the network of connections allows for easy communications and simple solutions. The success of these practices will be dependent on the local economy, and will be driven by repeat business and word of mouth recommendations rather than openly competitive procurement. They will work as much on refurbishment projects as on new build and will provide a strong, no nonsense, local service. In some senses these practices are the most traditional of all.
Reading this, and working for what might be described as a ‘traditional, regional delivery driven practice’ I immediately wanted to know who might have identified this genre, because to say that their clients ‘are not interested in fancy architecture’ is such a sweeping, misinformed generalization, to suggest that the person who wrote it knows very little about this type of practice.
Who are They?
So here are the ‘architects and designers’ who were interviewed as part of the report:
Figures below are from the RIBA Directory of Chartered Practices(where available) or the practice website, architect numbers are from the ARB register.
Tony McGuirk – BDP (UK and international ; employs over 1200 staff; interviewee registered with ARB in London)
Sadie Morgan/Alex de Rijke – DRMM (London; 22 full time staff; 13 architects registered)
Russell Brown – Hawkins Brown (London; 81 full time staff; 36 architects registered)
Geoff Shearcroft/Daisy Froud – AOC (London; not listed in RIBA directory, 2 architects registered)
Michael Pawlyn – Exploration (London; not listed in RIBA directory, two founders, 1 architect registered)
Jason Bruges – Jason Bruges Studio (London; not listed in RIBA directory, 14 staff listed, 2 architects registered)
Steve McAdam – Fluid (London; 5 full time staff, 3 architects)
David Standford – 3D Reid (7 UK offices; ‘Over 200 individuals’; dozens of architect registered)
Andrew Shoben – Greyworld (London; a collective; no architects registered on ARB) Greyworld say about themselves “greyworld are a group of artists that create public art – usually in urban spaces.”
Alan Pert – NORD (Glasgow & Dublin; not listed in RIBA directory, 3 architects at Glasgow address)
Dominic Papa – S333 (London; 2 architects at London address)
Whilst I have huge respect for the work of some of these people, I’m afraid they really shouldn’t be considered as speaking for the profession.
Of the 11 practices interviewed (two with two interviewees), all but one has a London office and eight only have a London office. I don’t know how many practices of the approximately 6000 in the UK have a London office but it definitely isn’t anywhere near 70%.
One of the practices is definitely not an architects practice (Greyworld describe themselves as ‘a group of artists’) and of the other 10, five are not in the RIBA directory which suggests they are not chartered by the RIBA.
Another interesting observation is that five of the firms have more than 10 staff and 4 have more than 20 staff.
Compare this to the analysis we have done before of Chartered practices and we find that the size of practice is heavily weighted towards the large. In 2009 79% of Chartered architects practices were fewer than 10 staff, whereas the proportion in the Building Futures panel is more like 50%.
I appreciate that the intention is not to produce a representative sample, but the London bias in the interviewees is hugely disturbing. In particular it is disturbing because of this paragraph about “traditional regional delivery driven practices”. If I can see such little understanding in a sector I know well, what problems are there with the rest of the report?
What do all these London architects (and designers) know about that type of practice? What do they know about the ordinary, small, delivery driven practice of most architects experience?
So that’s what I think is wrong with “The Future for Architects”, but what should we do about it? How are we going to work out where the profession is really going? How can we make it go where we want it to go?
A good starting point would be to ask the right people. Rather than rely on a small group of hand picked London-centric interviewees to tell you what you already know they think, look around for a specialist or two.
Rather than a few architects and clients who have their own single experience of the profession, why not look for people who have been helping architects practices plan their future for years, people with a deep insight into the business metrics, culture and processes of architects firms.
You might want to start by reading these two articles by Guy Horton on ArchDaily. He’s spoken to a few of them, and his perspective on the future of the profession is more insightful, more revealing and ultimately more likely to be correct.
The Indicator – The Next Architecture Part 1 and Part 2