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Don't wait for the Big Society to help small practices

If competitions are scarce and the Big Society is a con, how do architects win work? Christine Murray

There is a chasmic difference between a house extension and a museum, a retrofitted home and the Neues. Yet most architects dream of starting their own practice on the back of a fledgling project, before landing a top-drawer, large-scale commission.

In his interview with the AJ and during his speech at the RIBA Gold Medal dinner, David Chipperfield spoke about the difficulty, particularly in this country, of making the jump from small-scale projects to big works.

In this regard, ‘over the last 30 years, things have not got much better,’ he said. The trouble, according to Chipperfield, is that open competitions in the UK are rare: he cited hundreds in France last year, compared to five listed with the RIBA.

In Europe, there is a culture of encouraging young talent, but as Chipperfield noted, ‘not everyone can afford to get on a plane’ and seek work abroad. And in any case, why must the best of our emerging practices leave the country to increase their portfolio of work, before being commissioned at home?

The competition system is far from ideal. Entering them is gruelling and expensive: unpaid design time, trips to the site, hours honing presentation boards and writing the accompanying text, not to mention the entry fees, and in the end, it’s a punt – the chances of winning are one in a hundred or more, the jury is often skewed and preferential treatment happens.

But I am at a loss to suggest an alternative system. Unless you have very powerful clients, or very rich friends, open competitions are currently the suggested avenue for nabbing your first big project. Indeed, we are lucky that such an egalitarian, merit-based opportunity exists – at least in an open competition, the best design can win.

I would like to think that the Big Society doctrine will provide more UK-based projects to act as stepping stones between small and medium-sized practices. Teaming up with local interest groups to build a free school or an arts centre could be a new way for small practices to tackle a larger job. But with a maximum of £400 million in the newly announced Big Society Bank, neither the money, nor the manifesto, will go far enough. 

Chipperfield pushed for the RIBA to run more competitions. What architects also need is a shift in mindset – both internally and with the public. Clients must be pushed to believe in the importance of fostering young architectural talent, and in this, architects can lead. In our building study this week, architects Graham Stirk and Susie Le Good commissioned rising practice Duggan Morris Architects to remodel their London house – an example of how supporting local practices can literally begin at home.

If you are a large practice and there are small jobs you are turning away, consider implementing a formal system of referral. There are practices out there that need your help. This kind of altruistic support has been happening in an ad-hoc way for years. It’s time to make it best practice.

Readers' comments (2)

  • John Kellett

    As a small practice I cannot afford to enter competitions, I don't have the funds or an independent income. It takes most of my waking hours to keep financially afloat after the impact of the incompetence of bankers.
    Competitions give clients the impression that design is free, PFI + BSF are prime examples. If a building is designed in full by several teams / practices, each losing team / practice has to recover costs on other jobs.
    If community groups, formed as result of Localism and The Big Society, are expecting free advice without the prospect of a commission, or for the commission to subsequently go to another practice or plan-drawer the profession has no future as a source of income.
    The way forward is a form of protection function as in other countries and professions. The government has given, or has plans to give, all sorts of job functions protection by qualification and registration, even dog walking! Surely architecture and the built environment, for humans, is more important to society than animals.

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  • Christine Murray

    Through the competition system and the localism agenda, architects do have to work hard for free in order to win more work. Is there a way to claw things back? Has anyone found another way to grow their practice?

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