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aj 100

The fourth of our annual surveys of the UK’s largest architectural practices sees BDP taking the lead as the UK’s largest employer of architects. For the fourth time running, Foster’s is the practice most respected by its peers.

Architectural fortunes do change - not just with the market but also as a result of the direction of individual companies - as is reflected here, with some practices showing phenomenal growth. But caution is needed: practices have in the past found it remarkably difficult to estimate accurately how many architects they employ. RMJM, for instance, which has sunk from first to third position, now states it employed 104 fewer qualified architects last year than it stated at the time.

Another practice to have shown an apparently staggering change in circumstances is Foster and Partners, which misinterpreted the forms last year, and failed to list architects with a foreign qualification. That underestimate distorted other figures, giving an unrealistically high figure for average earnings per architect. As this year’s figures show, the practice is still the largest earner of architectural fees, each architect bringing in an impressive £193,373, rather more than the architects at Terry Farrell, and slightly less than those at Richard Rogers. How interesting, though, that the much lower-profile Mason Richards Partnership is actually bringing in more money per architect than any of them.

Of the practices that have shown genuine growth, Benoy has done it by steadily winning projects from an increasingly strong base, particularly in retail. Both HOK and Gensler came into the UK from the US offering the kind of services that have made them so successful there. HOK has also grown by acquisition, but Gensler is simply reaping the benefit of six years of plugging away.

As Tony Harbour, head of the UK operation put it: ‘We don’t do projects, we do relationships.’ The growth of Grimshaw’s practice is no surprise, with the number of wins of major projects it has enjoyed in the last year.

A spot health check on the profession shows that last year a practice needed 16 qualified architects to be in the AJ100; this year it is 18. Last year practices in 49th position employed 29 architects; this year 32.

Our analysis of the largest architectural practices regionally shows the continuing dominance of London. Of the 11 largest employers in the UK, 10 are based in London and the South East. The exception, Benoy, heads the table of architects in the Midlands. And Percy Thomas Partnership, which heads the Welsh table, is joint 12th on the main listing. This is a practice which has made a remarkable recovery since its financial problems of last year which at one point threatened its continued existence.

Wales is one of the regions where almost all practices are small, with only three making the main listing. The fourth on the list, Robertson Francis Partnership, has only four qualified architects, but there may be many practices with less than about a dozen architects which did not bother to respond. Even in Scotland, which has a lively architectural scene, only seven practices appear on the main list. Jenkins & Marr fails to make it by one architect, and Reiach & Hall, despite its large impact, employs only 14. Of course, both RMJM and BDP have significant presences in Scotland, and their practices there would qualify for listing in their own right if they weren’t counted in with the rest of the UK. In contrast, in Northern Ireland not a single practice makes it on to the main list.

Stride Treglown again tops the listing for the South West, with only three other practices making the listing. Of these, Feilden Clegg is the practice whose work has the highest geographical spread.

Practices such as Ellis Williams Architects, which is second on the listing for the North West, have divided loyalties, with a dynamic and growing London office handling several high-profile jobs, including or course the exciting scheme for Baltic Flour Mills in Gateshead.

Looking overseas, HOK International’s dominance of the list is not surprising, given its US origins. RMJM, which responded to the recession at the start of the decade by deliberately concentrating on overseas work, now employs 13 more architects abroad than it does at home.

Western Europe still dominates as the greatest source of overseas work but Australasia is catching up fast. Respondents also expect the market in the Middle East to grow, but anticipate a downturn in the Far East, Eastern Europe and, surprisingly, the US.

In terms of total staff employed globally, the leader is again HOK International, with 2010, followed by the multi-disciplinary BDP with 372 and RMJM with 180. Geoffrey Reid Associates, a practice which has a surprisingly low profile considering its success, employs 174 people overseas.

Questioned about the factors affecting their future and their major concerns, some architects mentioned worry about the downturn in the South East Asian economy, but others had the now familiar litany of complaints about the UK market: discounted fees, competition with non architects, concern about the next downturn in the UK economy, lack of understanding of design issues by the general public and over-reliance on speculative projects. With increasing globalisation of all businesses, an attempt to balance these problems is likely to encourage a growing proportion of those practices with sufficient talent and drive to seek an increasing share of work overseas.

This is the fourth year that the AJ has published this listing, and every year Foster & Partners has romped away with the title of most admired architectural practice. This year it has nearly one third of the votes, with Alsop & Stormer and Michael Hopkins sharing second place. Last year Richard Rogers was in third place just behind Hopkins, whereas Alsop and Stormer was only eighth. Its rise up the ratings reflects the fact that more architects have had the opportunity to see the practice’s built work, and it has been awarded a number of high-profile jobs.

Chris Wilkinson Architects, one of the successes of the past few years, makes its first appearance in these ratings, whereas Nicholas Grimshaw seems to have dropped in the esteem of its peers.

An intelligent guess would probably have allowed most readers to select the names that appear in this rating - the order and their share of the vote is somewhat more of a surprise.

Architects’ growth predictions show that there are still some optimists in the profession. Anybody looking for work would be well advised to send their CV to the practices listed on the right.

Leisure is still seen as having the greatest potential for growth, followed by retail and, close behind, offices. The graph below also indicates that there is some optimism about the housing market.

Research by Camargue Communications. Commentary by Ruth Slavid

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