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CABE tells minnows 'adapt or die'

CABE chief executive Jon Rouse has told small practices they must join forces if they are to compete in the current economic climate. Rouse was barracked at the RIBA Small Practice Conference held in Manchester last week when he outlined the realities the profession faces due to the government's promotion of PFI and design and build.

Rouse explained how these policies would exclude small practices. He stated that if an architect is part of a contractor's team then the immediate relationship between client and architect is broken.Another major problem cited was the high financial risk a practice faced even before a consortium reached preferred bidder status. And the increased packaging of schemes was proving a major difficulty as it put projects out of the reach of small practices.

Rouse told the AJ: 'CABE has always stated that we are for architecture, not architects. However, we also know that a disproportionate amount of design innovation within the industry is generated by smaller practices. So if we want good architecture, we need a healthy mix of Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) practices working with the public sector.' He added that, inevitably, there would be rationalisation within the profession and some practices will go out of business.

However, he said that there were potential solutions: 'Increasingly, we will see greater partnerships between larger and smaller practices within the same consortium, mixing and managing creativity and management skills and resources.' He added that CABE will encourage smaller practices to join together into loose clusters to compete for packaged projects or to exchange experience.

Rouse added that he also saw a role for small practices as advisors to public sector clients, bolstering the client's design skills-base and guiding them through the procurement process. It is understood that CABE is urging government to give more consideration to the role of small practices in the PFI system in a bid to encourage and retain diversity.

Elspeth Clements, vice-president for small practices, said: 'This is a major concern.A number of good practices could well go to the wall, yet many sectors of government don't seem to be aware of what the effect of PFI will be on small practices.'And Jane Duncan of Amersham-based Jane Duncan Architects added that Rouse's rough ride at the conference was largely down to heightened concerns over the issue: 'Jon's views were stark, but the profession needs to not just stick its head in the sand.'

Duncan dismissed the idea of small practices banding together: 'Most of the practices that have tried that have found that they've not even been considered for projects. It's neither viable nor sensible.' Conference organiser Russell Hargreaves, senior partner at management consultant Wentworth Consulting Group, added: 'Architects have to become more commercially aware - they need more focus on profit and to face up to change'.

However, Tim Drewitt of Tim Drewitt Architects responded: 'Maybe we are dinosaurs, and now we are having to deal with a wider economic situation. But there is a difference between a professional and a businessman.We are focused on the needs of the client, not profit.' He added that many small practices would not want to become part of a consortium - 'we might as well join a large practice'.

Duncan painted a bleak picture for many practices: 'There are going to be more practices chasing the same work, and this will lead to undercutting.'

Rouse concluded: 'Public capital investment is worth £38 billion a year. Small and medium practices have no divine right to a piece of that extra pie.

They will have to change and adapt to prosper in the new climate. CABE's job, working closely with the RIBA and the DTI Small Business Service, is to carve out as much space as we can to allow this to happen.'

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