Expanding our role is the only way out of the problem of an over- supplied market
A horribly hushed silence greeted my claim at last week's archaos conference that our profession is suffering from a chronic over-supply of 'architects'.
Some, of course, challenged the notion, claiming that we are in a boom period, with many offices over-stretched. That may be so, but those offices are drawing cheap labour from a saturated market.
If I am wrong on that, I asked, why are salaried architects' wages often so abysmally low? And why are their conditions of employment so shameful?
Think about it! Long hours, no overtime pay, poor holidays, poor job security and lousy benefits. And that's before we contemplate the miserable and largely dishonest tax-evading practice of employing through so-called 'self-employed' contracts (or should I say 'non-contracts').
I pointed out to the archaos delegates that 22 year-old history graduates join law or accountancy firms to begin training on salaries of up to £24,000 per annum. After three years they can then expect a salary of at least £33,000 within a well-structured career offering good benefits (car, health insurance and pension scheme) and the security of paye employment conditions.
archaos delegates responded angrily by reporting cases - even now in this post-depression era - where year-out architects are paid as little as £5000 per annum. At a basic 37.5 hour week (and whose hours are that short?) that racks back to £2.56 per hour.
Sadly, we in this noble profession of architecture seem today to be willing to tolerate levels of pay for our younger staff at 20 per cent below the minimum wage.
What can be done about this disgraceful situation? Well, I suggested that oversupply can be dealt with either by reducing the numbers entering the profession or by expanding their opportunities - something, somewhere has to give!
But restricting numbers can only work by limiting entry into colleges. Protectionism of this kind is, however, unacceptable in a democratic free-market economy: there is simply no way that any form of centralised control can prevent colleges offering courses in architecture, or students taking them. Furthermore, the architectural profession only 'enjoys' the protection of 'title' - unlike law and medicine where non-registered persons are effectively barred by statute from practicing. So there is no restriction on unqualified people providing architectural services to offices, or indeed direct to clients if they wish. And anyway, predicting future demand is impracticable - it takes at least seven years to train an architect - how can we anticipate the work supply in 2008?
No, what is needed is a firm drive to expand our profession's role within the construction industry. Too high a proportion of building work is undertaken without architects - a trend that must be reversed - and then, because our sphere of involvement in those buildings which we do design has been increasingly marginalised, we must expand our role within projects where we are appointed.
Finally, we must expand into new sectors, for example, specialisms such as project and construction management, facilities and estates management, planning and development control. To do this we should look at the need for specialisation.
To achieve this expansion our clients must be confident that we are willing and able to service their needs in the widest sense. Design - our pre- eminent skill - is not enough. Can we, and will we, deliver projects safely and competitively in terms of programme and cost management? And will our buildings perform effectively and reliably?
Our reputation in these areas has, not always fairly, taken a real bashing in recent years - a bashing that has been to the evident delight of some in our sister professions whose expanding interests have threatened our livelihoods and damaged architecture.
It's time to fight back, and in doing so we must produce graduates who are better trained and focused in areas that can and will complement their design skills. The archaos students know that - but do their teachers?