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Let the good times roll

Architects' workloads are still on the rise, with some figures approaching the all-time peaks of the late 1980s

These figures, gathered for the last quarter of 1998, indicate that architects' workloads continue to rise. Although concern is expressed nationally about the fate of certain sectors of the economy, this is not reflected in architects' commissions. Workload has grown consistently throughout 1998, with the new-commissions figure for the fourth quarter of 1998 43 per cent higher than it was for the fourth quarter of 1997. Allowing for inflation, work at the new-commissions stage had nearly reached the all-time peaks recorded in 1989/90; the later production-stage work has already exceeded the 1989/90 peak.

The four leading growth sectors this quarter are leisure, education, health and offices. Both the health and leisure sectors, however, are growing mostly in reaction to an earlier slump; there is more true growth in leisure and offices. Both these sectors are led by new-build rather than refurbishment work.

This pattern of growth is much more balanced than in the period leading to the 1998/90 boom. Initially it was housing-led, but by the end of 1998, housing work was falling back while leisure and office work were on the increase.

Mirza and Nacey's count of the number of projects over £10 million in value has risen by one third in the last six months. They say: 'We suggest that what is beginning to emerge is a shift in client confidence: personal and householder confidence is being trimmed back while commercial confidence is strengthening. This may be a function of the availability of finance; banks and other lenders may well be more anxious to lend for commercial ventures at fixed rates now in the expectation that interest rates will fall.' The researchers' comments on householder confidence align with recent reports that consumer spending is still not rising, due to fear that something nasty could be lurking round the corner.

Architects also seem to dread the future. Some would call this justifiable caution - historically every boom has been followed by a slump - but others would just see architects as natural pessimists. Whichever is the case, their diagnosis of future prospects is not rosy. Half of them expect there to be no change in their workload in the next six months, and of the remainder, as many expect a fall as a rise. Responses vary according to practice size, with the small practices more pessimistic than the large. The researchers say this is in line with their other findings. 'This appears to confirm the shift we are seeing in workloads - away from small projects for small clients undertaken by small firms of architects towards larger projects for large corporate or commercial clients, carried out by large architectural practices.'

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Regionally, workloads in England and Scotland are good, but are more subdued than in Wales and Ulster. Growth in the last quarter was greatest in Scotland, more than doubling - workload has been growing steadily there for six months. But the big success story is London, which accounts for 38 per cent of the total uk workload, and where the value of new commissions is at its highest level ever, exceeding those in 1989 (although these figures make no allowance for inflation). Work also exceeds 1989 levels in the Midlands and East Anglia.

More details are available in Construction Futures, published by Mirza & Nacey Research, price £100. For details tel 01243 551302

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