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THE BRAIN DRAIN

AGENDA

The drawing boards are empty.

Tumbleweed blows past dusty scale models in the reception.

Robust Details lies unread and untouched. The office whippet has long since made a break for it. This is the North.

Yes, there's trouble outside the cosy confines of the capital.

A building boom combined with the lure of trendy London has left northern architectural practices struggling to fill their staff vacancies.

Firms are crying out for quality architects but there is nobody left to hear them.

A slight exaggeration, of course. But there is no doubt that practices in Yorkshire, the North East and the North West are having serious problems recruiting staff.

Take Huddersfield-based practice Above and Beyond.

Founded in 1999 by Andrew Stoddart, the practice quickly increased in size to 14 staff. But, as Stoddart explains, trying to get hold of top-notch designers to maintain this growth is becoming increasingly tricky.

He said: 'It is a real struggle for us to get staff who have the level of experience to expand our team.

'We are finding it particularly tough at the moment. It's certainly become more difficult than it was 18 months ago.

'I think we do suffer from being in Huddersfield a little, ' he added.

Above and Beyond's experiences will come as no surprise to many firms. It is a miserable tale that is being repeated at practices across the North and there is no immediate end in sight Stoddart said: 'We have been looking for six months to get two positions filled.

Back in June we ran our own recruitment campaign in which we only got two CVs - and they were both from overseas students.

'It is a big concern and we don't think our demands are particularly onerous.' The greatest fear for Stoddart is that the lack of available talent will put a stranglehold on the company's future aspirations.

He said: 'Recruitment problems ultimately have an impact on the practice. If I can't assemble a team it will stifle our own growth and we will miss the opportunity to develop.

It effectively keeps us still.' So where are all the architects? Simon Barker, who heads up recruitment for Chetwood Associates' office in Leeds, has a good idea.

'There is a draw to London which is creating something like a brain drain, ' he said. 'I'm not sure if enough people are aware of the opportunities across the country, and therefore wrongly think it is all happening for architecture in London.' Having worked in the capital for 11 years, Barker knows the bright lights and the hype will always attract the top designers to the capital.

However, he feels architects have become blinkered due, in part, to the attitutes of the press.

Which includes the AJ. . .

'This perception that everything is happening in London is linked to the media, ' he said. 'There is a Londoncentred focus which doesn't really reflect how much is happening elsewhere.

'But it isn't just the media that is responsible. Outside London, the RIBA and architects need to promote an awareness of architecture.' Barker is not alone in demanding that practices make more of an effort. Even Gordon Carey of Leeds and Newcastle-based giant Carey Jones admits that firms should be more 'proactive' in getting the message through, especially to graduates, that the quality of architecture in the North is on the up.

But it may not be that easy. Daniel Jary of Sauce Architecture in Sheffield, who also teaches at Sheffield University, said: 'The, probably accurate, perception among students graduating from universities in Sheffield is that local practices do not have the design sensibility to match their aspirations.

'Sadly, many local practices seem to believe that the students' expectations are unrealistic, and that design quality comes some way down the list of priorities.

'This is a view which tends to be supported by local developers, who continue to build lowest common denominator architecture.

The occasional exceptions to this rule generally use London architectural practices.' According to Jary this is an issue that will not be solved overnight and, in the meantime, students will hunt for practices that value their abilities as designers, rather than just as CAD-skilled drawing machines.

This is a sad situation for Sheffield, a city which is turning out some of the country's more capable graduates.

There is some good news, however. It has emerged this week that the RIBA has launched an initiative to tackle general recruitment issues west of the Pennines.

Paul Chappell, manager of RIBA Appointments, speaking from Portland Place, said: 'We will be providing a new service to the North West.

'In addition to what we are doing already, we will be working as a normal recruitment agency.

'If it works out, there is the possibility we could set up an office there.' Yet, despite the Institute's best intentions, the move will not solve the deep-rooted problem on its own.

Even Chappell admits 95 per cent of his friends from Nottingham University have ended up in the capital.

Until perceptions change, it will be difficult to stop graduates flooding down to London to ply their trade at the 'hip' design-led practices.

You only have to look at the numbers of architects from across the UK drinking in the cool bars of Clerkenwell to realise that won't happen soon.

Is that a whippet walking up Farringdon Road?

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