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AJ100 optimism bucks gloomy output trend

The AJ100 survey shows there is a greater sense of optimism in the profession but analysts warn that construction outlook remains uncertain

Architects are increasingly optimistic about future opportunities, despite workloads remaining flat and construction output continuing to decline.

According to this year’s AJ100 survey, 72 per cent of practices expect to hire more architects in the UK in the coming year.

If their expectations are realised, about 600 architects would be added to the collective UK payroll – equivalent to a 12 per cent rise in the number of architects employed by all practices in the AJ100.

Findings from the RIBA Future Trends Survey also reveal an increasing hopefulness among the profession.

Architects’ attitudes towards future business opportunities have grown steadily more positive for four months in a row, with increased confidence reported in all UK regions, except in Northern Ireland in March. 

The profession’s optimism regarding private housing work also shot up, although expectations for the commercial and public sector remained static. The generally rosier outlook was supported by a RICS survey, which found Q1 2013 saw a 10 per cent increase in surveyors’ workloads. 

However, the predictions contrasted with official estimates released by the Office for National Statistics, which showed that the construction sector shrank 2.5 per cent in the first quarter of this year, despite small increases in services and production, which narrowly saved the economy from an unprecedented triple dip. 

RIBA director of practice Adrian Dobson also warned: ‘This increased optimism is so far not reflected in real, actual workloads [for architects], with our practices reporting that overall activity is stable but not as yet growing in year-on-year terms.’

AECOM economist David Crosthwaite said: ‘Architects’ workload is usually a good leading indicator of forthcoming construction activity. However, [this] takes some time to translate into actual construction output – hence the dichotomy.’ 

Shifting the focus away from a domestic recovery, Crosthwaite said the upbeat viewpoint was ‘more likely’ linked to overseas work than to more prospective clients inquiring about working drawings on UK schemes. 

Patrick Michell, of AJ Small projects-shortlisted Platform 5 Architects, which has taken on three new staff in the past few months, suggested architects’ response could be the ‘early sign’ of a ‘turning point’ in investors’ attitude towards the sector. 

He said: ‘There seems to be a glimmer of positivity about this year. Anecdotally I know of several practices that are hiring. We have found opportunities arising out of the recession: for example, the reduction in spending has brought contract values down to levels where we could enter the further education sector and this has now become one of our practice’s strongest areas for growth.’

Comment: the architectural landscape in a new economy

Alan Crawford, Crawford Partnership
Across the board the industry is being split between the large-scale organisations and the small-scale businesses, with the middle ground companies disappearing, unable to compete with either. The ongoing problems inherent in our planning system have undoubtedly impacted on construction programmes: try getting hold of a planning officer these days – you probably have more chance of winning the lottery.

Peter Gamble, Holder Mathias 
Faced with an uncertain outlook, it is likely that we will see shrinkage of the profession as practices are reluctant to recruit permanent staff. A generation gap is likely to appear, as it did in the 90s, as graduates can’t get the experience they need. When this is combined with the increased cost of study and the length of architectural courses, it is clear that the profession is set to become less attractive to young people.

Roger FitzGerald, ADP

The danger is that, after years struggling to find work, architects get carried away and say yes to anything and everything, and then cannot deliver. We should be extra-careful about fee levels, particularly if committing to a framework or a long-term commission, and probably better to be on a percentage fee rather than fixed lump sum. 

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