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2011: The year of a nimble profession

Christine Murray, Editor

The AJ follows the profession closely, its buildings, news and changes. In the first half of this issue, the AJ editorial team outlines key trends that have emerged in 2011, while in the following chapter we’ve invited sector experts to discuss the issues they expect will shape 2012.

It has been an eventful year, my first as editor. At the outset of 2011, I began hearing from mid-sized practices about the David and Goliath effect – the profession dividing between tiny start-up practices and the mega-multidisciplinaries. The start-ups published in our new practices column, many born out of redundancies, have survived on a steady diet of extensions and retrofits, with demand driven by a housing market still in the doldrums, and clients keen to improve, rather than move. But small project architects have often complained of fees too low to support the endless hours of work required. I’ve written more than one editorial on why small projects and the original fee scales don’t mix (fixed fees, retainers or hourly rates all make more business sense when a project has a total build cost under £250,000).

As for the mega-firms, they spent the first half of the year conglomerating, acquiring and gobbling up any work going, large or small – a phenomenon Deborah Saunt of DSSHA called the ‘Tescofication’ of the profession, referring to the supermarket giant’s move to compete with tiny high-street newsagents and shops. 

The biggies and the smalls were hoovering up all the work between them, leaving mid-sized practices befuddled.Why were the big guys interested in jobs they would otherwise have considered petty? We got our answer by the close of the year. Mega-practices were undercutting on fees to scoop up the dwindling pool of work to feed their huge overheads. Without major building programmes to bankroll practices (such as BSF, academies, hospitals, etc), and given the unpredictable cash-flow from overseas jobs (Austin-Smith:Lord wasn’t the only practice struggling to get money out of Abu Dhabi) practices that survived the recession relatively unscathed were scaled back. Recent headlines have shown how lucrative overseas work is often risky business.

A leaner, meaner, more nimble profession is emerging from the recession, with a shape more familiar to pre-boom practitioners, comprised of myriad design-focused smaller firms with niche expertise or a local base of work, furthered by word-of-mouth and neighbourhood networking. Except an architect’s ‘neighbourhood’ is now more global, and a practice with as few as 12 staff can deliver any scale of project, anywhere in the world.

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