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Architects warn of ‘dull design’ following drop in registrations from EU

Brexit europe

Architects are concerned a loss of diversity will lead to ‘boring conversations and dull design’ after the ARB recorded a 42 per cent fall in registrations from non-British EU architects since the Brexit vote

Leading practices say they fear the exodus of foreign talent will be a ‘massive loss’ to the profession after new figures revealed a dramatic drop in the number of EU registrations.

The Architects Registration Board (ARB) has recorded a 42 per cent fall in the number of EU registrations since the UK voted to exit the bloc in 2016, the AJ reported last week.

‘It’s a massive loss fuelled by inward, navel-gazing nationalism, which leads to boring conversations and dull design,’ commented Chris Boyce, founder and director of recently founded Assorted Skills + Talents.

‘We need to embrace all nationalities as so many great practices have shown in the past.’

According to newly released documents, the ARB has only processed 485 applications via the EU route between 1 January and the end of July, compared with the 846 registering during the same period in 2016.

The registration drop is mirrored in the number of EU architects applying to work in the UK, with one of the sector’s leading recruiters, Bespoke Careers, confirming it too had seen an approximate 40 per cent reduction in candidates.

‘Pre-referendum, many large and established practices reported having circa 30-40 per cent non-UK nationals in their workforce,’ said Bespoke’s associate director, Leo Pemberton.

But this is set to change. According to Pemberton, the most acute decline in applications has been from northern European countries including Scandinavia, though applicant numbers were also decreasing from Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece.

Richard Keating, director at London-based practice Orms, said while the reduction in EU workers coming to the UK had dropped across all sectors, the figures showed the impact in architecture had been much greater.

He said that for Orms, where 41 per cent of the office are from the EU, the figures were worrying. ‘This is a concern for practices such as Orms, which have enjoyed collaborating with a European pool of talent, ideas and energy that have become an integral part of our practice over recent years,’ he said.

He added that while architects from the EU were generally not considering leaving the UK, he thought their peers from home were less likely to be making a move to the UK.

He attributed this to factors including work prospects slowly improving in countries such as Greece, Spain and Portugal, a lack of clarity on the deal with Europe and nervousness about starting a career with potential instability.

PRP senior partner Manisha Patel also mentioned the three southern European countries as places where the practice had seen a decline in applicants.

‘We put this down to economic uncertainty post-Brexit and fears over job security for non-UK nationals,’ she said. ‘More recently, we have also noticed a decline in applicants from eastern European countries such as Poland and Slovakia, who are turning to France and Germany for vacancies, rather than the UK.’

But unlike Keating, Patel said PRP had also noticed ‘a degree of flight’ from European nationals making the decision to return home, or move to other EU countries.

Our EU staff feel the country has decided it doesn’t need them, so they are going home

Boyce said he had also seen a rise in staff leaving the UK. ‘The impact now is simply that our naturalised EU staff members feel that the country has decided it doesn’t need them, so they are going home,’ he said.

The RIBA has also raised concerns at the drop in EU registrations revealed by the ARB. The organisation’s chief executive, Alan Vallance said: ‘These figures show that uncertainty over Brexit is already beginning to impact the sector, risking the UK’s reputation as a beacon for international talent.’

The figures also strike a chord outside of the UK. Charlotta Holm Hildebrand, head of international affairs at Architects Sweden, said some Swedish architects were returning home. ‘Unfortunately, some [Swedish architects] do not feel welcome anymore … like second-best citizens’.

Hildebrand added that the organisation had seen a decline in Swedish practices seeking clients and work in the UK. ‘Most businesses in Sweden find Brexit a sad story as it affects long-standing relations between two countries and its citizens,’ she said.

‘We see a decline in interest in both the British as well as the US market despite a huge increase in business development abroad.’

And she said Swedish students were now reluctant to come and study in Britain without knowing the result of the ongoing Brexit negotiations.

But it is not just non-UK architects who are seeking a post-Brexit vote move, according to Nathan Smith, partner and chief commercial officer of Danish practice Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects (SHL).

Smith, who has been based in Copenhagen for eight years, said that since the referendum, SHL had seen a ‘significant increase’ in the number of applicants from the UK.

‘The profile of Copenhagen has something to do with it, as the city is liveable and design focused,’ he said. ‘But I think Brexit has also had a big impact and a lot of people are thinking let’s do it now while we still can.’

Asked about the impact an exodus of foreign talent would have on the UK, Smith said: ‘It’s going to seriously affect the industry because it is not going to be as diverse. One of the most amazing things about architecture is that all offices are microcosms of the world. London’s loss is Copenhagen’s gain.’ 


Ian Crane, of Fletcher Crane
Being based in the UK (and London) has been a big plus for recruitment and commissions. Historically we have always enjoyed being able to cast our net wide over Europe and beyond to obtain the best available talent. Movement of architects to and from the UK has always been something that allows professionals to develop and gain new cultural experiences. Having a diverse workforce has benefited our practice on many levels. Interestingly, our office has an even split of UK nationals and EU staff, and while we are confident in retaining our staff, the concern is that an uncertain future being projected by the government at home and abroad could reduce the appetite for new talent chasing positions in the UK first over other destinations.

Ali Mangera of Mangera Yvars Architects
Were a little fortunate. We’ve always had London and Barcelona offices, so both sides of the ‘Brexit divide’ are covered. Several EU architects from London have gone back to their countries since Brexit was announced – mostly because people felt insecure about being in the UK. Just after the referendum result, some of our EU staff received abuse outside the office.

After the referendum result some of our EU staff received abuse outside the office

Our Barcelona office is very international and extremely busy. This means we receive many more EU and non-EU applicants.

However, we have seen a lessening of EU applications to London. We’ve also seen a massive fall off from Erasmus applications to the UK, although we do have ties to Spanish universities which are keen to send over students.

Aside from Brexit, our offices facilitate staff spending time in London or Barcelona, which helps morale and team-building. We hope we can continue this after Brexit because it’s a good way to promote diversity and broaden experience.

Going forward, we could have issues recruiting in London and that will only lead to doing more work out of the UK, which is a pity

We need to be careful also how we position ourselves because we anticipate OJEC will be affected. It seems there is also a growing global tendency towards nationalism which will impact on the choices clients make in selecting teams. Finally, since we do a lot of work outside of the EU, we would be interested to know if the US-UK might come eventually recognise each other’s titles as this would obviously help. 


Readers' comments (4)

  • John Kellett

    Perhaps those U.K. architects who left the profession after the many recent recessions could be enticed back by salaries at a higher level than when they left. Unlikely. In the last decade architects can be more productive using BIM, perhaps salaries should reflect that fact. Importing cheaper labour from the EU etc. is not a long term policy and has already killed off a number of industries in the U.K. as those industries move abroad in pursuit of even cheaper labour. Paying good staff a decent salary, using the efficiencies of BIM to advantage, is the way forward

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  • Bruce Buckland

    John Kellett hits the nail on the head. Rather than driving down salaries by importing cheap labour, perhaps British practices could actually invest in training people more and pay them a better wage.

    Also AJ, you can't just ring up a few of your mates and present that as if it is representative of 'architects think X' or 'architects think Y'. It's deliberately misleading and bad journalism. If you want to know what architects think, do survey with a decent sample size, control for bias in the variables and present the results properly.

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  • If there is genuinely a feeling that Brexit will lead to ‘boring conversations and dull design', then you really should get out more !!
    Don't forget that the buying power of the entire EU is only 18% of the world according to the EU's own PPP figures.

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  • Bruce Buckland

    I agree with Duncan.

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