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Architects are 'making hay while the sun shines'

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Adrian Dobson unpicks the figures behind the RIBA’s latest Future Trends Workload Index, which is the most positive in the survey’s six-year history

Launched in January 2009 to monitor business and employment trends affecting the architects, the RIBA Future Trends survey invites participating practices to give monthly predictions for overall workload and staffing levels over the next quarter. The balance figure used in the RIBA Future Trends Workload Index is the difference between those expecting more work and those expecting less.

In June 2015, The RIBA Future Trends Workload Index increased to an all-time high of +44, up from +37 in May 2015. In terms of geographical analysis, all nations and regions in the UK returned positive balance figures, indicating that this optimistic sentiment about future workloads is  widespread, with the Midlands and East Anglia (balance figure +51) being the most confident about the next quarter. Similarly when the data is analysed in terms of practice size, all size categories of practice are upbeat about work prospects. For small practices (1-10 staff) the balance figure is +42, medium-sized practices (11-50 staff) returned a balance figure of +47 and large practices (51+ staff) a balance figure of +71. 

The overall picture is of a profession that is feeling pretty confident about its work pipeline and beginning to feel the invigorating effects of a sustained period of real growth.

The private housing sector workload forecast jumped up this month, to +39 in June 2015 from +34 in May 2015, and private housing continues to be the primary driver of growth in demand for architects’ services. Also on the rise was the public sector workload forecast, up slightly to +2 in June 2015, and the community sector forecast continued its recent positive trajectory moving to +5. Although both the public sector and community sector forecasts are now in positive territory, our practices are not predicting a very significant increase in activity in these sectors over the coming quarter. The commercial sector workload forecast fell back very slightly to +19 in June 2015, down from +21 in May 2015, and office and leisure buildings in particular remain an important area of growth.

Mirroring the workload figures, the RIBA Future Trends Staffing Index also reached a record high this month, standing at +20 in June 2015, up from +16 in May 2015. The employment market for salaried architects is very positive, with 98% of our practices stating that their staffing levels will either increase or stay the same over the next few months. Small practices (1-10 staff) with a balance figure this month of +18 and medium-sized practices (11-50 staff) with a balance figure of +26 remain confident about increasing their staffing levels, but it is large practices (51+ staff) with balance figure of +43 that appear to be the best hunting ground for architects seeking a career development move.

There has been much speculation as to why consistent growth in turnover and a rapidly improving employment market for architects has not really yet fed through into significant pay increases for salaried architects, something which is broadly reflected in the general employment market and leading to headlines of the ‘Britain needs a pay rise’ ilk. Partly this is probably due to fee levels that were depressed during the recession taking some time to fully recover, but also we believe a function of the significant amount of spare capacity retained within the profession during those difficult years. However, this month just 9% of our respondents reported that they had personally been under-employed, the lowest figure we have recorded since the RIBA Future Trends survey began in 2009. This can be considered a proxy measure for the amount of spare capacity or slack within the firms in our survey, and suggests that we are moving rapidly towards a situation where the profession is again working nearer to full capacity, and perhaps an indication that we may soon begin to see some skills shortages, especially in niche sectors and with regard to BIM skill sets.

Anecdotal commentary received suggests that many practices have a rapidly filling order book and the overall sense is of a profession that is busier than it has been for a long time.  There of course remain many macro-economic factors and uncertainties that might impact dramatically upon the financial fortunes of the architectural profession, but with all our key indicators now standing at new peaks, this summer does appear to be an opportunity to make hay while the sun shines.

Adrian Dobson is pirector of practice at the RIBA and the author of 21 Things You Won’t Learn in Architecture School

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Readers' comments (3)

  • Would it be possible to publish in more details the Region by Region so that we can make a comparison please?
    Omitting BIM and Revit Experts, and technicians, there was only one job advertised for an architect in the Yorkshire Region on the AJ website last week.

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  • What makes you think fee levels will 'fully recover'? Has there been a fundamental change in attitude in clients towards what they regard as VFM? I have yet to see any evidence that a recovering economy can address the fundamental structural problem in fee decline. The signs of fee decrease started in 2006 - long before the recession...
    The underlying issues will only be masked by an increase in workload. Profitability issues will increase the chances of cashflow problems surely? I think this is a bit of 'spin' by RIBA.
    Put another way you could say:
    "The time to mend the roof is when the sun is shining" JFKennedy.

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  • What there does seem to be happening is a growing divide between the south and the north. There are architectural schools up and down the country, and many of these students remain in the cities where they were trained - however, jobs outside London and the South East seem almost impossible to find. The current BD job website shows 3 jobs for architects in Yorkshire, and most of the other areas north of London are showing single figures only (and only 1 in the NE) except for the NW which as 14. In contrast greater London has 386, and the South East 423. The numbers of architects' vacancies must surely correlate between what's being built in these areas (very little apart from university buildings and student housing) I can understand why the architects in the south have rising confidence levels - but not the north surely? Please correct me if I am wrong.

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