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Can the good times last?

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Times are good and the work just keeps coming. But some architects still can't resist a little constructive worrying RESEARCH BY MIRZA & NACEY.

Who would have thought it? It's still going well. The value of new commissions in private architectural practices grew by 11 per cent between 1 January and 31 October 1999. By the third quarter of 1999, new commissions had reached a value of £22,988 million, almost 50 per cent more than in the same quarter in 1997, just two years previously.

This growth is fairly even. The only two sectors which saw a downturn were offices and 'private other'. And although everybody sees London as vastly overheated, this is one of only two regions to experience a downturn; the other was the south-west. There is a rise in work in the south-east and the north, with stability elsewhere.

And earnings are on the way up too. In the year to July 1999, the average hourly rate charged by principals went up by 10 per cent. And there are more architects in employment too. The number of fully qualified architects employed by practices went up by 14 per cent in the first three quarters of 1999; the numbers of technical staff went up by 11 per cent. And architects expect their good fortune to continue. When the survey was conducted in the last quarter of 1999, the difference between those expecting workloads to continue to rise and those expecting a fall (35 per cent are optimists; 15 per cent are pessimists; the rest expect business as usual) was the highest it has been since 1997.

But there are some undercurrents of concern. Rather like those people who worry about their personal relationships because they just seem to be going too well, but perhaps with more justification, some architects believe that good times cannot continue. Whether they have been in business long enough to remember the last boom, and the recession that succeeded it, or whether they have heeded apocalyptic warnings that the rise of it will do away with a need for architects, they believe there must be a downside to the current situation.

One practice at least that spoke to the aj is developing its strategy for recession, looking at its client base and deciding that it is not just the types of clients that matter, but where their money comes from. If all your clients are seemingly diverse, but all have their income geared to property prices, beware. The clever practice is the one that can identify the client sectors which behave in a counter-cyclical fashion and get in well with them now.

If this sounds too doom-laden when the industry is still struggling to deal with profound questions like 'what is the role of the architect today?', it shouldn't. As the lottery cycle draws to its close, as pfi goes through yet further contortions, we can be sure of one thing: that cliche of the twentieth century which states 'the only thing we can be sure of is uncertainty' will certainly carry though the twenty-first.

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