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The latest workload survey gives a mixed picture, with opinion divided over whether a downturn is on the way or not Recession or not?

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The aj/Mirza & Nacey Architects' Workload Survey, sponsored by Stannah Lifts, is a quarterly look at conditions culled from a survey of architects' offices. In existence since the 1960s, the survey derives its statistics from the responses to questionnaires sent to one in four private architectural practices in the uk. Within the aj, we will publish general figures every three months, and each quarter we will look in detail at two of the eight sectors defined in the survey: private housing; public housing; offices; retail; industrial; leisure; education; and, health.

Data refers to the contract value of work received at two stages: new commissions and production drawings. A 'new commission' is defined as starting at Stage C as listed in 'Architects Appointment'. A production drawing is taken to start at Stage E.

In the third quarter of 1998, workloads continued to rise strongly but, for the pessimists, there were some indications of a slowdown. The figures are kept up almost entirely by the second big quarterly jump in office work, which now accounts for 23 per cent of all new construction. Overall, more sectors saw a fall than a rise in work, and there was a slowdown in new commissions in the whole of southern England. The best-performing regions were the Midlands, Wales, Scotland and Ulster.

But architects are remaining confident, with just over half expecting conditions to remain stable, and a further 26 per cent expecting workloads to fall. Regionally, architects are most optimistic in London, the South- west and Wales. In the Midlands, North and South-east they are virtually evenly balanced between optimism and pessimism. The gloomiest outlook comes from architects in Ulster and Scotland, the former foreseeing little more to be gained from the 'peace dividend', the latter anticipating little extra work from devolution. Confidence levels also vary across the practice sizes, with 43 per cent of large practices expecting a downturn from spring 1999. Are they better-informed or just more pessimistic?

In the sector analyses it is interesting to observe the contrasts between new-build and refurbishment. For example, in the industrial sector the curves are in step with each other, indicating that the level of activity in the market is reflected in both types of work. In the leisure market, by contrast, new-build and refurbishment are out of synch with each other, suggesting that when money is tight for new building work, the emphasis switches to refurbishment of existing facilities.

These two sectors also show an interesting contrast in terms of the type of contract adopted. In industrial building, design and build is the dominant contract form, reflecting the relative simplicity of much of the work (shed-like structures), whereas in leisure, design and build accounts for an insignificant share of the market - this is a sector where schemes are far less reproducible.

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