Could the good times be coming to an end? Architects' workloads have reached a plateau, albeit at a level only just below the all-time peak of 1989. For two quarters they have remained steady. In 1989 the construction industry went into virtual freefall, with the level of new commissions halving in three months - and continuing to drop. Nobody is predicting that this time. There is a general acceptance that the economy is on a more stable footing, with construction no longer the whipping boy of economic regulation.
And of course there was no such thing as a plateau last time round. So at the very worst, the economic graph would be less Alpine, more Massif Central. But some of the slopes of the Massif Central are also steep enough to permit skiing ...
Still, it may not be that bad at all. Questioned at the time that these figures, which represent workload for the second quarter of 1999, were gathered, architects were still bullish. Nearly half of them (49 per cent) expected workloads to remain the same. One third expected it to rise, and only 17 per cent anticipated a fall. Confidence was highest in the North, and in Wales, which is experiencing an upsurge, as rsaw president Robert Firth told the aj last week. Part of this may be due to devolution, begging the question, why aren't we seeing a similar pattern in Scotland? The answer is probably that the Scots have had a healthier construction industry, and a greater sense of confidence for far longer, so they are not experiencing a sudden upsurge now. Hence 60 per cent of them stolidly decided that there would be no change in their fortunes.
But the feeling across the country is not one of impending decline, and while the balance of work is certainly changing (fewer blockbusters, more sensitive interventions) there is no real reason to suppose that we will tumble down the other side from our comfortable plateau.
Indeed, architecture is booming. Turnover for the quarter hit £500 million, professional staff levels have risen by 2 per cent, and even fees are rising.
But regionally, the usual seesaw conditions apply. The plateau of overall workload is actually built up from a number of peaks and troughs. Since the last quarter, the high scorers have been leisure (up 54.8 per cent), public health and private housing; losers included public education (almost disappearing with a drop of 98.7 per cent), the mysterious 'public other' (down 80.3 per cent), and retail. Yet retail is one of the areas researchers, Mirza & Nacey identify as having considerable growth potential. They describe it as 'incredibly subdued', having dropped dramatically since mid-1998. Although we know the era of the out-of-town centre has passed, the public's shopping appetite remains ravenous, and there are plenty of sad 60s schemes ripe for refurbishment. Intriguingly, despite the sharp fall in new commissions, production-drawings work has remained relatively stable.
The geographical mix is as volatile as the sectors are. Wales shot up 53.8 per cent and the North, 23.7 per cent. Both are areas where architects display high confidence. Midlands/East Anglia, London and Ulster fell just more than 10 per cent.
Offices still represent the largest single sector, although the overall volume of work has fallen slightly. With new-build dropping nearly 40 per cent, and refurbishment continuing to rise relentlessly, refurbishment now represents slightly more than half of the total workload. What may concern architects, however, is that about a third of this work is procured by the design and build route.
In the very depressed retail market, both new-build and refurbishment have taken a tumble, although again refurbishment represents more than half of the total workload. Banks still have a healthy 15 per cent share of the total retail market.
Industrial work has risen slightly, with business parks representing nearly 20 per cent of the work by value (though just about two per cent of the jobs, showing). Leisure continues its ascent in both new-build and refurbishment, with hotel work accounting for about 30 per cent of the total.
Education dipped slightly in the second quarter of this year, but since it is a seasonal of industry, this may be of little significance. Work for universities represents in all nearly 40 per cent of the total and, as high-profile completions such as Hopkins new campus for the University of Nottingham remind us, can be one of the most exciting areas of architectural work.
New commissions in health buildings are now at their highest level for two years, with new-build leading the boom. Much of this may be PFI projects finally feeding through. In terms of percentage of jobs, GP surgeries still represent nearly a quarter of the total, although their relatively small size means they are only half of this by value.