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Commercial work is leading the way in 2015

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The RIBA’s Future Trends survey has documented steady and consistent growth for UK architects, led by the commercial sector, says Adrian Dobson

Adrian Dobson

Since January 2009, the RIBA has been collecting information about architectural practices’ predicted and actual workloads and staffing levels through our monthly Future Trends survey. The data has built up to give a valuable insight into the basic economic and business trends driving the profession.

The RIBA data shows just how prolonged the economic downturn was for UK architects. The aggregate value of work in progress declined rapidly in 2009 and did not begin to recover until late 2013 – an L-shaped recession.

However, for the past 18 months we have recorded steady and consistent growth in the overall workload of UK architects – currently running at around ten per cent per annum – and the outlook for 2015 continues to look positive.

It is notable from our data that this turnaround is now a UK-wide phenomenon and far from confined to London and the south of England.

We do, however, still have a mountain to climb in comparison with the heady heights of the previous decade’s construction boom, and there remains uncertainty around the future levels of public-sector capital spending after next week’s general election.

During the early phase of the recession it was the one-off housing sector, bolstered by near-zero interest rates that turned out to be the most resilient – perhaps counter-intuitively given the origins of the financial crash in the US sub-prime mortgage market.

The small practice sector generally proved to be fairly robust, while it was medium and large firms, particularly those heavily exposed to the public sector or commercial office and mixed-use schemes, that encountered the greatest challenges.

Now though, we can see growth in the commercial sector returning strongly. This is based around offices, hotels, leisure and, to a lesser extent, retail. It is the commercial sector that prompts the greatest optimism in terms of the Future Trends forecast for future workloads; while medium and larger scale practices are anticipating the greatest growth in turnover.

For salaried architects, 2015 looks like being a good year. Only two per cent of the participating practices in the RIBA Future Trends survey are forecasting that they will employ fewer staff in the next three months, and we are at last seeing aggregate staffing levels start to rise significantly.

It is notable from our data that this turnaround is now a UK-wide phenomenon

During the recession, practices did make efforts to retain staff, and this has inevitably meant that with workloads struggling to recover there has been significant spare capacity, but this is now rapidly reducing.

Fee margins remain tight for many, but there are the first early signs that market forces are beginning to take effect, and there is likely to be more capacity to expand staffing numbers and improve remuneration levels as the year progresses.

We are already witnessing high demand for BIM-literate architects with a few years of job-running experience.

A cautious optimism is returning to the architectural firmament. New design technologies, a profession that is able to attract talent, and a reassessment by many clients of the true value of design all contribute to a climate that feels more favourable to supporting architecture.

The future looks brighter, provided of course that the band of merry economists at the Bank of England can keep the low interest rate circus on the road.

  • Adrian Dobson is director of practice at the RIBA


  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • Hi Adrian

    Whilst I applaud the optimistic tone, I think it a bit much to state "2015 looks like being a good year". Given the persistent decline in the role and remuneration of the architect over a very extended period, any improvement is welcome - but there are serious structural problems in the overall model. To realise a profession that sees VFM in an expensive education there has to be a paradigm shift in the way the profession organises itself, manages its numbers and maintains standards to leverage a better standard of living. In comparison with other professions - including the media and graphic industries, architects are way, way behind.
    The focus needs to change to a more aggressive business model that rewards talent, attracts the best, brightest and most savvy. This means the slaying of a number of cows sacred to the current baby boomer and Gen X practice owners to give the Gen Y and Millennials reason to believe that progress can be made in a decidedly creaky, anachronistic training system long past its sell by date. We have to listen to the under 30 year olds to ensure relevance, otherwise they may decide they have other ideas....you alluded to something like this yourself in the film shown at the recent RIBA workshops.

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