Uncertainty around Brexit gave architecture business leaders the jitters in 2016, but look a bit deeper and there are signs of resilience, writes Emily Booth
What a difference a day makes. On the morning of 8 June most predictions pointed to a Tory landslide, or at least a comfortable win. Come 9 June and, well, we all know the story: a resurgent left, a hung parliament and a zombie PM. Whatever your political persuasion (and according to the AJ’s online poll 64 per cent of you planned to vote Labour) we are living in turbulent political times – and, from a business point of view, that is likely to mean hesitant markets.
In our AJ100 survey, the annual bellwether of the profession, it is uncertainty – chiefly around Brexit – that gives architecture business leaders the jitters. Confidence levels have fallen 9 percentage points on last year’s survey. Year-on-year, UK fee income has fallen, albeit slightly. The number of qualified architects in the UK – on which our rankings of the largest 100 UK practices are based – has risen, but by a mere 42 individuals. Pay is largely stagnant.
The survey snapshot portrays a profession treading water, rather than surging forward. However, look a bit deeper and there are signs of the resilience and creativity architecture is known for. Asked about recruitment or contraction plans for 2017, all but 10 of the AJ100 practices say they expect to grow in the UK. And the AJ100 survey – analysed once more by Bruce Tether, professor of innovation management and strategy at Alliance Manchester Business School – shows that practices which charge the highest fees place greater weight on creativity, while those charging the lowest fees give it the least weight. (Profit margin tends to be relatively more important among those charging low fees.) If creativity and the ability to think laterally are key markers of the profession, it is encouraging to see a clear link between creative ingenuity and sensible fees.
In a time of uncertainty, when the instinct is to hunker down and adopt a holding position, creative – and business – opportunities can emerge. After the surprise general election result, Brexit may yet turn out to be of a ‘softer’ variety than the ‘hard’ break that seemed to be in prospect. This is important for those AJ100 practices operating abroad, the majority of which are either working, or seeking work, in the EU. And it is important for company culture and skills, with so many practices employing colleagues from overseas.
But in terms of gender and ethnic diversity the survey paints a disappointing picture. The AJ100 practices have employed 5 per cent more women architects this year compared with last, but this is a smaller increase than in previous years. And the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic architects employed has fallen by a substantial 10 per cent (77 architects) since the previous year. If the profession is to flourish and grow against the prevailing background of change, it must make the most of all the talented people within it. The alternative is to decline and decay – to the detriment of all.