Are Architects Being Valued Enough? 6

Thursday, March 31st, 2016
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In any profession, those involved must work diligently to ensure their profession maintains adequate levels of respect and value in the eyes of both the clientele and the public at large.

Nowhere is this less true than in architecture, which has seen some of its traditional areas of dominance encroached upon especially in the procurement space.

Indeed, concerns regarding members the profession being subject to unfair practices in terms of bidding for projects are growing, especially with regard to public sector clients. Australian Institute of Architects President Jon Clements recently told of a state government tender process which not only involved an unrealistic delivery program, ambitious outcomes and a potentially unrealistic budget, but also required submission of high level design concepts in response to a detailed brief along with the submission of professional fees for the project.

His frustration was evident.

“How did we get to this point?” Clements wrote in a recent article on the subject. “Why has it become the apparent norm that architects should hand over their intellectual property, along with their fees, before they win a project – only to provide an organisation with the opportunity to select the cheapest team to deliver the most fitting concept?”

Others agree that there is a problem. Melbourne University Chair of Architecture and Design Professor Donald Bates is aware of numerous examples of request for proposals which have specified response time frames as short as a couple of weeks.

This, Bates says, makes bidding difficult for smaller and medium sized firms who, unlike their larger counterparts, typically do not have the luxury of staff who are specifically dedicated to responding to EOIs and RFPs. Such firms are also unlikely to have a ready-made portfolio of similar projects drawn across multiple geographic regions and project types ready to whip out for inclusion within the proposal at short notice.

He says an especially challenging area revolves around local councils, whose projects are generally of the scope which would be ideally suited to medium sized firms but who are generally much more risk averse and cost conscious.

The result, he says, is a growing polarisation between very large and very small firms and a hollowing out of the ‘middle ground.’

“We know of numerous ones in Victoria where everybody has known that a project was going to happen for months but the government agency or some other body releases the information and then expects it back in ten days or less,” Bates said.

“So they are totally unrealistic and the only people that can really respond in those circumstances are those offices which are large enough to have separate EOI teams who do nothing all day but make submissions for projects. Those offices which are preparing EOI submissions maybe once a month are finding that suddenly, they have to drop everything to apply for something that is still a long shot because increasingly, they are going up against very large practices that have a huge breadth of experience.

“It’s got to the point where only the very large practices are able to have resources to deal with the demands of the EOIs and RFPs that go out for projects. Given the sort of irrational tendency of agencies to give them extremely short time frames without any sort of notice, it just becomes impractical for a middle size or smaller office to drop everything just to put in a submission when they might have a one in a hundred chance.

“So I think what it is doing is expanding the scale of architectural practices at the top end and reducing if not eliminating the middle ground.”

Clements says part of the problem revolves around a loss of ground to project managers, who had assumed a significant degree of control in the procurement space. He says architects needed to reaffirm their value as the lead consultant and take back some of the ground lost, and encourages those bidding for work under oppressive processes to think carefully about their costs involved and whether they really wanted to participate.

Bates says the importance of design is generally appreciated at the state level but not so much at the level of local government, where not only is the focus upon cost greater but levels of in-house expertise are often lower and project managers were generally reluctant to deviate from specified processes. He says the profession needs to raise awareness amongst project managers about opportunities to adopt alternative processes which might be less onerous and deliver better quality design selection whilst being responsive to budgets without necessarily being based purely on price. He applauds the work of the AIA, for example, in compiling guidance material to assist clients in understanding some of the critical concepts behind how to effectively run a design competition.

Should things continue as they are, Bates says, government clients could eventually see a less diverse range of options when choosing consultants.

He says that the private sector has every right to determine their own processes and criteria, but the public sector should feel some sense of obligation to at least give small to medium sized practices a chance.

“It’s not their responsibility to subsidise medium sized practices, but it is their responsibility to maintain a healthy architectural culture which can meet the needs of future architectural responses,” he said. “If you start winding down the middle ground, then you really end up with a very limited bracket of businesses that are able to respond.”

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  1. Grant Spork

    The "Horse" would appear to have bolted some time ago. The legislative change would be to ensure that anyone administering a construction or building contract be registered and have professional indemnity. Generally construction "Project Managers" at councils are rarely qualified in any construction profession and should not be tendering or administering contracts. Whether in the private sector or public the authorising person and the means and scope of their remit as a construction professional should be noted on all documentation. An upgrade to the standard terms and conditions of contracting, tenders which include fair response times and terms, would go a long way to improve outcomes. It is not only the middle ground being "Hollowed" out, it is all but the large practices. Architect's remuneration is very low, and currently does not in many cases justify the years of study and experience required to gain registration. Why has it taken 25 years for the AIA to say something, and what are the concrete proposals to shift the dial?

  2. Geoff Clark

    'Are Archtects Being Valued Enough?' – They are being valued precisely to the extent of the 'value' that they provide.

    I don't think that this is a question of tender processes, or that blaming local or state government agencies is a useful exercise. In fact, I don't think that it has anything to do with anyone other than the profession itself. What profession in their right collective mind blames other people for their own failure to provide the required services? The profession has allowed professional standards and expertise in diverse areas of architectural practice to degrade to the point where there is little 'value' left in employing an architect. 'The public' are voting with their feet. The sooner that the profession heeds this feedback and does something about it the more likely it will be that the worlds second oldest profession will survive beyond the next few years. I am tired of hearing that we need to educate the public about what we do, or raise public awareness about architecture – just do the job that is required of you, instead of pretending that no one understands your work.

    It is a free market – stop complaining that no one wants to buy your product and start looking at what you are actually trying to sell. I am an architect, 30 years practice experience, appalled at the standard of education that aspirants receive in the critical aspects of our work; the cold, hard, objective and numeric facts. Hasn't anyone noticed that it is the practical and pragmatic professions that get the work, that displace the architects?

    Architects need to be proactive, and address the real problem, and stop pointing the finger. This is all beginning with a dismal failure of the education system, at all levels, to provide an education that enables 'value' in architectural services to be provided. I am not talking about CPD – I think that we all know how worthless that is (just look at the list of approved providers) – I am talking about a secondary school and university education that fails to equip. Personally, I think that the profession needs to give very serious consideration to disassociating itself from the education system that is failing it.

    Needless to say, I am somewhat frustrated at this interminable groan and the associated failure to actively rectify the situation. I used to be proud to say that I am an architect – now… I tend to try to keep it to myself.

    Apologies if I cause offence – it needs to be said.

    • Gaven Gilmour

      While I can appreciate and understand Geoff Clarke's comments I cannot fully agree with them.
      Having managed a regional based architectural practice for the last 25 years it is a fair observation to make the image and profile of the architect has generally plummeted.
      I agree in so much as it is most likely self inflicted by the profession as a whole.
      It is very difficult in terms of time and resources for individual architects and practices to promote the profession as a whole to government agencies and the broader public. We tend to rely on the institute for this.
      It seems the major method for promoting the profession by the institute is the awards program, or this is where a lot of time and energy seem to be spent. As an American architect said at a seminar about 30 years ago " What does every architect want? ………… Recognition!" The awards program derives much of its momentum from this idea. While I understand the marketing value for the winners, one of the losers is the profession itself. The program focuses on design. It does not promote the broad spectrum of architectural services offered by the profession. And the large budget projects tend to dominate, fuelling the general perception by government agencies and the public alike, that you need a big budget to use an architect. While I am not denigrating the awards program, it may be taking away from other important work the institute could be doing, of which I am sure we could all write a very long list.

    • Greg

      Being a Manager of a multidisciplinary firm including architecture I would have to agree. It does not matter what your background, skill or capability is the fundamental of business is that you have to provide a product that people want otherwise you will fail. This goes for services to clients or for potential employees. Graduates have no capability of designing a building that can be built. The focus on beautiful pictures is too high. Small to medium firms cannot spend years creating useful employees. AIA needs to address this.
      From a client perspective architects need to focus on an area of work and deliver it brilliantly. The days of clients being happy with months and months of tweaking plans are gone. Too expensive and takes too much time.
      Just my non architect thoughts.

  3. steve r

    I can only comment to the effect that if these Public Sector jobs are too hard and risk too much then don't tender for them. Simple.
    Tender only for the private sector.
    How can you reasonably choose a design if you do not know what the design is or approximately how much it will cost.
    If enough Architects effectively go on strike, the Public Sector Tenderers will get the hint!

  4. Geoff Clark

    Gaven, I have to agree, and I know that many of the architects I associate with feel exactly the same way about the problem of an awards program, paired with little else. There is a significant risk that the program tars all architects with the same brush, like it or not. The impact of the program should be carefully considered with this in mind.