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.”