By its nature, the architecture profession is about good design and attracts many who have a passion for creativity.
Aside from this, however, there are important commercial aspects associated with running a practice which is successful from a financial perspective.
According to some commentators, this had led to a cultural divide which is inhibiting the ability of both individual practices and the profession as a whole to deliver optimal client outcomes. On his "Surviving the Design Studio" blog, for example, Dr Peter Raisbeck, a senior lecturer at the Melbourne School of Design at the University of Melbourne, talks of this being a factor in the practice of architecture ‘going down the gurgler’ and becoming commoditised.
In an interview, Raisbeck said the problems lie on both sides. On one hand, there were ‘suits’ who focus largely on practice management and might be strong in areas such as computing, construction, contracts or project management but lack basic understanding and appreciation when it comes to design. Conversely, he said many on the creative side have become focused upon design to the point of becoming defensive when issues such as cost, value management or sensible construction techniques are raised.
This, Raisbeck says, can create problems. On the ‘suits’ side, their lack of design appreciation impacts their ability to negotiate optimal outcomes in project solutions. On the creative side, he says any resistance to thinking about sensible strategies regarding value management not only impacts the ability of designers to negotiate outcomes effectively but can restrict their ability to uncover optimal design solutions.
“I think it’s a divide that has issues on both sides,” he said.
“To begin with, business people or practice management people in architecture unfortunately to a degree have no idea about design. I think traditionally, they also only know about how to manage costs; sometimes they might be experts in technical issues such as computing, construction, project management and/or contracts. I think the problem is that they don’t know as much about design as they should.
“On the other side of the coin, we have too many architectural designers who have no idea about anything but design and are part of what I would call the ‘cult’ of architecture. I think that by being so focused on design, being so territorial about it - jumping up whenever issues of cost, value management or sensible construction techniques come into it - they are not doing themselves a favour because they are foreclosing the possibilities of design in a sense that good value management, smart management of costs or different techniques can actually really enhance a design when thought through properly.”
Other commentators agree. Clinton Cole, director of CplusC Architectural Workshop says one way in which this manifests is through architects being forced to work excessive amounts of unpaid overtime. He says much of this is culturally entrenched within the industry as deep rooted practices took hold long before issues regarding matters such as overtime were codified and as older architects who themselves grew up on the idea of unpaid overtime have similar expectations of younger ones coming through. The creativity culture, Cole feels, can be used to mask the effect of this as firms use the potential to gain recognition through awards as incentives for their designers to put in longer hours.
Courtesy of the entrenched nature, Cole says such practices are unlikely to be weeded out through anything short of an industry-wide audit. He does however, feel the work of professional associations such as the Association of Consulting Architects in conducting surveys which include questions about overtime are particularly useful in terms of raising awareness in this area.
Cole says some of the cultural divide and ‘stigma’ attached to the business side of architecture at the student level revolves around a phenomenon in which large proportions of architecture students come from families who have a professional background. Indeed, he would like to see more candidates coming into the profession from a more diverse mix of family backgrounds, including those whose background incorporates areas such as trades. As licenced builders as a well as architects, CplusC offers both architectural services and construction, and Cole believes the well-established norm of paid overtime in the construction industry has influenced his approach to overtime in the practice.
Raisbeck, meanwhile, says more could be done when it comes to education and continuing professional development (CPD). Issues such as leadership, business planning, finance, negotiation and models of innovation are not given enough weight by the Architects Accreditation Council of Australia in terms of the competency standards for accreditation, he says. When it comes to CPD as well, Raisbeck says industry bodies could be doing more to raise awareness about commercial considerations.
At a practice level, he says bridging the divide requires strong leadership and governance across the firm.
He says any failure to bridge the gap will lead to an inability to deliver optimal outcomes to clients, divisions and dysfunction across larger practices and a loss in respect for the profession.
“At the end of the day, it’s about architects being more effective in valuing, pricing and selling their own work,” Raisbeck said. “I think they need to open themselves up and be more knowledgeable about these different domains of knowledge.
“Otherwise, my fear is that architectural knowledge will be seen more and more as technical specialists who do design. More and more, the skills and knowledge that they have will be commodified. I think that’s just a recipe for extinction.”