Architecture firms throughout Australia are getting busier as the nation’s economy and building sector moves into recovery, the latest survey has found.

The Association of Consulting Architects (ACA) has published preliminary findings from its latest survey involving responses from 366 design and architecture practices.

Of the 330 firms who responded to a question about current workload, almost two thirds (65 precent) said they were either moderately busy or very busy.

This is almost three times the 22 percent whose practices are either quiet or very quiet.

Meanwhile, more than a quarter of all firms now have more than six months’ worth of work on their books.

By contrast, only twelve percent need more work right now.

Additional comments from responding firms reflect mostly positive experiences.

Whilst some firms talk of ‘zero pulse’, others talk of ‘momentum building’ and ‘working at 225 percent capacity’.

On firm described the broader construction market as being in ‘complete overdrive’.

(Source: ACA Pulse Check 5 – findings, May 2021)

Benefits are flowing through into hiring activity and improvements in firms’ financial positions.

On the first issue, improving conditions are leading to more hiring, fewer reductions in work hours and fewer redundancies.

All up, more than half (175) of the 329 practices who responded to a question about hiring have taken on new staff over the past year.

The 175 practices who have hired have taken on 313 new staff. This includes 58 students, 105 graduates, 81 mid-career practitioners, 58 experienced practitioners and 11 people in other roles.

Whilst 73 percent of practices accessed JobKeeper, meanwhile, only 6 percent have reduced staff numbers since the program’s end.

Meanwhile, of those firms surveyed, the number who currently have measures in place such as reduced work hours, reduced pay, employee standdowns and forced redundancies stands at 22, 11, 4 and 5 respectively. This is well below the 67, 35, 30 and 21 firms who have used such measures at some time during the past year.

(Source: ACA Pulse Check 5 – findings, May 2021)

In terms of financial position, 32 percent of firms acknowledge that their financial position has deteriorated since the beginning of the pandemic but 39 percent say their finances are now in better shape compared with pre-pandemic levels.

Furthermore, more than 60 percent expect their firm’s financial position to be better off in twelve months’ time compared with today.

(Source: ACA Pulse Check 5 – findings, May 2021)

Largely speaking, the stronger conditions reflect a broader strengthening in the building market which has been driven by measures such as HomeBuilder and government investment in social housing.

Whilst conditions in commercial and multi-residential building have softened, the number of new dwellings being approved in detached residential construction has been running at record levels.

In response, practices have shifted their focus.

Among those surveyed, the number of firms operating in the private single residential market has grown from 220 before the pandemic to 228 now. The number of practices operating in social housing has also risen from 64 to 72.

Conversely, the number of firms operating in the multi-residential, commercial (office), retail, aged care and hospitality sectors has fallen since the start of the pandemic from 132, 153, 68, 58 and 56 respectively to 124, 142, 51, 42 and 45.

(Source: ACA Pulse Check 5 – findings, May 2021)

In other survey responses:

  • Almost six in ten practices (59 percent) expected at least one staff member to perform some form of remote work over the coming week (note: this survey was taken before the latest Victorian COVID cluster). On the flip side, 14 percent had all staff working remotely.
  • More than four in ten practices (41 percent) altered work practices during the pandemic.
  • Both during the pandemic and now, the most common changes to work arrangements involved more flexible working arrangements. As noted above, the number of practices which are reducing work hours, reducing pay, standing down staff and implementing forced redundancies has fallen (see above).
  • Three quarters of firms say the wellbeing of their people is either good or very good. Encouragingly, the number of firms who say wellbeing overall is better or much better compared with at the start of the pandemic (39 percent) outweighs the number of firms who say it is worse or much worse (17 percent) by more than two to one.
  • Almost six in ten firms (59 percent) say there are positive lessons learned during the pandemic that will be brought forward.
  • Common changes to ongoing work arrangements include greater use of online meetings and collaboration (75 percent of practices), more flexibility on where work is performed (65 percent), more flexibility on when work is completed (43 percent), reduced travel time for work (39 percent) and increased communication from leaders and management (31 percent).

The survey is the fifth in a series which the ACA has taken during the pandemic.

The surveys aim to help the organisation to better understand COVID’s impact on its members over time along with how to best support members through advocacy and services.

Despite overall levels of optimism, concern about market conditions remain.

Some practices feel the market has become overheated and complain of a shortage of materials such as timber.

Others say the number of projects which have been put on hold makes it difficult to make plans regarding resources and cash flow more than one or two months in advance.

Finally, firms talk of ongoing pressure on fees and frustration about difficulty in turning higher levels of activity profitable growth.

“There are too many tenders and the architectural fees are still too competitive and not sustainable,” one respondent said.

Said another:

“We’re submitting proposals but a there is fee pressure even with ‘COVID pricing.’”