While change is nothing new, the architecture profession in Australia is now facing what some consider to be unprecedented levels of disruption in its business model.

This is happening on a number of fronts. Technology such as SketchUp and myHouse allow almost anybody to design houses using 3D modelling.

Much of the design development and contract administration work will increasingly be done using tools such as tools such as Revit, with large parts of the latter being handled offshore, AusIndustry Entrepreneur Development business adviser David Schloeffel told an Australian Institute of Architects conferece late last year. Tools such as Building Information Modelling are revolutionising the building design process.

Furthermore, other industries are increasingly trying to muscle in on traditional architecture turf. Increasingly vertically integrated firms in the spaces of engineering, contract building and building services are going after project management work, as are specialist project managers. Building designers and graphic designers are increasingly trying to muscle in on the action in design concept.

Clients, too, are increasingly shifting preference toward vertically integrated service providers, industry research firm IBIS World says. The environment is fragmenting, becoming more commoditised in some areas and being increasingly impacted by technology.

All this raises questions as to what defines the role of the modern architect as well as how architecture firms can ensure they remain integral to the design and building process and can adapt their business strategies to adjust to the modern reality. Such questions are set to be among a number of topics discussed at next month’s Risk Architecture Conference being held by the AIA.

AIA president David Karotkin said technology was impacting architectural practice not just in terms of what is going into buildings but more importantly, in terms of how the design and building process is being performed. On the former point, increasing use of building automation systems in areas such as lighting and air-conditioning mean the modern architect now needs not only a general understanding of how mechanical and electrical systems work but also how technology systems work as well.

AIA President David Karotkin

AIA president David Karotkin

On the latter front, BIM is bringing in a number of benefits but is creating another area where firms have to invest in financial resources and staff time in terms of software and training. BIM is also impacting client perceptions about what they need to pay for. Many now believe you can specify aspects of buildings and simply put it in the BIM model without realising that the process of creating and maintaining the model is not always straightforward and needs to be carefully managed. Finally, BIM is encouraging greater boldness in designs which bring with them greater levels of project risk.

In terms of competition from other professions, Karotkin said clients are increasingly opting to involve more specialists in increasingly complex projects. He stressed, however, that architects remain the best people to be at the core of the project, and that the challenge was to help clients understand their unique value in this area.

He said that while project managers, for instance, can handle things like cost management and scheduling, they are not able to deliver a holistic vision and coordinate various project inputs to deliver an integrated design solution.

“Really what architects need to promote and what we continue to do but we need to make people understand is that we are still the node, the point at which if you are going to have lots of input or not much input, it still needs to come through that central filter which is the architect,” Karotkin said.

“It’s the architect that is the great generalist you need for a project. That’s ultimately been the role of the architect forever, bringing all of the different parts and parties in putting a project together. We bring that together and we are like a conductor in an orchestra.”

When it comes to how businesses can best adapt to the changing environment, Karotkin said an effective strategy for smaller firms was to look for niche areas in which they could develop specialist expertise and compete on the basis of that. At the larger end, top tier firms are able to compete by having a broad range of people, each of whom possess specialist expertise, while life for medium sized firms was getting more challenging.

“For a long time, people have been saying get small or get big – if you are stuck in the middle, you are going to die,” Karotkin said. “People are still saying that.”

Finally, Karotkin lamented the increasing numbers of contract builders leading projects. He said architects were motivated not just by their direct responsibility to the client but also a broader sense of contribution to society as a whole.

“A contractor’s perception of value is different from that of an architect, whose professional approach is very much to focus on what is delivering the best possible outcome for our client,” Karotkin said.

“And we strive to create designs that are going to deliver those benefits for many years to come and also as a profession, we see not just the client as paying the bill but the good of the whole community. We have that kind of responsibility in our DNA.

“Maybe in the case of the contractors, without being critical, that is not their focus.”