In any business, demonstrating the value of services provided is critical, as is understanding how one’s business is performing.
In order to do this, data is critical, not only to demonstrate the value of service provided but also to measure and understand how it is performing and where it could improve.
This is no less true when we move beyond individual companies and look instead at an industry or profession as a whole. This is especially the case with architecture given current challenges to the role of the architect as trusted advisor and the pushing of the profession down the value chain.
Yet according to some, the current architecture profession in Australia is suffering from a dearth of research work and hard data about the business or commercial aspects of the profession. In a recent article published on the Association of Consulting Architects web site, for example, Association of Consulting Architects SA Chapter president John Held argued that the profession had let itself down over the past decade and a half in terms of failing to conduct appropriate levels of research about the profession and the way in which it operates.
Largely, he says, this emanates from divide between academia and the ‘practice’ of architecture – a divide Held says he would like to see bridged.
“We really dropped the ball in the last fifteen years as a profession in terms of research about architects,” he wrote. “There’s been no significant work done on the effect of documentation quality on construction costs for 17 years. It’s even longer since the CSIRO did research on fees.
“We don’t know how many architects there are in Australia, how many work in alternative roles, what happens to graduates after university, and why starting salaries are below most other professions.”
According to Held, this is creating difficulty for the profession in terms of demonstrating the value of its work within its client base. He says the ACA-SA branch is looking to address this problem via its next research project, which will involve attempting to gain access to large amounts of data held by government clients (i.e. the Department of Transport, Planning and Infrastructure) in respect of the relationship between fees, hours and construction outcomes.
“If you are going to lobby on behalf of architects to government or clients, you had better have some facts to back it up – even in this world of alternative facts,” he noted. “You want to change the type of procurement? Here’s some facts about what happens when you do.
“Want us to work for free? Here’s some facts about what happens when you do. Want to cut our fees again? Here’s some facts about what happens when you do. Want to push us downstream, rather than as a trusted advisor? Here’s the evidence.
“But it’s hard to find good evidence, because the research isn’t there.”
University of New South Wales associate professor Harry Margalit disagrees.
Margalit says he understands what Held is driving at but argues that much of the value within architecture is in fact difficult to quantify. In the residential sector, for example, placing any form of universal dollar value on the practice of architecture is difficult as architecturally designed homes will attract a premium in some of the more gentrified and up-market suburbs where appreciation of the cultural value of architecture is higher. Those same homes would be less likely to attract a premium in more price-conscious areas.
Outside of residential, Margalit says the need for architects on larger and more complex projects such as healthcare is well understood. In these types of projects, he says, the value of architects is in their ability to deliver upon the technical aspects of the building more so than in aesthetics.
As for data about the profession itself, Margalit says we already know the number of registered architects, whilst good work has been done in terms of understanding the portion of architectural graduates who go on and become registered architects. Nevertheless, Margalit questions the practical value of further information in this area. Even if it could be demonstrated that Australia had too many/too few architects, he said, it would be difficult for the profession to limit or alternatively increase this number without amending the difficulty of practice exams.
Rather, what Margalit would like to see more protected work for architects (such as requirements in SEPP 65 for apartment complexes above three stories to be designed by a registered architect) especially in other states. He would also like to see national legislation and registration, as a national registration body would be able to lobby more effectively for some work to be restricted to architects.
“I understand where he is coming from,” Margalit said, referring to Held’s concerns. “I understand that he is trying to quantify in some way the value of architecture and present its valuable in those terms.
“I think a lot of those things are very difficult to quantify.”
Held, however, says bridging the divide between academia and the broader picture of architectural practice is crucial.
“Firstly, we need to see practice and academia as a continuum, as opposed to polar opposites, because that is how it is in the real world,” Held wrote on the ACA web site. “At the same time, we need to understand who is doing the big picture thinking about the future of practice. This can only happen if you treat ‘practice’ (in all its forms) as a subject worthy of academic discourse and research.
“Our main task, therefore, is to strengthen links between academia and practice – and understand that all the different and alternative futures of the profession are reliant on this.”