Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The Future of Architecture

Will onsite be replaced by offsite manufacture in the future?

The recent publication by Building Futures about the future of architecture is an excellent insight into the challenges facing the industry. The report paints what I believe to be an incredibly accurate and perceptive view of our future.

The premise of the document is that there may be no architecture profession by 2025, which is an interesting argument and one I feel is close to what will be the reality of the situation.

Ultimately, I believe that the RIBA will end up representing two very different types of organisation.

At one end of the spectrum, the RIBA will represent the small general practitioners which operate in local markets on one-off niche projects. At the other end of the spectrum they will represent architects internationally – large international practices which deliver high profile complex schemes around the world.

Those medium-sized architects face the future of a diminishing marketplace. Previously, these practices have been involved in large Government programmes such as BSF or P21+. They have also delivered mixed use commercial schemes for developers across the UK.

In reality, it is no longer an option for these practices to rely on the Government for work, as the marketplace and requirement for these schemes is disappearing fast. Such organisations need an ongoing growth and revenue to provide investment in training and development and to cover large overheads.

The report hints at what these practices need to do to survive. They will need to reposition themselves and do something different in the marketplace.

Their future lies in capitalising in the need for a coordinating role. The use of BIM in construction projects supports the need for a lead designer or coordinator. There is an opportunity to embrace this role however I am sure many design managers within construction businesses will attempt to take on this role for themselves.

The role of consultant engineer may also diminish as both M&E and structural sub contractors take on more and more of the technical requirement.

The medium sized practice could also look to develop products on behalf of the industry. There is an opportunity to use the design skills which architects have to produce buildings which are manufactured rather than constructed. These products can then be sold to the large contactors or direct clients. If the designers can be clever enough they could create products which depend less on constructors and more on assembly, changing the industry through an investment in innovation. Large contractors who have strong balance sheets tend not to invest in research and development and are happy to continue to deliver projects how they have always been delivered.

The final area of opportunity for these mid-range practices is on international work. Over the past 10 years many of these practices have built up a great amount of experience in designing hospitals and schools. These skills should not be wasted and can easily be exported to other parts of the world. It will mean competing on a global stage, but with the right targeted marketing there may be an opportunity to fill the gap left by the reduced spending in the UK.

There is no doubt that the prognosis for architectural practice as we know it today is not good. By 2025, the profession will be very different and many of the current medium sized practices will not exist in their current form. A number of new businesses will have been formed by the more entrepreneurial and innovative business leaders, whilst many of the others will have been absorbed by larger construction companies who have identified the need for the coordination skills which are inherent in the traditional architect.

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