Roundtable: A pulse check during the COVID-19 recession
As the longer-term implications of the pandemic begin to become apparent, Linda Cheng brings together six members of the profession from across the country to find out how they are faring, and what they see as the opportunities for architects and their collaborators in a post-COVID world.
The COVID-19 pandemic could be the biggest global disruption in generations, and its effects are not limited to health and the economy.
Its long tail could have implications for many areas of the built environment.
The profession is at a crossroads, a transformational moment that could lead to a rethink of both its model of practice and how to remake the world. This roundtable seeks to explore how architects can not only survive but pivot to play a vital role in a post-pandemic world.
Linda Cheng: The architecture profession stands on a precarious ledge just now, as clients abandon their projects and the government wage subsidy – which is supporting the incomes of as many as 60 percent of architects – starts to taper off. Are we in a temporary pause or at the edge of a cliff?
Jon Clements: Certainly, we [Jackson Clements Burrows Architects] have been hit pretty hard by COVID-19. Some of the decisions we made were based on our experience of dealing with previous downturns. This downturn is different.
But we’ve learned that you need to respond pretty quickly, otherwise the financial impacts are longer lasting and deeper cutting.
We applied for Job Keeper and, fortunately, we received it. Based on our assessments, we were about 40 percent down on our revenue this year compared to last year. That’s not unusual in the current environment – it’s fairly common for practices around our (medium to large) scale. But Job Keeper really is holding off the impact of that decline in revenue.
Peter Raisbeck: In the ACA [Association of Consulting Architects] survey that we did in late August, 67 percent of respondents were from small practices. From a small-practice perspective, some people will fall off the cliff, if they were already marginal in terms of their revenues and profits. But I’m not sure if everyone’s going to. My gut feeling is that we might see somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of practices changing their model or ceasing to practice or doing things differently – particularly practices of less than five people.
LC: Kate, you’re in Western Australia, which is a lucky state in terms of how it got control of its COVID-19 situation. What are you experiencing over there?
Kate FitzGerald: Lucky is in the eye of the beholder! Small practices in WA have had an ecosystem of economic downturn since 2015.
Having said that, we were, before COVID-19 hit, coming out of that. And having a lot of people not able to travel at the moment has been really good for a number of industries [locally].
Anecdotally, practices are feeling okay at the moment. But I think it’s important to note that had we had the same experiences as Melbourne [with extended lockdowns], I think it would have been a bloodbath for small practices in WA because we didn’t have that existing economic strength in our housing market to support us through this time.
JC: I suspect that as practices depart the critical revenue support provided by Job Keeper, we’re potentially going
to see a shedding of architects and a huge increase in lost jobs. I’ll be fascinated to see where we’ll all be in 12 or 24 months’ time, and it is going to be important to document what actually happened to the industry during this period.
LC: It’s pretty clear that additional stimulus is needed. The federal government announced in the budget a further $1 billion of low-cost finance for community housing. As we know, social housing and social infrastructure is something that people have been widely calling for in terms of government funding. Olivia, do you think that that funding will be enough, both to meet the country’s housing needs and to kickstart work in the industry?
Olivia Hyde: One billion dollars in low-cost loans is definitely a step in the right direction. What a lot of people have been lobbying for is direct investment and probably at a level significantly higher than that. But I do understand [that] in many cases, social housing and community housing is a state affair, so I think there’s a really big role that the states can play.
As to whether it will kickstart the economy, $1 billion in this whole scheme of things is a tiny amount. And there’s an opportunity here to kill two birds with one stone in kickstarting the economy and addressing this long-term structural need for increased [social] housing capacity.
There’s an incredibly important role that architects can play in lifting the quality of design for public housing. Governments leading with direct investment is a really important thing, particularly if we can lobby for the procurement of good architects with proper terms and conditions that lead to public housing that is built for purpose and for long life and sustainability.
And there’s a fantastic opportunity for architects to shift away from the obsession with the private house and move towards an obsession with public housing.
This whole period is one giant experiment. As designers, how do we capture the experimental opportunity in terms of how we live, how we use public space, where and how we work?
LC: You’ve also got a role as professor of practice at the University of Sydney. What are the kinds of things that students need to learn in order to prepare for what could be an uncertain future for a long time?
OH: Design education is a great preparation for uncertainty, regardless. Already, most of the studios across university are asking these questions, either directly or obliquely.
But it has to be about creative responses and about being nimble and all those things that design inherently gives you. Design is about asking questions. Right now, it is all questions – we’ve got no answers, really. Design has a massive role to play right now and over the next couple of years at many levels – at the detail level and at the macro level.
LC: Leanne, from a student perspective, what are some of the key skills that you’re keen to learn before stepping out into the profession?
Leanne Haidar: Definitely, there’s this broad understanding that architecture students are quite equipped to deal with ambiguity. But what we’re trying to grapple with is that perhaps this is going to be a shift, rather than just a pause.
Anecdotally, we get a lot of responses from employers saying, “Well, we just have to wait until this is over and then we’ll be able to secure something for you to get into the industry.”
[But] if this is actually a shift, then what is our place and where are we best suited and what’s the impact on our job prospects in the future?
JC: We’re potentially going to lose a generation of architects from this period. At JCB we haven’t had any secondary students in our office this year, and we usually have as many as 50 pass through our work experience program. But … everyone is dealing with so many problems at the moment that the last thing they’re likely to do is start introducing students into the office. How do you mentor them? You can’t take them out on site. You can’t walk them through the office and introduce them to your team.
COVID-19 is not an excuse, but the reality is we’re likely to see 12 months of disengagement in architecture at that level. And we’ll probably shift from the previous status of having too many architectural graduates emerging to a period of people losing some interest in this career path.
Ingrid Bakker: I totally agree. We’re going to have a gap similar to what we had in the architects who came out of university around the time of the global financial crisis in 2008. You see a gap in the associate level [now] – there’s a real skill gap and there’s not the population and the range of people who are available in that bracket. It will be interesting to see what the impact will be on the industry in 5 or 10 years’ time.
LC: A recession is not the best time to leave architecture school. Sarah, you’ve written a book about things that you didn’t learn at architecture school,1 and you run a website helping graduates bridge the gap between university and practice. What advice would you have for students who are about to graduate this year?
Sarah Lebner: It’s been a really fascinating time to be having conversations with those students and graduates who are looking to enter practice. Challenging times are often catalysts for innovation, and that’s what
I’m seeing in their approaches to finding a job. Obviously, they’re struggling to enter the industry at the moment and, as a result, a lot of them are taking time to diversify their skillset, seeking supplementary opportunities, considering what freelance skills they can offer.
My advice is to not be afraid of diversifying and seeking supplementary skills. Often, young architects are keen to run a really straight pathway to where they think they want to be. But the most diverse, interesting and rewarding careers are often built out of asking lots of questions and exploring
other alternatives and just being open to various opportunities as they present themselves.
LC: Speaking of diversifying practice, Kate, you’ve been a self-starter in many aspects of your practice.
I’m interested to know how you learnt these entrepreneurial skills and whether you think they should be part of the architectural curriculum.
KF: One hundred percent [entrepreneurial skills should be part of the curriculum]! I finished my university degree in 2010, which was just after the 2008/09 fallout. Many of my friends were handing out 40 or 50 resumes trying to get work – overseas, interstate, all throughout.
At that time, I borrowed some money from my parents and did a little project out in the country to develop my understanding of how a building goes together. From that, I ended up getting a few clients. But I also started a social enterprise with some friends and got to see the startup culture and that entire industry. We don’t hear anything about that in architecture. We talk a lot about getting jobs, but we don’t talk a lot about the next wave of directors coming through that we should be identifying really early on.
LC: The startup and fintech industries can move very fast, but architecture is traditionally a profession that is fairly slow-moving. It’s also very sensitive to economic ups and downs because it relies on commissions from clients. In this very disruptive time, how can the profession be more resilient and more able to weather the shocks?
Peter, you’ve been writing a little bit about resilience in the profession – how would you answer this question?
PR: It’s an opportunity for what I would call industry development. We do need to build resilience, and one way to do that is to put some more practice or entrepreneurial content into our courses that is integrated with design, not as a separate, plug-in thing.
The time between graduation and registration is really important. The Institute or the profession at large and all its various bodies would be well served by setting up a really decent mentoring system for the people going through at that point [of their careers].
SL: The only other thing I would add to that is to embrace more collaboration. Architects are really good at talking to other architects, [but] our education at the moment is very inward-looking and doesn’t feature a lot of true, meaty collaboration.
The key to innovating our industry is [to] look at how other industries are advancing and innovating – it’s really all about collaboration.
IB: That’s something that we’re definitely finding in our practice [at Hassell].
We’re drawing more and more on collaborations with not just other designthinking organizations, but a whole range of different organizations that can bring things like data to the table around evidence-based research.
Going forward, we’re going to need to help our clients work out what they actually need in an office. How do they create a hybrid workplace where some people will work from home and some people will work in the workplace? How do we support our health projects with the impact of increased telehealth? The technology aspect that’s come with this experiment has created a whole series of opportunities where we’re going to need not just designthinking people but people who are in technology and these other spaces [whose expertise] we can draw on to create real insight and intelligence for our clients.
OH: They need us just as much as we need them. We often undervalue ourselves as architects and designers. There’s IT architects, there’s design thinking, there’s all these different ways where what we do has been taken and tried to be understood by different industries, particularly with a view to innovation.
KF: At Whispering Smith, when the stimulus packages came out, everybody came out of the woodwork and asked us if we could do a little renovation for them. [But] we can’t service all of them. This is a perfect opportunity [for us to distribute these small projects] to firms that are more emerging than us. But there isn’t a system for us to do that.
There’s a big opportunity in the Institute and the ACA to develop a pipeline for graduates who might be interested in doing private jobs or [architects who are] in between jobs. There should be a nimble, flexible way that we can distribute work on to smaller practices. And, in the same vein, I would really like it if a medium practice could send us work that was too small for them.
LC: One of the things about the pandemic is that it really exposes the challenges that had gone unresolved before. In architecture, the problems with procurement and fee cutting have been widely spoken about. Could the pandemic be the circuit-breaker that leads to reform? Peter, you’ve written a book that characterizes architecture firms as scavengers, tribes, warlords and megafirms; you must have some ideas about how the profession can reform.
PR: This is an opportunity for architects as an industry to reset. Everyone talks about procurement, and all architects are concerned about changes in procurement and being novated and the risks that that involves.
What really worries me about this post-pandemic future is that the governments – state or federal – will spend a lot of money on infrastructure and use poor procurement methods, and we will end up with crap. I think this is a real opportunity for architects to step up into the procurement debate and push the decision-making on the part of clients, government or otherwise.
The thing that has been worrying us a bit at the ACA is that some firms might be using Job Keeper to put in low-fee bids in the hope of getting that extra work. It’s understandable that they would be that desperate, but it’s unsustainable.
LC: Olivia, you’ve said that part of your remit at the government architect’s office is to help government be a good client. What kind of advice would you be giving your government about good procurement practice?
OH: I think it is a genuine risk. One of the problems is [that] design is often seen as the gold taps and not understood as this broader system of values. The challenge for us every day, and even more so at the moment, is just making the case for good design. And good procurement is a way to deliver good design.
The challenge is to make the case that bad design is more expensive in the long run. The Office of the Victorian Government Architect made a great Government as “smart client” document2 that showed how tiny a proportion of the overall spend on a building is design fees compared to the construction and lifetime costs of maintaining it, powering it and so forth.
There’s data and analysis and research that you can put in front of government decision makers to help guide them down the right path.
LC: Jon, you were national president of the Institute and you flagged procurement as an issue in your speech at the 2015 National Architecture Awards. Have you seen any improvements in the time since?
JC: We’ve got this great divide among practitioners; [there are some] who think that novation is the end of the architect.
I certainly don’t think that’s the case.
In the last 6 to 12 months, I sense that there’s been a shift towards a better understanding of novation. The Institute of Architects has been doing a lot of work in this space, and I think there has already been some improvement – but amongst the mix, there are still some very unprofessional project managers out there.
Certainly, the Victorian government, at the time that I was national president, was starting to listen to the idea that project managers should be certified and qualified, and I hope that that is something that might occur within the next 4 or 5 years. It could happen sooner in reality, as the concept is supported by the more professional operators in this space.
That will settle things down significantly because [project managers] have an incredible amount of influence in the processes of procuring a project and delivering it, and they are generally exposed to very little risk. A lot of that risk is passed straight onto the architects.
The concept of the architect being the lead consultant is changing, and architects are doing a better job of standing up for the value of our service and what is considered acceptable or reasonable risk as a lead consultant.
IB: I have been heavily involved in that topic through the [Institute’s] Large Practice Forum. We’ve done a really great piece of work around novation and trying to demystify it. I’ve worked on some great projects where we’ve been novated, and they’ve been incredibly successful projects. I’m definitely not scared of novation; I think it can work really well. It just needs to be set up properly from the start and everybody [needs to] understand the process and see the benefits of how it can work.
PR: We do need really strong advocacy in the procurement space, and I’m going to have to disagree with Jon and Ingrid a little bit. I understand that novation works for some people, but the real point is ... that that is not the only way to procure work. The problem at the University [of Melbourne] with its capital works program is that after we did such a great job procuring the Melbourne School of Design building through novation, the university thinks every project it does should be procured through novation, and I’m not sure if that’s really good.
LC: I’d like to end with a bit of crystal ball gazing. We’ve seen throughout history that times of great disruption are followed by times of great innovation – the post-war modernist era, for example. If you could look into the future, what do you think could be the legacy of the post-COVID era for architecture?
LH: In architecture at university – in my experience, anyway – there’s a focus on how architecture has a large role to play in all other aspects of urban life. But then, in practice, where does that actually fall? It would be interesting to see whether, maybe post-COVID, students, graduates and practitioners could find other pockets where we fit and can provide value. Perhaps those theories that you get taught at architecture school actually come to fruition and get manifested in some way and potentially change architecture’s role in a whole range of ways.
IB: One of the things I hope we look back on in this period and see as an opportunity is to have really accelerated everybody’s tolerance of flexible working. We’ve proven, in a very quick period of time, that we can work flexibly. We can now use people anywhere to work on any project. That’s been a huge benefit to our business. To project that forward, I see the benefit being around also accelerating gender balance and the tolerance around different types of working arrangements for different types of people. And also for dads to be more involved with families, because they’re seeing more of their kids and a lot of them are going to want to keep doing that.
SL: I’m optimistic that the pandemic, on the back of the bushfires, will be a big factor in refocusing many people’s values, and that architects can align
to those values – we might see some wonderful change towards more demand for highly liveable sustainable, flexible and resilient housing.
KF: Potentially, there was a positive during the pandemic when we were all sitting at home thinking about things. I think that out of that moment in time, something incredible is going to happen.
There’s a lot of entrepreneurial mindset going on in architecture.
It’s a collegiate profession, and I’ve seen some immense generosity, especially here in WA. There’s something brewing out of this time that’s going to create a stronger, better profession, and I think it’s going to come from within.
There’s also pretty good signs that we’re collaborating with other professions about business and about how to be better businesses.
JC: We need to be on the front foot in terms of thinking about what will change in the built environment. We know that people have now learned to either love or hate their homes, so there’ll be significant changes in houses as they become more associated with flexible workspace.
In workplaces, you’re potentially looking at up to 50 percent shedding of occupied floor space as a result of a new way of working in the future.
So, what are architects doing about working with the owners of these buildings? How do we repurpose those buildings?
And what does the CBD mean to us in the future if it’s vacant of working space? Will serviced offices be combined with serviced apartments?
We will be looked to as a profession in 6 to 12 months’ time and asked, “What’s your stance on this and how can you help us?” With the government revitalizing the economy, architects have to revitalize the built environment and think about how we occupy vacant spaces in the future to protect the critical value of community and social activation.
PR: Design thinking is our most valuable asset. We need to innovate through architecture and to use our design-thinking skills and connect it to all the other aspects of doing business and being entrepreneurial.
We can really innovate through architecture at the universities and in the profession. Some of us will want to innovate out of architecture post-COVID, and I think that’s a good thing: we need more teachers who are architects, we need more engineers who are architects and we certainly need more politicians who are architects. The final thing I would say is [that] it would be really great to see stronger advocacy from all our different organizations that represent the different professions.
OH: There’s been an explosion of interest and appreciation in public spaces. Libraries are an interesting precedent here. In a time when we don’t really need libraries because any information or book that we seek can be downloaded straight into our living rooms, we’ve seen a renaissance in beautiful libraries being built all over the place and people flocking to them. They’ve become the new community centres and hearts of the neighbourhoods.
It would be lovely to see our town centres and cities evolve as a place you go not because you have to go there for work, but rather because it’s a wonderful place with activities and opportunities for people to gather.
That would be supplemented by a longer-term structural change to the way we work, which would be much more beneficial to people’s mental health in terms of their ability to balance things.
This divide between home and work has been severed with the radical transparency of us all staring into each other’s living rooms and our children, pets and grandparents interfacing with our work lives – that should really make for a permanent change to the way that we live and work. And the architectural ramifications for that are only positive and exciting ones.
— Linda Cheng is the editor of ArchitectureAU.com and holds a Bachelor of Planning and Design (Architecture) from the University of Melbourne.
1. 101 things I didn’t learn in architecture school: And wish I’d known before my first job (2019) is available at myfirstarchitecturejob.com/book.
2. Government as “smart client” is accessible at ovga.vic.gov.au/government-smart-client.