Understanding the business of architecture
Jeremy Melvin, 17 September 2020
One discussion stream at V-WAF, in the first week of December, will focus on the smooth and successful running of practices, writes Jeremy Melvin.
There is no reason why a talented individual architect should not also have a superb head for business, but the common aversion to it is unfortunate. Any practice needs one or more people who like and understand business, who may or may not also focus on design, or client relations, or production information, or any combination of the myriad tasks which architects have to undertake. In large practices these people may have developed considerable business expertise, and this may itself lead to fee-earning opportunities. Having an understanding of the relationship between business and architecture may be extremely useful in recognising how to best serve a client’s needs.
As a profession, architecture has long had an ambiguous relationship to business. In the 19th century, when architects achieved professional status, loosely analogous to their peers in law, medicine or the clergy, being a professional was to achieve social superiority above business people. Professionals were not meant – though many did – to engage with the grubbiness of money or negotiation over it. Professionals’ superior knowledge and moral code was meant to lift them above such prosaic concerns. This was what the mandatory fee scale, whose elimination is still lamented in some parts of the profession, was meant to recognise.
The problem now is that professional status counts for less than it did; architects have to sink or swim in the world of business. The thinking behind our decision to develop a WAF business stream is not that all architects should necessarily engage with it, though we hope it will interest and inform those who do. What we are seeking to do is to touch on some of the most important commercial challenges that practices face, partly to share ideas about how to deal with them, but beyond that to suggest how architecture can thrive in a world where business thinking dominates how clients make decisions. We may also touch on whether architectural thinking – centred around design – could help to shape concepts of how to undertake business more broadly. Can architecture rise up the decision-making chain, ultimately to help overcome at least some of the challenges facing the profession, especially those that stem from low and cut- throat fees?
In this we take a cue from late American post-modernist, Charles Moore. In his essay ‘Eleven Agonies and one Euphoria’, he outlined the ‘agonies’ which include the apparent irrelevance of architecture (given that only 5 to10 per cent of buildings are designed by architects), low fees, the profession’s exclusivity and lack of power. All can be trumped by the single ‘euphoria’, ‘that combination of research and understanding and intuition and improvisation that tries out solutions to problems in too many unknowns to be susceptible of solutions by disciplines based on logic or words’.
This will sound familiar to almost any architect who has insight into design as an activity. But Moore goes on to explain how and why it may be an aid in addressing some of the profession’s inequities. ‘If we can loose the agonies attending our professional hang-ups about revolution, relevance, ineffectiveness, hierarchy, advocacy, isolation and certification, we will have left in our province one of the key tools for the solution of the world: design’.
In other words, Moore sets out a schema whereby design can be the focus of the business of architecture because of its extraordinary potential. It might be able to come level with management consultancy in adding value to client activities, whether commercial or not, and be as effective in avoiding pitfalls and setting an operating context as lawyers. Few architects would turn down the opportunity to charge similar levels of fees. This, in short, is a possible way out of the vale of sorrows in which architecture finds itself.
Our programme will have five main components: winning work; delivering work up to planning consent; post-planning phases including construction and the often neglected monitoring of buildings in use; insurance – looking especially at the problems around professional indemnity insurance; and how to attract, retain and motivate the best possible workforce. We will consider how each can contribute to making a practice a more stimulating, enjoyable and rewarding place to work, how these issues overlap, and most importantly, how a practice can focus on what it really has to offer to the wider world.
What we hope will emerge, through lively discussion and feedback, is an insight into how and where architecture fits into the contemporary world – not just the immediate headlines issues such as those around Covid, but also how it can place itself in the world of contemporary business thinking. Following Moore, we believe this can and should be focussed around design as a practical discipline rather than the occasion for virtue-signalling.
A note from the past: in the UK, architects conducted a decades-long debate between the 1890s and the 1930s over whether architecture should be considered as a profession or an art. Despite almost all the big names, from Norman Shaw to Lethaby and Reginald Blomfield, it was the ‘professionals’ who triumphed in the 1930s. During that decade, legislation came into force that required architects to ‘register’, which meant proving their credentials, generally through approved courses of study. The ageing survivors of the 1890s, like Lutyens, Baker and Voysey regretted this, but what was now a registered profession was able first to serve the country’s national effort during World War II, and then to reap the rewards as the post-war Welfare State opened the floodgates to vast amounts of building work.
That world, marked by the Bretton Woods economic settlement and Fabian confidence in the educated classes providing provide top-down solutions to everything, has vanished. A new reality has taken its place. But to assume that there is no way of resetting the relationship between architecture and society, with design as ‘one of the key tools for the world’ is both tempting and rings true. We hope to initiate a conversation about how this could happen.