• 30th January 2017

The Future of Architecture After Brexit

Seven months after Britain voted out, firmer details of what the UK’s post Brexit priorities will be are starting to become clearer.

The architectural industry continues to look with interest, and some trepidation, on how things will look beyond 2019. Of particular interest is how leaving the EU will impact currently-employed overseas-born staff, and ongoing opportunities in recruiting the best people from our European neighbours.

What will a hard Brexit mean for the industry’s already skill-short markets?

In summary: depending on the severity of visa constraints, Brexit could prove a real issue for the future of architecture, unless changes are made.

Of course London is not the only capital city, but undoubtedly is the architectural hub. It is a proudly multicultural city with over 1,000 architectural practices operating within the M25. Freedom of movement has enabled the industry to fulfil staffing numbers to complete high-quality projects globally and continue to uphold the UK’s reputation as being the best architects in the world.

In 2016, 42% of candidates we placed here at Stride in job roles were non-UK EU nationals. On average, around 30% of individuals currently employed in London architecture practices are non-EU nationals. To potentially lose those people will have a massive impact, not just for those who have made London their home but those who employ them too. Quite simply the RIBA will need to put forth a case to the government demonstrating the importance to the industry of ongoing migration of staff from the EU nations we currently rely on heavily.

It seems unlikely that those EU nationals currently working in the UK will be told to go home but we are now in unchartered waters, so it would be unwise to eliminate that possibility. Since the referendum it has become clear that hearts and minds need to be influenced. Several of our candidates – talented Architects and Technologists – have opted to leave the UK immediately out of choice, having started to feel unwelcome in the country they thought of as home.

When it comes to recruitment and resourcing projects effectively, naturally it would be foolish to rely purely on overseas qualified staff. At present to become an Architect in the UK, it famously takes 7 years of training, including a degree, masters and diploma. 7 years of course being the timeframe it also takes to become a fully qualified Doctor, but with significant differences in initial wages and lifetime earnings potential.

Until 1998, as a UK citizen completing your degree was a fee-free exercise with living grants widely available, making a university education an easy decision from a financial perspective. In 2017, we are on the verge of degree costs increasing to £9,250 per year. This leads a prospective architect to incur debts of £60k+ in order to qualify, with likelihood of salaries topping out at c£50,000 in their career, unless of course they achieve directorship.

In addition, referring to the industry hub once more, with the average London property costing £580,000, buying a property on current architectural wages is becoming almost impossible. These combined factors will have an impact upon getting the next generation of architect in the same numbers, as we lose those who retire.

If skills continue to become harder to find, the cost of recruiting for these people will inevitably increase as the capitalist fundamentals of supply and demand apply.

This will have a huge knock-on effect, particularly upon smaller practices and start-ups which could lead to them having to turn work away and subsequently fail.

Where there is a problem look for a solution

In perceived adversity there is opportunity, and now is the time for the industry to act through proactivity. Wage inflation in architecture is notoriously low and an area the industry itself needs to improve.

In 2005, a newly qualified Part II could expect a starting salary of £23k, in 2016 only £26k, an increase of only £3k 11 years later. A newly qualified Architect would earn £31k (2005), now around £34k – growth figures of around 1% per annum in a period where overall inflation has been 33%, so there is a significant fall in spending power. At Project Architect and Senior Architect level, there are Architects out there who are earning less today than they were ten years ago, unthinkable in most industries.

Since the 2008 recession, fee levels have been static, with practices undercutting to secure often-unprofitable business. An initiative is needed from the RIBA to encourage studios to negotiate fees more aggressively, placing more value on the services provided. This will require an end to the practice of studios racing to the bottom price, undercutting one another or even working for free in the hope of securing projects. A commercially-aware approach can help practices increase profits, wages and attract more people into the industry.

The weak pound is a further challenge at the moment when it comes to importing materials for construction. That same weak pound however makes using UK Architects increasingly cheap for overseas clients, whether in the EU, Middle East or the Americas. There has never been a better time for active business development in overseas markets, and the promotion of the prestige and creative flair of UK Architects to design projects abroad.

Another key focus in the industry, that the ARB/ RIBA will need to consider, is the qualification route to become an Architect. Can it continue on its current heavily-academic, long-winded and highly-expensive qualification path? I have friends who have completed their degree and opted not to continue their qualifications any further, preferring to move into contractor roles, technical routes or interior design rather than face several more years of study and the incurred costs.

What next?

Here at Stride we recruit for some of the best architectural practices in the world. The Directors I have spoken to all tell me the same thing:

“The UK architectural industry is at a crossroads
but it has faced major challenges before
and always come out strongly.”

UK architecture has benefitted and gained huge value from an EU workforce; the key at this time is to not only actively lobby the government of the need to keep architecture as a priority need for proposed future EU visas. As a collective, we need to look to the future and how to continue to attract people into the industry, making the great profession of architecture not just aspirational, but a realistic goal for the mainstream.

Architecture is a profession of great skill, creativity and, above all, passion. It should not be sold at the lowest possible price but valued, and only the industry can do this.

We have so many great architects here in the UK so while the country voted for closing of the borders, we must look not just locally but globally to sell, for fresh ideas and to recruit the best talent available.

Right now is the time to try something different, make the most of this prompt for change and start planning to maximise the potential of the future. As Albert Einstein famously said,

“If you always do what you’ve always done,
you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

 

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