Wednesday, 23 March 2011

What a Difference a Year Makes...

Michael Gove was the keynote speaker at The Spectator's "The Schools Revolution One Year On" conference

I recently attended the Spectator Conference in London entitled ‘The Schools Revolution one year on’.

This event was held last year in advance of the General Election, and what was interesting this year was the number of teachers and educationalists at the conference and the lack of architects and construction people, despite the fact that The Spectator is a big advocate of Free Schools and Toby Young is on their payroll…

From the line up at this event, with Michael Gove delivering the keynote address, David Laws bringing the Lib Dems’ point of view to the table and Lord Adonis and Tim Byles attending, it was clear that it was supported by like-minded people who are in general in support of the Free Schools movement.

Michael Gove came across well, and I was surprised that he does have a sense of humour. He focused on three key areas as priorities, these being accountability, independence and teaching. He talked very little about new buildings or IT. It seems he is wedded to the private school model and is hoping to encourage schools to take this approach across the curriculum with the introduction of an English baccalaureate.

It felt like a very one-sided conference, supporting academies and free schools. Many of the arguments were valid, and I was encouraged by the focus on improving teaching and a zero tolerance policy of poorly performing teachers, however I still maintain the big difference between state schools and private schools is the commitment of the parents and not the ability of the children.

It is clear that the Government’s focus is no longer on buildings and the statement from Tim Byles was that buildings had to no longer be inspirational, but fit for purpose. This does seem to be setting the bar fairly low and I think that it is a missed opportunity.

What we have to do in our industry is to deliver inspirational learning spaces within the parameters which we have been set, and which this conference reinforces. Only time will tell if the new approach is a success, but so much has changed in the past year, and I am intrigued to see where the schools agenda will be this time next year.

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.