Architecture’s future: Tomorrow’s forecast from a captain of the construction industry

Architecture’s future: Tomorrow’s forecast from a captain of the construction industry

Jim Service, a trusted adviser to the Federal Government on construction policy and a dynamic industry player, has been forecasting serious shifts of the business, with further bitter pills promised for architects unless they get their acts together. Here’s the 21st century as he’s gazing into it.

Not long ago, the Council of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects generously invited me to lunch. They were aware that I had been publicly critical about the performance of architects and wanted to debate issues I’d raised. That was a courtesy that I appreciate.

From the generally interesting discussion, however, one councillor’s comment bothered me: “we have heard most of this before.” My inevitable answer to that has to be: “why then is the profession not responding?”

For forty years at least, architects have seen their area of professional reach steadily eroded. Consequences include a painful fall-off in job opportunities and fee earnings. Why has this happened?

* Widespread lack of understanding that the major client base has changed from private owners to professional fund managers.

* Adoption of impressive CAD systems but negligible application of IT to management and to the contractor and client interfaces.

* Regular failure to insist on proper client briefings – and the average client does a rotten job in describing their objectives.

* Miserable quality control – all too many architects are high on art but where is function, buildability and cost control?

* Serious misdirection of certain elements of architectural training.

The real heart of the problem is attitudinal. There are too many architects whose private views can be cruelly paraphrased as “give us your money and we’ll find creative ways to waste it.” The public face of this attitude is seen when architects give awards to other architects for plainly non-functional projects, and the defence by some architects of the indefensible.

For these reasons, architects are less often treated by the upper levels of government and private enterprise with the respect that they should deserve. Architecture should be the top of the tree in the construction industry; not one of its half-dead branches.

Architects should be and can be the driving forces of construction creativity and innovation. And how we manage the creation of the future built environment – and the use of what we already have – is going to be greatly influenced by what happens to the practice of architecture.

The profession can reform or it can wither on the vine to be one of many handmaidens.

My prediction is reform. It may be quite slow and it will certainly be painful.

Recent figures suggest that there are less than 5000 architectural practices in Australia – and they only average five employees each.

In striking contrast to engineering, where the top five firms do nearly one-third of the non-residential work, the top five architectural firms are responsible for little more than one-fifteenth of non-residential practice.

That must be headed for significant change if architects are to resume their rightful place of leading construction teams.

There will be more large firms, and the large firms will undertake a larger proportion of the available work. The character of the large firms will change as they accelerate the already visible tendency to develop in-house specialist cells (health, education, retail, urban design and so on).

Large firms have the very real advantage of being able to devote serious resources to internal management, IT, marketing, quality control and, critically, people management. Also, they are well able to work internationally – as some already do successfully. Much of tomorrow’s action will be outside Australia.

Perhaps most significantly, the large firms will return to providing properly competent project management services – operating independently of design divisions. At least in the next decade or two, they may do that mainly by merging with existing project managers. But if architectural training responds by creating separate talent streams – as market demand will hopefully force – then project management will again be integral to architectural practice, as it successfully was for centuries.

Does this mean the death of the small practice? I think not.

There will be a continuing demand for the design of small projects – which the small firm can often do better and more economically than larger offices. More than that, I foresee frequent alliances between the small and the big. The small practice is frequently excellent at originating an innovative design vision and the big has a resource base to convert that vision to a functioning building. Alliances are happening already and will multiply.

So much for the practice of architecture. What about the future of the built environment?

The first point to make in any guessing game about the future is that it is not wise to extrapolate existing trends. History tells us that no trend is immutable and eternal. The only constant is change, and change is often abrupt and dramatic.

In the century just ended, the built environment has been fundamentally altered by the motor car, the aeroplane, the elevator, air-conditioning, steel-framed construction and – how can we forget? – the computer.

But we should also remember that we still use clay bricks and concrete pretty much as the Romans did 2000 years ago.

Most importantly, we should remember that human beings are distinguished from other species by being highly social, highly aggressive and highly sexed. Those traits are enormously persistent and will impact on the future built environment more than any unknowable technology. The impact of these human traits will be on what we build more than how we build it.

From that background, I now move to short and long term predictions. I am not too fussed about the long term, as I won’t be here to check, but the short term may catch me.

What is the single influence which outweighs all others in telling us what It has to be population growth. In my lifetime, the population of Australia has more than doubled and we are just a small part of a world people explosion. may happen

As I wrote a few paragraphs back, humans are highly sexed, With rapidly improved health care and limited or nil contraception in much of the world, we risk over-running the planet like a vast locust plague. Predictions as to when and how our population will peak vary wildly, and this is not the place to debate the huge moral dilemmas involved. What we do know is that — barring a nuclear or disease catastrophe (neither of which is unthinkable) — there will be a great many more people in the world before most of today’s young architects have finished practising.

The consequence is that the total new volume of needed built environment is going to be very large — but will we be able to afford to meet the need? By afford, I don’t mean just in the pieces of paper we call money but in terms of the real resources of materials, energy, water and so on.

My best prediction is that on a world basis, for the next fifty years or so, it will be a huge struggle but in the fifty years after that, a rapid decline in births will allow some catch-up. For Australia, which is the direct interest for most of us, the picture is a bit different.

In relative terms, our economy has been in decline since Federation. At the beginning of the century, we were generally counted, per capita, as the wealthiest nation on earth. Whilst the statistics are always debateable, we are now probably nearer twentieth. Many signs suggest that decline may go on. However, we are likely to be able to afford to meet our new built environment needs for a long time to come. I write that in the context of an expectation that population growth in Australia will be quite low.

There are at least three important caveats about that expectation:

* The pressure for high migrant intake — driven in some quarters by rampant self-interest and in others by vote buying — will succeed.

* Our over-populated neighbours will succumb to envy of our favourable state.

* The political competition to be seen to be green — by attacking the symptoms of environmental problems not the root causes will result in immense damage to our economic efficiency.

What does all that add up to for Australian architects?

* There will be a reasonable volume of new work, of which a significant, and I think growing, proportion will be re-use of existing stock.

* The total volume of work, at least in the next few decades, will average less per year than it has in the last few decades.

* Successful practices will broaden their range of skills — and many that do not will disappear.

* Practices wanting real growth will become truly global — and some will take their base off-shore.

* The years of economic stability that we have recently enjoyed probably don’t have long to go. My guess is that a painful economic shock is quite close, but, like all before, it will pass. I do not have space to discuss them but here are my pointers as to where the rest of the industry might go:

* Clients, like architects, will, generally become bigger — and will be more sophisticated purchasers. Frequently the result will be better briefing and a more intelligent value-for-money approach to fees. Clients will more often seek one-stop shops but equally more often employ professional client representatives.

* Big builders will attract a rising proportion of work (perhaps excluding residential) — but with strong balance sheets and small labour forces. Their appetite for risk, and capacity to take it, will grow and they will become increasingly pro-active in project creation and funding. Architects and builders will more often work directly together. Middle-sized builders will be squeezed hard.

* Labour will play a more constructive role but in return for tangible and sizeable performance rewards.

* The big engineering firms may use their considerable market power to seriously compete for architectural work and the leadership of the design team. Engineering work may grow faster and with more innovation than architecture.

* Newish disciplines — environment, heritage, landscape, contamination etc — will grow exponentially. Firms wishing to lead will offer these specialties.

* Sub-contractors may face the greatest pain and disruption. Many will fail but some will become very large. Quality of performance will finally get its due reward.

As to the way we create structures, some random thoughts are these:

Conventional Construction

In the short run, not much change. In the longer run there will be major changes in the organisation of the construction process through two influences — the genuinely intelligent use of computers for interface with designers and sub-contractors, and for all work scheduling, plus the growth of off-site fabrication.

This will demand a much higher standard of documentation and fundamental change in the way designers use IT.

Materials

Probably some dramatic changes but over a very long period. Major improvements in glass technology. Possible use of recyclable plastics, maybe even structurally. Breakthroughs in the durability and ease of application of decorative finishes (e.g. paints).

Services

Advances in technology and fire engineering will radically alter air-conditioning systems. New computer designs and wireless technology will reduce cabling problems and heat loads, etc.

Building management will be more automated. Security challenges will greatly increase, affecting not just security systems but basic building design (including open space design). There will be a presently unknowable but fundamentally different technology for lighting.

I suspect most of the imaginable — and unimaginable — technology is a fair way over the horizon but I do not doubt that architects just beginning practice will finally be designing structures that are technically enormously different from those they conceive today.

What will they be designing?

Transport and Travel

Renewed emphasis on railways (not necessarily wheel on rail) and shipping — so more ports and stations. The need for airports may be approaching its peak but massive reconstruction will result from new technology. Within the century, space ports — not just for people but conceivably for the import of resources. By the end of the century, our love affair with the car will be dying. Business travel demand will fall as video conferencing technology approaches virtual reality, Tourism as we know it may also become mostly virtual reality trips. That has huge implications for the hotel industry — perhaps hotel conversion will be a great opportunity for future architects.

Energy

Some fundamentally new way of drawing energy from the sun (redirected from space stations?) will be invented. In the meantime, energy production will be much more localised and big structures will largely produce their own. Windfarms, tidal power, etc., will remain marginal.

Water

Recycling will become a major issue and, in the long run, mandatory — more building space for plant. How do we deal with that in building re-use? Dam construction will be a dying art.

Retail

Shopping centres will become largely entertainment and eating centres — meeting the human social drive — and display cases for goods largely sold via cyberspace. The corollary will be growth in warehousing and delivery functions. Security issues will impact heavily on the design of shopping/social centres. Many sporting facilities will be co-located with these centres — not least to rationalise transport. Also, the demand for particular sports will change as the population ages.

Education

Demand for schools and universities will fall substantially — due both to low birth rates and the growth of distance learning.

Health

An ageing population will dramatically increase the need for hospitals and clinics. In the long term, government’s role will be much reduced and many health facility clients will be in the private sector.

Housing

Social instability, low birth rates and the ageing population will further drive radical changes in housing preferences. A comparative fall in ownership and many more renters is likely — and the big investment institutions will return to housing. Ease of communication, via electronics, combined with new transport technologies will finally lead to satellite cities, halting the unmanageable growth of at least Sydney and Melbourne.

Offices

With the continued increase of services as a proportion of total economic activity, one might see new and re-used office buildings as a major growth element in the built environment. But will electronics, work at home, hot desking and other influences change that? In total I predict that the social drive will remain the most powerful determinant. We will still have offices but they will be smaller, on average, and more diversely located. By the end of the century, the skyscraper will be a dinosaur.

Public Buildings

More galleries, museums, concert halls and the like will be built and increasingly they will be co-located with shopping/entertainment centres. However, we will not see many more Parliament Houses — by the end of the century what we inaccurately call democracy will have collapsed under its own weight. The nation state will head towards its end, replaced by distant international governance anbd active participatory control at a very local level. For that to succeed, a critical need will be an education revolution, for which I fervently pray.

Final words:

The development of the built environment has been and is one of the greatest of all civilising influences. Architects have been in the past and should be now the prime drivers of that great human achievement.

This essay has been tailored for Architecture Australia from a keynote address to the ‘Beyond 2000’ seminar arranged by Australian Pacific Projects for its key building industry contacts in Sydney late last year.

Jim Service is the principal of J.G. Service a property consulting and project management company with offices in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. He also chairs the Construction Industry Summit.

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