Focus on… architects
Continuing our regular feature series focusing on the most popular small business types, we take a closer look at the role of architects.
What do they do?
These are the people who design the world around us – from homes and offices to bridges, railway stations and more.
While large architect firms tend to handle huge projects like football stadiums, office blocks and regenerations of whole housing estates, those working for small to medium sized firms will more likely be dealing with one off housing projects, small offices and local public buildings like school extensions.
Roles in such firms can range from spec writers to CAD specialists.
Training as an architect is a long process. A degree in architecture will include the required industry qualifications as well, while a postgraduate course is needed to help become fully qualified.
In total, this can take 7 years.
After this, you’ll need a good few years of experience in the industry before setting up your own firm. This is because a graduate architect will only handle certain jobs. It won’t be until a few years into your career that you will have handled almost every part of designing a building.
In this time, it’s good to build a portfolio of your work. This could even involve creating some speculative projects to showcase your skills.
It’s also worth looking at which sectors you want to focus on. While you won’t necessarily focus on, say, school buildings solely, you could focus on infrastructure architecture, landscapes, or something like interior architecture or sustainable design.
Becoming a member of an industry body like RIBA is also a good way of letting future clients know you’re serious and qualified.
One of the big challenges facing architecture is the general downturn in the economy. Much of the day-to-day work of architects comes from the housebuilding industry. And with housebuilding numbers of the decline, it means there’s less work for the same number of architecture firms. This means that many developers and clients have been squeezing architects on time and resource – looking to get more for less.
Another big issue is sustainability. There has been a move to create greener, more environmentally-friendly buildings – and a lot of this starts with their design. Many architects are having to become experts in renewable power, and green building design.
A lack of talent coming into the industry due to the length and cost of courses is also an issue. A RIBA Appointments study found that 74% of employers and 82% of students feel architecture course fees are too high. This has led to something of a skills shortage.
A career in architecture can mean long, hard hours. And while it is relatively highly paid, the money often only comes in the later stages of your career – which means working long hours for little pay early on.
The very nature of the job also means that you never get complete control over a project – other aspects like the client’s needs, how the contractors interpret your design, the cost of materials, planning legislation etc., can all limit what you can do. This can become frustrating for many in the sector.
Also, the idea many people have of sitting down to design a new home or school from scratch isn’t the reality in the industry unless you’re one of the leading architects in the UK. Often, you’ll only work on a small part of the building like its ventilation system or roofing.
Finally, there’s the fact that, for whatever reason, people often put less value in ideas and concepts that solid products. So while a client can see why certain materials cost what they do, trying to explain to them why your designs and plans cost so much is often harder.
• Around 136,000 people work in the architecture sector, according to the Office for National Statistics
• The sector produced £4.33bn of Gross Value Added in 2014 – up from £3.72bn in 2013.
• 1 in 5 architectural firms’ income comes from abroad, claims the RIBA Business Benchmarking Executive Survey.
• The UK has more architectural school than anywhere else, says the Architects Journal.
• Over 3,700 students studied architecture in 2014/15 – up 8 per cent on the previous year, according to RIBA.
Case study: You don’t have to be big to be successful
Many of the success stories you’ll read about in architecture revolve around the big names. And while here are number of innovative smaller firms doing great projects in the UK, one that really catches the imagination and shows what you can do with limited resources is Spanish-based RCR Arquitectes.
Found by Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta, the firm recently won the highly coveted Pritzker Prize. The firm is based in a small town in Spain and focuses on projects that are all about locality and the natural environment.
They’ve been going since 1988 and have slowly been developing a reputation for innovative projects. But it has taken time, patience and a bit of risk.
Over the decades they’ve not only built up a portfolio of amazing projects worldwide and an international reputation, but they’ve also founded the Laboratorio Barberí to push forward research in the field, and the RCR Bunka Fundacio, a foundation to “stimulate socially the assessment of architecture and landscape, and, implicitly, arts and culture in general”.
So just because your new firm is only three people, it doesn’t mean you can’t aim for great things.