Brand building necessity for Australian architectural firms

First published in New Zealand Herald 2 July 2015

Not too long ago, professional services firms were like the poor cousins of product and retail firms when it came to effective and strategic marketing.

We’ve come a long way since desk pads and yellow pages ads amounted to marketing strategy. Many in the professional services industry are themselves a benchmark in great brand management (think how valuable the McKinsey name is).

One pocket of professional services that’s in a state of change in Australia is the architectural practice.

Few mainstream, small to mid-sized firms have the good fortune of a “Starchitect” on their team, so differentiation is a major challenge. After all, the image of the visionary design leader pushing boundaries and sparking great discussion in wider society is a possibility for a small minority of architects only.

For the rest, it’s too often a race to the lowest quote. Pace and output have increased rapidly and the architect now has multiple roles as sub contractor, partner to developers and builders, and increasingly in competition with the international Starchitect, who is invited with more frequency to lead iconic Australian projects.

While a growing number of architects opt to go into development or client-side – a culture change that some feel enables collaboration and partnerships – others believe this is a blow to the very essence of what an architect is.

In Australia, the last 20 years has seen the rise of project management and new contractor-led procurement agreements, which has led the fragmentation of professional practice. Modelling, computational design and generative software to design and produce buildings has completely shifted the way architects work.

Developers too feel the pressure and need to change business models to survive. They face funding difficulties and consolidation as smaller players disappear from the market. Where once they may have led a project, substantial pressure from clients and end users is leading to concessions just to get projects off the ground.

More often is the case that lines are blurring between architect and developer, no longer just the stereotyped visionary versus the commercial realist. More architects are crossing the line, working for clients and developers, driving change from within.

Nowadays, to get a building off the ground there’s a strong element of marketability as well as ‘buildability’. One developer architect I spoke with said while there’s compromise in how design fits in, there’s even less joy in having a fictitious project that never gets built.

For many firms, knowing how to position themselves is a real factor. It’s not enough to have the architectural capabilities, but commercial acumen and stakeholder engagement is a necessity. It seems that architecture needs to be a commercial discipline.

Developers have told me they look at the real estate and then straight at the back end: who’s buying it, who’s leasing it.

From the client side, trade offs and pressure can come from government regulations within industries. For example, in aged care, industry supply and demand is fixed by the government. From the number of beds a facility has, to the number of dollars they can charge per bed.

In many cases, when architects are invited to pitch, the business case has already been made and a particular price point set. The service model then informs the design, the functionality and the maintainability, so architectural teams selected are those that have all bases covered: the pragmatist, the dreamer and the manager.

From my view as an architectural outsider, I’ve often come across this word ‘pragmatic’ as a quality that developers and clients insist on from their architectural partners. I’ve also found it can be a word architects lament.

Personally, I’m torn between how truly great architecture can be challenging, but also everlasting and emotionally powerful; versus the commercial reality that drives and distils those grand visions.

I don’t think mid-tier architectural firms with unknown architects or lack of signature style can grow in the current market. Without a clear point of difference and commercial acumen they, like many companies with non-distinct positioning, will be replaced by niche or big-brand firms.

The next five to ten years will certainly be interesting times for the industry. The general consensus is that at least for now and perhaps the foreseeable future, the pendulum favours the client and the market over the architect and the developer.

If the developer needs to have a vision of land and its use, the architect the creative wares to be able to document that and maximise its potential, the end result of a property is now very much determined by whether it makes a profit.

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