Opinion

Let's seize the moment to drive change

26 August 2016

John McRae, equity director of architect ORMS, wants less of the 'we're all doomed' scenario and more focus on using Brexit to catalyse improvement.

John McRae

As we finally come to terms with our historic decision to leave the EU, I want to explore three changes (of which there are plenty more) that could help the UK construction and architecture communities post-Brexit.

In the commercial and residential sectors it was clear pre-Brexit that fundamental change is needed as construction costs and rents continued to rocket and delivering housing that is affordable seems to be beyond our reach.

With the initial shock (and, to an extent, grief) of the result receding and the reality of its outcome starting to manifest, I must confess that I have enjoyed the more open debate that has challenged the status quo, seeing Brexit as a positive catalyst for change and not just focusing on the “we’re all doomed” scenario.

The sentiment from a recent post-Brexit debate hosted in my studio is that this is an exciting opportunity to be bold in our vision of Great Britain as a standalone country and if ever there was a chance for change then seize the moment. So what changes would I like to see?

Direct labour and apprenticeships 

The chairman of a leading residential developer recently advised the NLA Awards audience that at least 60% of his workforce was from the EU (which is probably similar to London architectural practices) and that he still couldn’t get enough people on his sites.

If this is the case and migration becomes more tightly controlled then how would we meet the skills shortage that is already apparent? How will this affect construction cost, which continues to defy underlying inflation?

Perhaps tighter restrictions in employing EU and non EU migrants will encourage contractors to directly employ and train their own skilled workforce to deliver some elements of construction; a welcome return to a contractor being a builder and not merely a construction manager.

I hope this would reduce the “overhead upon overhead” currently experienced in construction cost and also bring certainty and reduced risk to developers. And what about architecture?

Architect as an 'expert generalist'

In my practice we have 17 different nationalities and the bringing together of diverse cultures, technical knowledge and vision contributes to our success as a practice and ensures we are pushing boundaries. It is our belief that while we are in a world which is obsessed with specialists and specialisms, it is time for architects to claim the “expert generalist” role.

Architects need to be all-rounders in both their experience of construction but also of our wider societal needs, so we can provide long-term solutions. The profession needs to now position itself to be at the forefront of adding social (alongside financial) value to projects.

Long-term investment and solutions

The short-term investment culture (which doesn’t include the top developers, I hasten to add) that we have experienced over the past 5-10 years that strives for quick, risk-free projects delivered with certainty has led to more complex contractual arrangements that have put the entire onus onto the contractor which in turn has led to inflated contingencies within construction cost to cover their exposure.

The role of the architect has been marginalised as the building is often diluted during the key financial negotiations, as a balance between profit margin and risk is agreed. However, is post-Brexit an opportunity to press the reset button?

It would be great to see a return to much simpler forms of contract where a client retains elements of risk throughout the project, employs a design team to design the building thoroughly and procures a contractor to deliver the building as designed. It sounds simple and obvious but it would be great to deliver longer life buildings for longer term investors in a truly collaborative manner.

Our historic decision to leave the EU is a positive catalyst to fundamentally challenge the way in which we design, procure and construct our buildings and I would welcome discussion on how we as an industry can inform the government’s views on the challenges ahead.

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