Many architects have evolved into service providers for giant PFI contractor consortiums. Which means that, if they lose their jobs, they can’t fend for themselves

A couple of years ago I was having lunch with an architect chum who was desperate about all this PFI hospital work that was overspilling his in-tray. Where, he wanted to know, was he going to find 20 architects at short notice to cope with it all? When I saw him last week in the same (but now much emptier) restaurant, he was telling me how awful it was having to let 20 people go. The problem wasn’t so much choosing who they were (there were some really good people, but they just happened not to be involved in any of the jobs that had survived, so …) but rather in telling them, and dealing with the opprobrium, the climate of fear and the paperwork.

The problem faced by many architects who are made redundant by these big firms is that they’re not particularly well adapted to surviving in the real world. There is a whole army of architects out there who are brilliant at cranking out building control drawings in a manner that enables a PFI contractor to parcel out the whole job to the subcontractors building it, but who know very little about actual building. I saw someone a few months ago with a fantastic portfolio. He was about 40.

“How much site experience have you had?” I asked him.

“Site experience?” It was as if I had asked him if he were on the sex offenders’ register.

There is a whole army of architects out there who are brilliant at cranking out building control drawings for a PFI contractor but who know very little about building

When I thought about it I wasn’t really surprised. You join a smallish firm after you qualify, and help with planning drawings. Then you move up to a bigger firm where they pay you more money to help them get bigger jobs on site. However, your client is no longer a health or education authority, it is a building consortium. And they know all they need to know about building, thanks chum. So you are working for them, or them and your original client’s project manager. And that work mostly consists of providing information for them to continue the construction process.

This is not very good training for doing what architects must do, if all else fails: which is trying to work for themselves. In the first place there is the whole business of client management and the delicate pas de deux of establishing fees and arranging payment schedules. Then there is the sensitive matter of letting innocent people know just how difficult and expensive everything to do with building is.

And this is before you realise that planners like to get their rocks off by whittling away at projects that they can understand, as opposed to rubber-stamping gigantic schemes that arrive with traffic surveys and 600-page planning submissions, while N63 Putzmeister concrete pumps purr in the background. I have inherited schemes that any architect who had spent any time at the residential planning coal face would have realised were hopeless. They weren’t worth mentioning in passing, let alone turning into a detailed planning application that takes three months to prepare and costs £15,000. No, I don’t think the local amenity group (headed up by a posse of retired planning judges) is quite ready for a bit of fractal Frank Gehry slap in the middle of this 19th-century garden conservation area just yet. And when you do get consent, there is the whole matter of dealing with actual builders. Not BlackBerry-equipped chaps in suits who shout at subcontractors’ subcontractors, but chaps with shovels and hangovers, who are about to undermine the neighbour’s £3m, five-storey listed home.

It’s always interesting to see how much a carefully thought-out scheme can be butchered while managing to keep the parties involved happy

Amazingly I do have some publicly funded work, and very pleased I am to have it, although I seem to find myself further and further away from actually building the things as I have designed them. I was talking to a client the other day and asked him what had happened to a hostel project I designed about 18 months ago. “Oh they’ve nearly finished,” he replied. “Would you like to have a look?” I said I’d love to. And I probably shall, but that is just out of curiosity: it’s always interesting to see how much a carefully thought-out scheme can be butchered while managing to keep the parties involved happy.

“Did you keep the balcony?” I asked. (This operation had been made possible by carefully rejigging everything so the spandrel between the two toilet windows could be removed and a pair of french windows and a steel balcony fitted in the space made available, flooding the reception area with light and air.)

“I’m not sure if the builder did; I think he thought he could save some money by not doing it.” Translation: he wildly underpriced the job.

I may run a micro-operation compared with propping up the District Line while the foundations are dealt with, as they are doing in Cannon Street, but at least in most of my work my client ends up getting what their architect thinks would suit them best.

Gus Alexander runs his own practice in Clerkenwell