As we emerge from the covid-19 nightmare, it is time to get back down to business, says Jack Pringle 

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Forgive me, this time my column is about me. Or rather, actually, it is about “us”.

Gardening leave is over, and I go live with my start-up venture today. My new partners will be my daughters Maxine and Frankie, both Bartlett educated architects. A family firm raises a few questions, but I think we have a great offer to our clients.

The energy and ideas of youth with the know-how of experience. Different talents with shared values. Both Frankie and Maxine have secure jobs they are leaving to join this precarious endeavour, so we have been anxiously watching the economy and asking “do you think it will be all right? Are we mad to start up a new company now? When is the right time?”

All are fair questions. My view has been that the very best time to start a new venture is when you are coming out of a recession because you should ride a 10-year wave of a boom. So, the question is: are we coming out of recession?

In February this year I asked in this column “are you ready for lift-off?” – and then Boris Johnson immediately announced a slower than (I) expected exodus from lockdown. So, it is time to check some stats…

We have been through the most extraordinary V-shaped recovery already since the beginning of the recession, but we are not quite recovered yet

Those of you who follow the excellent Noble Francis of the CPA on Twitter will have seen his compelling graphs recently. They show that we have been through the most extraordinary V-shaped recovery already since the beginning of the recession, but we are not quite recovered yet in all areas.

If I read it right, construction output is down 4.3% on last year but is picking up at 1.6% per month. When you drill into it, for example, housing repairs and maintenance is up 4% (as we are all at home doing DIY) but commercial and new housing is down over 10%. But construction is a lagging indicator and we are in design – a leading indicator. We get hit first and recover first so, if we are still suffering, construction has more pain to follow.

As I now chair the RIBA trustee board, I thought I had better look at the RIBA future trends survey. It is quite revealing. The future workload index has gone from –82 in April 2020 to +29 last month. Private housing leads the way at +29% (unsurprisingly) with commercial at -2 and public sector works at -1.

Underemployment last April was running at 40% and now is at 20%. As a result, 40% of architects expect to grow, to take on staff, in the next three months. That is very encouraging and anecdotal evidence bears it out. When I call my colleagues at my old practice, Perkins and Will, they are really busy and hiring staff.

I have been doing some webinars recently and I am often asked what advice I would give to an architect who was made unemployed due to the pandemic. I say, “don’t despair,  the markets will return soon and people will be hiring”.

Businesses and the people who drive them will want to make up for lost time

Businesses and the people who drive them will want to make up for lost time. Plans laid over the past nine months are going to be put in place as soon as the economy is freed from the chains of covid-19.

Setting up a new practice from scratch in 2021 is, for me, like going back to 1981 when I first left Powell and Moya and set up on my own. But then it was much easier – I just set up with four shoe boxes for accounts and a drawing board. Now we need systems and protocols for everything: computers, peripherals, data security, GDPR, HR, equal opportunities, insurances, contracts, supply chain Ts&Cs etc, etc.

This is where the RIBA can support small practices, with toolkits to help them interface with the ever more regulated and complex world. We are going to use what RIBA can give, and where it does not already provide support, in the future it will – for the next generation of start-ups and small practices.

So, where does this leave us? Today, 4 May, is the launch date we have plumped for. We think that’s just about the “Goldilocks” date; not too soon before the recovery has started, not too late to catch the wave.

We have some initial targets in our areas of expertise: housing, hospitality, workplace and products/furniture:

Housing because we have a chronic shortage and also because we have spent years figuring out how people should work and I would like to return to my passion of designing how people should live.

Hospitality because there will be such a need to reposition and rebrand all those venues that have changed hands over the past year.

Workplace because we have expertise and post pandemic every office in the country needs redesigning – possibly twice, first on an interim basis and then, once we have worked out the new norm on a more permanent basis.

Products and furniture because, well, we like designing them and sooner or later everything in the world needs redesigning.

There’s a lot to do.

Chair of the RIBA trustee board, Jack Pringle was principal and EMEA regional director at Perkins+Will for eight years