It has been suggested that small architectural practices need to get together to form bigger design outfits, and then get into bed with big contracting consortiums and tender for PFI projects. I get the idea, but I can't actually imagine a consortium where a practice like mine would fit in.
Although at any one time I have about 30 more-or-less live projects (that's the number of people who are paying me – or are about to pay me), there is no way I could explain to anyone else how the organisation actually works. In the same way that a structural engineer cannot prove that a building is standing up, though it is there for all to see, if I went to a funding institution to explain how I run my business, they would tell me it can't be done. I expect there are many architects in the same position.
Although I probably earn two or three times what someone of my experience would be paid in a big architectural organisation, I am effectively unemployable. I share my office with another small practice (as I have done for 15 years). We cover for each other on holiday, share staff at busy times, and commiserate about belligerent clients, recalcitrant builders and dysfunctional planning officers. However, I cannot see us working together on the same project for the same client. How someone in my position can team up with eight other firms and try to work in some meaningful association with a building consortium tendering on a speculative PFI bid for, say, 40 schools, I cannot imagine.
Who will take responsibility when some cock-up occurs, and what about all those competing egos? Brilliant designer with small firm teaming up with big firm looking to keep 20 drawing staff busy? Fine. Lots of designers who all think they're brilliant teaming up with each other to keep a corporate client happy?
I don't think so.
Who will take responsibility when some cock-up occurs, and what about all those competing egos?
I spend much of my working day protecting decent builders from irresponsible clients, and vice versa.
I have to explain to my brilliant master repairman that it's OK for him to charge £75 a day to French-polish a new mahogany handrail, and to reassure him that nobody seriously expects it to take less than a week. In fact, I spend less time designing inventive architecture than I do wading through the bureaucratic and legal quagmires that present themselves in construction.
I also have to be able to communicate with clients: "I know it looks good in World of Interiors, but you need three full-time Filipino staff to maintain that level of minimalism." In any kind of PFI consultancy operation I wouldn't even get to meet the client, let alone find out what they wanted.
I once acted for a contractor on a project where the design work (£0.5m refurbishment of a hostel for the homeless) was prepared by a big firm of surveyors, none of whom could really interpret a brief – 300 pages of tender conditions, 25 minutes of design thought. Since I had worked with the client and the contractor before, I was able to redesign the whole proposition in about six hours and prepare all the construction drawings based on the improved design. Can you imagine how long it would take a consortium of 10 architects to do this?
Architects no longer have the option of a safe and rewarding career in a governmental department, where they can handle large and worthy building projects without having to run the practice as a business. Unlike our colleagues in medicine or academia, we have to hustle.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London.