The pleasure of rowing your own little boat in the modern construction industry is offset by the knowledge that you are at the mercy of a big, cruel sea
For those of us in self-employment (although this does not include assistants swanning around the Aegean), the difference between being worked off your arse and having nothing to do is two phone calls either way.
“Well,” people say to you in commiseration, ”it’s August. Everyone is away for the summer so nothing much is happening.” Yes, and next month it will be: “Well it’s autumn, and people haven’t really got their act together after the summer holidays.” Yes, and soon it will be: “Well nobody really does much in the run-up to Christmas,” although if you do find yourself in work, it’s a nightmare to find suppliers because “everyone is FRANTIC to have stuff finished before the holidays”.
Soon after Christmas, the refrain becomes: “The thing is, nobody is doing anything after the new year because nobody’s got any money.” Then it’s Easter and before you know it, you’re back to the fact that everyone is away for the summer.
This August work equation is made doubly onerous for bottom feeders like us as all one’s creditors are on holiday. I suppose it’s some consolation when one’s roving bookkeeper tells you that her clients in the PR business are faring much worse. We feel that people always will need building work, even if they don’t ask my firm to deal with it for them.
At the other end of the food chain this does not seem to apply. Near where I live is the NHS’ first billion pound PFI project. Quite a tidy chunk of architect’s fees in there, even if you are trying to prise the cash out of some colossal building consortium. And even though CABE seem to have raised a number of serious objections to the scheme in question, we at the sharp end know that it’s just another version of Terminal 5 – it doesn’t matter what the objections are, it’s going to be built in the end. To paraphrase Macbeth, the clients are in blood stepp’d so far, that returning is as tedious as to go o’er.
I notice one of the firms plastered all King's Cross, and I think 'These guys want to put us all out of business'
I was always told that hospitals were out of date as soon as they were built, and the bigger they were, the bigger the risk of this. All eggs are in one basket. So does this mean that a brilliant numbercruncher has persuaded the NHS that it makes financial sense to have a billion pounds worth of obsolete hospital all in the same place?
Either way, it doesn’t help me much. My current publicly funded project is on its fourth planning submission, so by the time we get it through, all the client’s energy and enthusiasm (and mine) will have been dissipated, as will the value of any fee that goes with it.
Architects’ practices are getting to be like firms of solicitors. There used to be quite a range of different sized firms, from Fuddy, Duddy and Cruddy, Births, Deaths, and Commissioners for Oaths, in fusty offices in provincial high streets all the way up to John Grisham-style megafirms with 300 fee-earning partners. Now the tendency is for all firms to be either tiny or immense. I know very few architects in firms of 15 any longer. There are plenty in two or three-person practices, and plenty in firms where there are five people whose only duty is to maintain the computers.
As I watch a fairly small-scale building operation at my local primary school (a classical 1920s redbrick and tiled-roof number, quite handsome, really) I notice that it is being carried out by one of the construction firms whose boards are plastered all over the Brobdingnagian construction fest engulfing King’s Cross. And I think “These guys want to put us all out of business, don’t they?” I mean, how long can a firm like that afford to spend finding out what the client wants? Three hours? Five? I mean the staff and kids are only going to be using it for 30 years so there’s no point in wasting too much time designing it … we’ve got our build targets to meet. Like all small practices I console myself with the fact that every job I don’t get increases the odds of me getting the next one. I just hope it’s worth having, that’s all.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London