Architects have never had so much to do, at least since the fevered 1980s boom. So what’s driving the market – and is it downhill from here?
Architects are wary of using the term “boom”, but there are clear signs that the industry is enjoying its most successful period since the 1980s. Architects’ workload is at an all-time high of £2.5bn. And if the designers’ desks are laden with commissions, the rest of the industry can expect these to turn into projects on site pretty soon.

The latest workload figure for the sector is given by Mirza & Nacey Research in Construction Futures, a quarterly report compiled in association with Building’s sister magazine RIBA Journal. Partner at the company Aziz Mirza says: “There are indications that workloads have been going up, and architects are predicting that work will increase.”

According to the research, which covers the last quarter of 1999, the growth in work is largely in public and private housing and the industrial sector, with the leisure sector providing a smaller boost. Retail has picked up but is still way below its year-on-year figure. The office sector has plunged but is still healthier than it was in early 1998. Other sectors reporting dips are health and education, but recent pressure on the government to repair crumbling schools and increase the number of hospital beds may translate into work later.

The report’s upbeat findings are reflected in the experience of the construction community, but the industry is cautious about using the b-word to describe the current climate. Robin Nicholson, chairman of the Construction Industry Council, says: “I don’t think it is a boom. We have been expecting workloads to increase as the moneys come in from capital receipts and other government investments. My question is always: ‘What is the regional variation?’, because it feels warm in the South-east, but I suspect life in the South-west is not so cheerful.”

However, Mirza & Nacey’s nationwide look at the direction workloads will take in 2000 suggests that the good fortune is not confined to the South-east. It reports that architects in all regions, except the North and Wales, expect commissions to continue to grow. In Wales, firms believe workloads will level out, and in the North, they expect them to dip. But this view of the North is not shared by Sheppard Robson, which has just opened an office in Manchester. Partner Graham Francis says: “We are really busy and I would say it is across the board, including a lot of activity not only in Manchester but also in Edinburgh.”

On a sectoral basis, the housing market has fuelled the largest workload rise. Public housing has shown a staggering 34% jump and private housing a 16% increase. Much of the public sector work is repair and maintenance as 1960s developments near the end of their lives. “As well as that, some local authorities are spending on their capital receipts programme, and that usually means a lot of refurbishment,” says Abena Nsia, head of regeneration and investment at the National Housing Federation.

It is this combination of public- and private-sector work, coupled with a large number of small jobs, that differentiates the fourth-quarter 1999 work levels from those of the 1980s. In the 1980s, says Mirza, work was concentrated around speculative retail and office developments, and there was very little public-sector spending. Talking as one who survived the late 1980s boom and subsequent recession, Sheppard Robson’s Francis is optimistic that history will not repeat itself. “We are busy, but it feels much more solidly based than in the late 80s, and we think most things we are involved with are more sustainable.”

However, there are signs that workloads are heading for a slowdown. It may only be the slightest of falls, but the 3% drop in the previously buoyant leisure market could signal a cooling down. The Arts Council is reluctant to donate large sums to major projects and the Millennium Commission-funded schemes are nearing completion. Nicholson may be right to deny that the current healthy workloads are a boom. He also has a message to discourage complacency. “The important thing is the quality of new work and the quality of design of new buildings.”