Architects are in danger of missing out on the billions being spent in the public sector unless they get bigger and bolder.
George Ferguson is taking up the reins of the RIBA at a difficult time for architects. The president-elect will be heading up a profession that is increasingly being sidelined by the rest of construction industry.

Architect practices are generally too small to handle the large public projects that are becoming the financial lifeblood of building. It hasn’t helped that the Office of Government Commerce is also bundling projects into large procurement packages making it difficult for small to medium-sized architects to win any work.

To cope with the larger workloads both Ferguson and outgoing President Paul Hyett are urging architects to collaborate. Hyett’s practice Ryder recently merged with American firm HKS to create RyderHKS, a 700-strong super-practice specialising in the health sector. Hyett says that by merging, architects can offer the skills and resources necessary to run a PFI-scale project.

Ferguson agrees that architects need to work together but he feels that full-blown mergers could lead to large bureaucratic organisations that stifle creativity. He suggests that firms form looser coalitions, leaving individual company structures in tact. In 1986 Ferguson set up Acanthus, a group of 12 practices stretching from Devon to the Shetlands.

Last month another five architects formed an alliance with the intention of winning school PFI work. PFI5 was formed by design architects Feilden Clegg, Bradley Architects, Penoyre & Prasad, Hawkins/Brown, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris and van Heyningen and Haward Architects. The individuality and distinctiveness of each member architect helps compete against larger commercial practices, says Fielden Bradley’s Richard Fielden.

Other architects are using different models of collaboration. PRP ZEDfactory was formed by PRP and Bill Dunster Architects to tackle sustainable projects. In this case the larger architect PRP acts as the lead consultant and provides insurance cover, while Bill Dunster offers the specific design skills. Project consortiums are also gaining in popularity, where architects team up on a single project. For example, Jeremy Dixon, Edward Jones and Building Design Partnership worked together on the Royal Opera House.

The architectural watchdog CABE is keen for smaller design practices to get involved in PFI projects. At the moment many of the commissions for health buildings are going to a few large American practices such as HOK International, RTKL and Anshen Dyer. The involvement of smaller practices would result in more competition and a spread of expertise among UK architects.

If architects are to thrive in the 21st century they will also need to become more flexible and be willing to consider other construction sectors. Strategic Forum chairman Peter Rogers said this week that there was a shortage of high-calibre project managers who can focus on the design and not just the build process. Architects are ideally placed to fill this breach, but despite having the relevant skills few make the move. A CIC survey of professional services published in January 2003 highlighted that engineers and surveyors were much better at embracing multidisciplinary organisations than architects even though the designers had the broader range of skills.

Graham Watt, chief executive of the Construction Industry Council says that architects are gradually spreading their wings, and starting to work for major contractors and clients in the public and private sectors. This bodes well for architects’ future survival Architect graduates should be made aware of these opportunities, otherwise they are in danger of creating nothin