Michael Bleby Reporter

Michael writes on emerging markets, architecture and engineering. He has served as a correspondent in Tokyo, London and Johannesburg and has written for Reuters, the Financial Times, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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Bleak housing

Published 10 May 2012 05:03

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In normal times, Warren Coyle would be happy. The managing director of architecture firm DBI Design has many architects emailing their CVs and asking him for work.

“We’re getting a few from the UK, and highly qualified people as well,” he says. “In normal times, you’d grab them!”

For Gold Coast-based DBI, which specialises in large high-rise buildings, however, these are not normal times. The firm is running at about half the level of orders – by volume and value – it was a few years ago. DBI, which had between 110 and 120 employees at that time, is now down to about 60.

It is not surprising then that Coyle is not calling those applicants back. “We’re just waiting for things to improve a bit,” he says.

If times are grim in the Australian architecture industry, with large developments drying up, it is worse overseas. In the United States for example, labour department figures show that the number of architects in employment – not self-employed –- dropped 17 per cent from 101,010 in May 2006 to 83,590 in May last year.

But the overall picture in Australia doesn’t seem so grim. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures for the people working as architects and landscape architects shows little of the blood-letting we might expect. In the year to February, the average number of people working in architecture stood at 22,600. In the year to February 2011 it was 22,800. In February 2010 it was 20,400, in February 2009 it was 20,700, February 2008 was 21,100 and in the year to February 2007 it was 20,200.

That’s not the picture of a troubled industry.

Part of the reason, Australian Institute of Architects chief executive David Parken says, was the federal government stimulus package, which targeted the non-residential construction sector and, he estimates, averted an expected 30 per cent reduction in spending. This avoided a repeat of the carnage the local industry experienced in the 1990-91 crash, when construction halved and one in two employed architects lost their jobs, he says.

There was a dip when the global financial crisis hit but the resumption of demand in China – from that country’s own stimulus package – and the support that came from the Australian government, kicked in quite quickly.

“We’ve basically had 16 years of graduates who had never seen a downturn,” Parken says.

Still, there are clouds on the local horizon. A lack of clarity about whether the troubles of sovereign debt in Greece, Spain and Italy will be resolved, as well as the Reserve Bank of Australia’s failure to cut rates further has bred uncertainty in the industry, which started in the last quarter of 2011 and has not disappeared, Parken says.

Banks are tightening funding for developments such as apartment buildings. “There’s a significant tightening at the moment,” he says. “There is anecdotal evidence of a number of firms basically cutting back and letting people go. And that seems to be because there’s this lack of confidence that everyone’s talking about.”

So where do retrenched architects go? Coyle says a number go into roles in state and local government. Another option is academia.

“There are quite a few new architecture schools, so architects are joining academic advisory boards [and becoming] heads of departments and lecturers.”

Parken says architects are resilient and retrenched practitioners can easily set themselves up at home.

At a time when he can’t do anything with the CVs that fly across his desk, Coyle says the firm focuses on existing customers, marketing new services, hoping for repeat business or referrals from existing clients to new developers.

For the next six months, at least, work is stable, he says. But the lack of confidence looms heavily.

“We don’t know beyond that what’s going to happen with world events. It’s pretty doom and gloom out there.”

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