Architects and recessions

Long term Colander Associate, Tom Taylor, shares his sage advice to help architects survive the latest - and future - recessions....

I know we are in a current recession as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, but these notes are for all time. I say this because there are views that recessions can come round every seven years or so – or should do to let out the steam of over-booming. So in an eighty year plus lifespan and a thirty / forty / fifty-year front-line career, one will encounter several recessions – with a variety of causes and ranges of responses – from the personal through to the global.

I believe architects should be better placed than most to weather a recession and potentially prosper on the other side. Most architects I know are well educated, with great analytical skills, they are tenacious and conscientious in their work – all attributes which will be most useful recession-wise.

In the diagram above, there is a very simple illustration of the continuous boom and gloom cycles. This may apply to the national economy. But it also works for separate industries within economies. Architects may be considered to be in the property / construction / building industries which may be in different positions to other sectors on this rollercoaster.

However it is the other sectors on which architects depend that are of greater interest and importance and these need to be monitored more closely during a recession.

And the sectors in question are easy to identify because they are clearly visible in the menus on the websites of all architectural practices. Probably under “projects” but possibly under “experience” or “case studies”. So there may be Residential, Retail and Arts / Entertainment or say Education, Civic Buildings and Commercial Offices or say Masterplans, Refurbishments and Extensions. Each will be on its own boom and gloom cycle, so it will be possible to assess the opportunities and realism of staying with a sector, concentrating on other sectors, or finding new ones.

A similar approach can be applied to locations and geographical reach – as expressed on architects' websites – to stay the same, reach out further or cut back closer to home base.

A fulsome quarterly review of such matters is recommended - more frequently can provide uncertainty, over steering and distractions. Staff, colleagues and dependants need clarity and assurance – if available.

I am not suggesting prevarication or vagueness for the next quarter on a wait-and-see basis. In fact I am suggesting decisiveness and commitment for a quarter or similar significant milestones – then review for the next quarter and be decisive again.

I think many architects surprised themselves how decisively they set up their remote working from home in response to the initial most recent lockdown. Perhaps the further aspects in surviving can be addressed similarly promptly and with confidence - by architects.

Recessions are not just hiccups. They have long durations. One way to approach them is to ask oneself, and others, what you believe are the chances of a recession being still the same, worsening or recovering in say twelve months’ time. This provides a clearer appreciation than asking “how long will it last?” – and can be asked and plotted quarterly – for each separate sector.

One of the interesting things I have noticed is that people and practices can be stuck in a heads-down recessional survival mode. And while there may be mentions of green shoots, and other agricultural and gardening terms, there is not a clear view of how recession recovery is to be undertaken, where it might lead and what might success look like. This also applies to looking even further down the line and beyond. That is understandable and survival is the priority. But these further stages may require different outlooks or overviews or vocabularies.

The chart above may suit architects who generally process long-term outlooks for their projects, their commissions and hoped-for relationships with clients – with cradle to cradle considerations - while producing weekly or daily to-do lists for themselves and others. Not all professionals have this breadth and depth of project considerations and potentially at practice level.

The third diagram (below) considers some routes for individuals and business organisations during any stages of recessions. One option is just to consider where one is on this chart – say at quarterly intervals – keeping records of previous reviews and opinions.

However another approach may be to consider the situations of others who make up your working community. They may be colleagues, team members, client customers, suppliers, contactors and / or competitors. By assessing their fortunes and directions and what changes may have taken place since the last (quarterly?) review you may get a feeling of your own likely destiny. This can be a restricted list of say half a dozen indicators or a wider flexible field with intelligence gleaned from media, research, questioning and gossip.

Finally architects take a holistic view. They consider all the factors and issues on their projects. They can do likewise to get through a recession. A decent recovery will be multifaceted. For example one’s recovery need not just be:

An Economic Recovery – focused on growth and prosperity.

It could also include:

  • A Cultural Recovery – including social respect and understanding.
  • An Environmental Recovery – to avoid mankind forfeiting the tenancy.
  • A Moral Recovery – where professionalism, lawful and ethical behaviour are the norm.
  • An Employment Recovery – with suitable jobs for people who want to work and study.
  • A Business Recovery – where the focus is on the customer.
  • And possibly more.

Architects have roles in leading and delivering these recoveries through the work they do and the manner they do it and manage themselves.

In past recessions, many architects have moved away from mainstream architecture, to become project managers, Planning Supervisors (for CDM), Masters of BIM, developers, to write Home Information Packs, and more – all of which feels quite sad. In my view this time, and for the next time and the times after that, the UK population would like architects to be the best, confident yet realistic, designers and leaders of their projects and practices that they can be – please.

Thank you.

And don’t forget: “Quality always recovers quicker”.

Tom has recently updated his dashdot publications “Recession Survival” and “Recession Recovery” available online at: