Material and labour shortages ‘causing project delays and making tendering increasingly tricky’

Architects are predicting a strong start to the year despite projects continuing to be dogged by delays and shortages which are pushing up prices.

Material cost inflation, twinned with lack of materials and labour, is causing project delays and making tendering increasingly difficult, the RIBA said in its latest Future Trends report.

Yet practices say they have full pipelines of work and healthy levels of new enquires, with some even reporting that 2021 was one of their their busiest years, with enquiries having to be turned away.

Future Trends, the institute’s long-running monthly sentiment survey, ended the year on a score of +18, with every region and size of practice confident about future workloads.

Almost a third expect work in the first quarter of 2022 to grow, while 59% expect it to remain the same and 12% expect order books to shrink.

The workload index remained in positive territory throughout the whole of 2021, beginning at a cautious +3 in January and reaching +31 in June. The average for the year was +21 which compared favourably with -7 the previous year, when the pandemic was at its most unpredictable.

This December also saw actual workloads reported to be 6% greater than 12 months previously.

The private housing sector was consistently the strongest all year with an average of +25 and a high of +42 in May. It posted a balance figure of +14 in December.

The commercial sector recovered from November’s fall, climbing five points to +12. The public sector rose to a modest +5 in December, while the community sector remained negative, with a -1 balance score, albeit up two points.

The north of England and Wales and the west were the most optimistic while confidence in London softened by 19 points but remained in positive territory at +7.

Similarly all regions were optimistic about permanent staffing levels in the first three months of 2022.

The staffing index rose from 0 to +8, indicating that fewer practices expect to lose staff. More than 80% expect staffing numbers to rem

ain steady, with 13% of practices expecting to employ more permanent staff by March.

Medium and large firms were overwhelmingly the most bullish on staffing levels, but even small practices returned a balance score of +3, up from -3 in November.

RIBA’s head of economic research and analysis, Adrian Malleson, said there were looming challenges, but overall architects were optimistic.

“After the unprecedented difficulties of 2020, 2021 saw a recovery in confidence and workloads,” he said.

“London, the UK’s largest architecture market by far, saw the biggest drop in confidence at the start of the pandemic and took the longest to regain confidence. However, by the end of 2021 London had seen 10 successive months of confidence in future work.”

But he said risks remained, with “ongoing challenges around the availability and cost of construction products, a shortage of skilled tradespeople, planning delays, rising PII costs, a looming cost of living crisis that may dampen domestic demand, and risks to the macro-economy from weak growth and rising inflation”.