To end architecture’s Faustian Pact we need to teach students business skills, says Phil Coffey

Phil coffey c tim soar

Architectural education is a joy but, after three or five university years of rising debt, the choice to leave or stay in architecture is a stark one.

Students since 2012 have been stumping up £9,000 tutoring fees a year, in addition to accommodation, living and other costs associated with studying architecture.

Students recently wrote to the RIBA and schools highlighting this issue. Financial stress reduces the ability to take risks both creatively and in one’s life choices – and at a time when the profession is trying to increase diversity.

Fear of debt will certainly be impacting how young people from low-income families view architecture: to embark on one of the longest and most expensive courses available with a desire to change the world for the better.

With anxiety and mental health issues on the increase among young people generally, the financial pressures of university education and the promise of an over-saturated marketplace and a low salary cannot help young aspiring architects.

This is a deep-seated problem that is caused in part by two issues: the current low remuneration of architects and the high cost and length of architectural education. Nobody would mind high debt for high reward… but high debt and low reward?

Talk of raising of fees by bringing back RIBA fee scales is at best hopeful. But it should be considered.

Architecture is a good; it’s a social profession that should deliver better places to live, work and play for everyone in our communities. One way of looking at the old statutory fees was that they factored in the time it took to bring social value to a project. Arguably, nowadays, architects who want to make good work make up this shortfall with their conviction, civic spirit, unpaid overtime and reduced profitability.

As for reducing student debt, the length of an architectural education is the primary driver. A small minority of forward-thinking universities provide shorter and part-time courses. And apprenticeships and work placements are now in vogue.

All of these to some extent threaten the financial gains that can be made by universities by maintaining the traditional five-year course. Despite the difficulties, architecture still attracts bright, highly motivated young people who fill the coffers of the increasingly neo-liberal institutions.

Without external factors such as minimum fee scales or free or reduced-cost education what else can we do as a profession? Perhaps it lies in a statement I overheard last week from a well-known client who noted: “I don’t know many architects who are commercially minded.”

Architects are primarily taught design and the process of architecture and we learn little if anything about running a business. Being commercial doesn’t mean not designing beautiful or civic-spirited buildings. In fact the opposite is true and we should not be embarrassed to say it.

At a recent RIBA event the Stirling Prize finalists were asked if they had made a profit on their projects. Most hadn’t and didn’t seem too bothered about the fact.

But the trope of struggling architect/artist is surely damaging the profession and should be consigned to the scrapheap where it belongs.

Financial insecurity – whether through student debt or low wages – is preventing the very best minds from entering the profession. The best architecture is made not only on the drawing board but in resourcing, meetings, negotiations, contracts, fee proposals, balance sheets, tax knowledge, invoicing strategies – and profit is not a dirty word.

Architectural education should teach students to run businesses. The RIBA seems to become more and more commercial every day. The universities teaching their courses are; the industry within which we work is; and clients are more and more commercially driven. And yet architecture as a profession is in large part seen as commercially naïve. We are the odd ones out.

Creativity and design are at the heart of the added value architects bring, but we could certainly be more creative with the way we operate our businesses.

An architectural education that made this a more important element of our necessary skills would help the generations coming through, bringing reality to their circumstance, improving salaries and empowering future architects to operate with maximum agency whatever their architectural ambitions and wider social aims might be.

Architecture is a public good and students, young architects and the architecture they make shouldn’t be paid for with their own time or money… and certainly not their souls.