SA architects defy tough market

By / 14th of August, 2014
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An almost reckless spirit of entrepreneurialism appears to have led dozens of South Australian architects to go it alone at the most difficult of times – and succeed.

Around 35 small-sized practices have sprung up across the state over the past two years, despite the persistent effects of the global financial crisis on the architecture industry.

Sean Humphries left medium-sized firm Williams Burton a little over two years ago to start his own boutique practice, Black Rabbit, with business partner Michael Sheidow.

“The time seemed right,” Humphries said. “The market was looking terrible, and we thought, ‘Well, if we can do it now…’

“Architects are problem-solvers, mate; it’s what we do. We take something like that as a challenge.”

He said the demand for architecture had become less homogeneous in recent years, creating the perfect opportunity for small firms to fill more specialised niches.

“Clients are savvy now. I think the days of shirt-and-tie architecture are numbered and the public is screaming for a different type of response to the same old question.”

Another enterprising architect, Enzo Caroscio, started a sole practice two months ago, after having worked for large architectural firms for more than a decade.

“After 15 years of working on large-scale projects … I wanted to do my own thing where I could have more control over the project and the clients in terms of which clients I work with,” he said.

Caroscio previously worked on the design of the award-winning South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute building for global design firm Woods Bagot.

“People who didn’t really see their jobs [as] secure thought, ‘How do I make my job secure?’ and, ‘maybe I need to be in control of my own career’,” he said.

A central advantage of running a small firm is the reduced costs in administration, office space, insurance, communications and – obviously - fewer staff to pay.

“In a bigger practice, there’s a lot of overheads, and in a smaller practice you get to control your team more and control what your main intent is,” Caroscio said.

The emergence of small, boutique firms has combined with more aggressive marketing by large  firms (those with 100+ staff) from the eastern states for projects in South Australia to make life hard for medium-sized (15 to 30 staff) local firms.

Many have been forced to cut staff and remodel the way they do business.

Hodgkison Architects, which celebrates its 25th anniversary later this year, has cut 10 staff from its payroll.

“It forced us to restructure and rethink our approach and part of that restructure was an unsavoury downsizing,” said one of the firm’s directors, Dario Salvatore.

“We’ve downsized about a third of our workforce.”

“It’s been very difficult.

“Across the board there was a skills base and a competency base that was lost. But we tried to keep a similar mix.

To avoid further contraction, Hodgkison reached out interstate, helping form the ArPM network of architects.

In so doing, Hodgkison  has been able to outsource many of its marketing, payroll and administration costs to ArPM offices Melbourne, Canberra, Perth and Hobart.

The alliance with ArPM has also given Hodgkison credible access to national tenders.

“We could contract and just compete on a smaller basis, but what we did is we defied that and went national,” said Salvatore.

“South Australia has contracted over the past two years and we’ve found a very tightening market.

“What we’ve had to do to counter that is essentially by diversification and broadening strategies. Otherwise we would continue contracting as well.”

He said he could understand why many of those formerly working at medium-sized firms such as his would attempt their own businesses in such a difficult market climate.

“Those who were retrenched really had few opportunities to move elsewhere, so a number of them started up themselves,” Salvatore said.

“They probably felt there was probably less risk or more opportunities in starting their own business and testing the waters, so to speak.”

Hodgkison has ramped up its communications to highlight its credentials as a well-established firm, “to break through all the other offerings”.

President of the SA Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects Steve Grieve said there weren’t enough jobs to go around for architects in Adelaide, and that was forcing them to innovate.

“To sustain a consistent income as an architect is a difficult balance, no matter whether you’re in a large firm or a small practice,” he said.

“Some of these practices [constitute] perhaps new ways of working – they’re not traditional practice models.

“It’s probably a measure of people’s enthusiasm for being involved in the design profession.”

Story first published on InDaily.