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Can Architects Beat The Volume Builders?

Architects design around 5% of new homes built each year in Australia, and a lot of us would like that to change because we see too much of this...

To improve our market share, and to protect the built environment, we would have to take market share away from the volume home builders.

Before I talk about how we can do it (without lowering our fees), let’s talk about:

…why business as usual won’t work.

Doing nothing and repeating what we’ve always done doesn’t work because the architecture industry is facing big headwinds — that are neither short-term or cyclical.

In the homebuilding market, homeowners can easily switch between builder-designed and architect-designed houses.

As housing and inner-city land prices increase relative to incomes, consumers will increasingly substitute architects for builders, and cities for sprawl — as Australians replace more expensive choices with less costly ones.

Architects are lucky that we don’t have to price-match the homebuilders because there’s a cultural perception that architect-designed homes provide more utility, quality and sophistication (and we couldn’t, if we tried). But, unless the trend reverses and incomes increase relative to the cost of housing, we will continue to lose customers to cheaper alternatives.

On the one hand, this makes housing cheaper overall (which is something we like), but on the other, it gives the public less choice about how they live, and a lower quality built environment (which is bad).

It also means that in the long-run, our industry is facing death by a thousand cuts.

What are some possible remedies for this problem?

Teach people about architecture.

The sensible response from the industry is to look for ways to “educate the public on the value of Architects through marketing and public outreach”.

That’s way better the lobbying government for regulation, because asking those in power to grant architects a more powerful monopoly position would be asking them to increase the cost of housing by force — political suicide.

Grassroots education is awesome because it‘s the best solution to architecture’s biggest problem: people thinking about building a home find it difficult to tell whether architecture, the higher-priced option, is in fact any better.

They don’t know the precise differences between two different houses, one by a builder, and the other by an architect — and they don’t know what the fair price for any of them is.

It's our job to connect the public with architects, invite them to visit our projects and studios, and teach them about the awesome things architects do.

Show them the architect's unique and proprietary process

Architects can differentiate themselves through the skills of their employees, and the level of training they have received. An architect’s monopoly on their level of skill and training is rock-solid. Nobody else comes close.

Plenty of people can mimic what we do, but they can’t easily replicate the design process that we’ve developed over centuries that sits at the core of our business model.

Sell the process! Sell the process!! Sell the process!!!

Don't alienate the public

Over time, architects have gotten comfortable marketing themselves to a small, urban, highly educated, design-conscious segment of the market— rather than the entire market of people needing homes.

This strategy worked well for individual firms, where successful marketing and branding decisions are highly rewarded, and you need a niche.

But, as an industry, it’s driving irrelevance and marginalisation — as we teach swathes of Australians that they aren’t part of our market and architects aren't interested in working with them.

At the same time, home-builders have widened their net to encompass anyone and everyone.

Metricon’s design philosophy.

The architecture industry as a whole will struggle to improve it’s market share if it doesn't develop an inclusive, welcoming approach that says to the other 97% of the community "we respect you, want to work with you, and think you deserve to live in a well-designed home."

While relevance will continue to persist as a central theme and intractable dilemma of every future architecture conference and working group, I hope that this article gives a direction for anyone looking to contribute their time to this problem.