The threat from disruptors in the world of architecture

The threat from disruptors in the world of architecture

March 27, 2024

2023 ended with a very mixed mood for the architectural sector. Some of this feeling was driven by a new and, in some traditional parts of the profession, unwanted trend of downscaling through the use of technology. Here, we look at these factors and consider what they may mean for the future of architectural firms.

A very mixed outlook among architects

The RIBA Future Trends Survey for December 2023 reported the following predictions for Q1 2024:

  • 28% of practices expected a decrease in workload, while 20% predicted an increase.
  • 31% of smaller practices anticipated a decrease in workload, but only 15% an increase.
  • 11% of practices feared that they would have to reduce permanent architectural staff, 9% thought they would be hiring.
  • 26% of architects reported being under-employed.

Many factors contributed to this state of affairs, but among the major concerns were, and still are, the increasing influence of the new brand of slimmed-down firms utilising fewer qualified staff. These firms are increasingly taking advantage of rapidly evolving technology and using their lower cost base to force down fees, particularly in the home improvement market.

The disruptors

Against a background of falling workloads, the very last thing the more traditional architectural practices need is their competitors depressing fee levels. They are facing an entirely different business model to their own, characterised by the greater use of non-qualified ‘architect designers’, the deployment of sophisticated technology and a broader service offering.

Unqualified staff

The debate over the relative merits of having fully qualified architects working on a project against the risks from the involvement of experienced but unqualified design-led staff is as old as the hills. Passionate arguments on both sides are to be found right back to the early 2000s.

An example of how far the staffing model can be tweaked comes from one major disruptor with close to a hundred staff, of whom only four are qualified architects and another four are completing their Part 3 training. Nevertheless, the firm’s founder claimed in mid-2023 that its website traffic, enquiries and customer spend had doubled in the previous twelve months.


We examined the impact of technology on the architectural market in detail in our recent blog. A key differentiator between the disruptors and many traditional firms is their more rapid and comprehensive use of technology in how they operate their practices and how it reduces their costs. A key feature is creating a readily accessible digital platform through which the firm and its customers can interact, facilitating more transparent progress reporting and checking.

Service offering

The disruptors argue that traditional architectural practices have been resistant to diversifying the range of services they offer, leaving gaps in service that don’t come across as sympathetic to modern consumer expectations. An example quoted is the stress and confusion experienced by homeowners navigating the complex planning and build process or finding the right tradespeople for the job. These inextricably interlinked aspects of construction were kept as distinct activities in the past, rather than being seen and projected to customers as parts of one seamless, ongoing project.

The risk: reward ratio with disruptors

A senior figure in the world of architecture has questioned whether excessive reliance on digital processes might lead to the circumvention of the vital work of checking manufacturers’ technical information, cross-referring to BBA or other certificates, ploughing through British Standards and then carrying out the necessary QA procedures. This is especially important given the enhanced duties set out under the Building Safety Act.

Some architects emphasise their concern that customers may not be aware that they are employing non-architects, mistaking the term ‘architectural designer’ as indicating a higher level of qualification. Others speak of costly reworking of projects after errors made by unqualified staff, though, of course, these mistakes can also be made by qualified staff.

Where will the disruption lead?

Experience from other sectors further along the disruption curve of de-skilling allied to greater use of technology is that this is a genie that can’t be put back into the bottle. The inescapable priority is to recognise the limitations of technology even as it changes and its capacity to deliver the unexpected, and not always in a good way. It will also be essential that those who rely on technology fully understand it so it can be safely supervised and monitored.


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