Richard North, 03/04/2021  

I did a piece on architects and Brexit a little while back, summarising an authored piece by Patrick Richard, principal director of the architectural practice, Stanton Williams, who was writing under the title: "Brexit is closing doors for UK architects working in Europe".

Needless to say, the effect of Brexit on UK architects hasn't gone away – even if their experiences are largely being ignored by the legacy media. But, considering that the fate of our architects is something of a "canary down the mine" for our services sector, one might have thought that they would get some exposure.

At the time I was writing last, on 24 February, Patrick Richard was complaining that the impact of Brexit was threatening London's position as the global hub for international architectural services.

The profession, he said, had lost important freedoms, with architects no longer having reciprocity of recognition for their qualifications in the EU. What was a simple administrative application was now turning into a much more complex process, with more paperwork and proofs of compliance required.

A few weeks later, the Financial Times tackled the subject of professional services grappling with "life after Brexit" and, with a singular lack of originality, featured Patrick Richard.

Conveying the idea that professional services firms have no idea how long it will take for work permits to come through. The paper had him complaining that his clients were equally unclear. He was worried that in France, "we might be seen, as British, as too difficult to employ".

For regulated professions such as architecture, the FT went on to say, here is another problem. Before Brexit, UK professional qualifications were recognised throughout the EU. During the TCA negotiations, the UK pressed for a continued mutual recognition system post-Brexit but the EU refused. However, those who already have qualifications accepted in the EU will continue to have them recognised.

The paper then had Richard worried about the damage to the UK's image,. For services that need professionals on site, he said, the proximity to European customers is vital. "Paris is two-and-half hours from London. We didn’t really have to have an office in Paris", he observed. "Now we might be forced to, to reassure our clients".

With that, it is the turn of The Architect's Newspaper to pick up the baton and expand on the profession's Brexit experiences, with a piece headed: "Brexit creates challenges for UK architects in Europe, but opportunities for US architects".

A rocky start to 2021, it says, found the UK architectural profession grappling with the realities of Brexit. But, as with so many other sectors, the overall picture has been muddied by the "ongoing domestic economic slump" compounded by a third national lockdown, making the precise impact of Brexit difficult to discern.

Despite that, that paper says that the impact of the TCA on the construction industry has become clearer over the last three months. It cites Florian Frotscher, associate principal at Woods Bagot, who believes that changes due to Brexit may include "increased costs of importing raw materials [from Europe]", and is likely to add to construction costs, "which could impact client decisions to proceed with projects".

According to a joint statement from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Architects Registration Board (ARB), issued in November 2020, "60 percent of construction materials used on UK projects are imported from Europe. New rules will therefore have a huge impact on the sector".

Brexit's shock waves, however, could extend much further. The same statement said that "the EU is the second-largest market for the export of UK architectural services worldwide, [and] one in five architects practicing in the UK originally qualified in the EU".

The failure of the British government to fully consider exported services (as opposed to goods) during Brexit negotiations has resulted in unilateral conditions that negatively affect UK architects seeking to work in the EU.

Architecture remains a significant player in the UK’s service sector, contributing "£1.5 billion to the UK economy through direct and indirect exports each year", according to RIBA's Boosting the UK’s Architectural Exports 2018 policy note.

As of January 2021, we are once again reminded that UK architects lost automatic recognition of their qualifications in E.U. member states, except for the Republic of Ireland, where a mutual recognition agreement had already been reached. On the other hand, the UK government is to continue recognising the EU Member State architectural qualifications.

To maintain access to opportunities for work in the EU, therefore, many practices are looking to plant their feet on the continent – in common with businesses from other sectors. Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners is one, having opened a Paris office. And as we learned in February, Stanton Williams plans to register all its principals in France.

Smaller practices may find this untenable. Teoman Ayas, a founding partner of MIMStudios, says: "While we try to make use of connections in Austria and in Turkey to collaborate on potential projects, at the moment we are not in a position to consider a satellite office. I fear that in the long run this reduced international collaboration within the workplace will lead to a certain cultural drought as well".

Larger practices, though, are not immune from new bureaucratic hurdles. Frotscher says these include "a perception that shortlisting UK practices will require additional bureaucracy" and complicated VAT claim-back procedures that could either "be more time-consuming, leading to potential delays in cash flow, or in some cases no longer possible, adding costs to the project".

And yet, it is not all gloom. A diversified architectural services export market may provide a counter to these Brexit winds. RIBA's 2017 Global Talent, Global Reach report notes that £500 million ($691 million) in British architectural revenue came from international work in 2016, and more than 80 percent of British architectural exports serve markets in the Middle East, Asia, and North America.

The strength of this buffer is confirmed by some British firms. Responding to a Dezeen survey in January, directors at Allford Hall Monaghan Morris said: "To date, thankfully, [Brexit has had] no noticeable impact. The majority of our projects are in the UK and the US and our clients for European projects (in the Republic of Ireland in particular) are international organisations".

Thomas Patterson, director and founder of Lux Populi, says, "We have largely dropped marketing in the U.K. and the EU, with a new focus on the Middle East and Africa, where business is booming".

Furthermore, while doors to the EU may have been shut, newfound autonomy has the UK government seeking to revamp the national architectural qualification system. This will include allowing the ARB the flexibility to recognize international qualifications it deems equivalent to UK standards.

A consultation on proposed amendments to the Architects Act 1997 was held from November 2020 to January 2021, the forthcoming results of which may provide reciprocal professional recognition between the UK and non-EU nations such as the US.

Because of Brexit, international architects may soon gain easier access to the UK market, which may be music to stateside ears. But it may also make it easier for UK practices to bid for contracts in the lucrative US market.

And that, perhaps is why architecture is getting such little exposure in the legacy media. The profession can't provide a steady flow of sob-stories for the Guardian and its fellow travellers to exploit, while there are no clear success stories for the Brexit-supporting media to parade.

As much as anything, though, we see the confounding effects of the Covid pandemic which, so far, have given Johnson a relatively free pass. For better or worse, the effects of Brexit are going to take much longer to be recognised then we originally anticipated. We need to go back to the drawing board for our estimates.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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