Architectural Blatherations

Investigating Australian Architects: Part 1

top rule

The Good Oil

In 2000 the Australian Productivity Commission (APC) released its inquiry into the Australian Architects' Acts. As in the United States, these are state Acts, regulated domain by domain.

Technically, there is no such thing as an Australian architect, any more than there is such a thing as an American architect. In both countries, the regulation of architects is done state by state. Who can call themselves an architect depends on which bit of turf you are standing on at the moment. You may be registered in Vermont or Victoria as an architect, but call yourself that in Tasmania or Tennessee and you break the law. (Of course, there are always handy outs for the privileged. Take a look at this notorious US example).

In Australia, in most states, the work of the architect is not regulated. A chimpanzee can design a building and have it built. It is up to local building certifiers, engineers and, indirectly, clients to ensure that the structure is safe. But, the chimpanzee could not advertise him or herself as an architect ;without the appropriate licence. The title architect is regulated. This is about the situation in the United Kingdom. In the USA, in almost all states, both the work and the title are regulated.

The Commission's investigation

Each Australian state asked the Federal government to investigate the framework of the whole. The brief of the APC, in any inquiry, is very simple: can competition be improved? Do consumers suffer by existing legislation? Do the benefits of existing legislation outweigh the costs?

In a sense, the onus of proof in any APC investigation is reversed. The beneficiaries of legislation have to justify that legislation's continuation. They have to show why existing laws are an economic good to the Australian community. If no evidence exists that this is the case, then the APC is bound to recommend that the laws be tossed out.

So let's be clear here. The APC is not in the business of giving any professional a fat and happy life. It's job is not to protect architects, or any other occupation. The Commission is in the business of getting the best deal possible for the Australian consumer, and for the Australian economy. The Commission does not want to create a socialist paradise: it wants to create a better marketplace.

The inquiry was run by two economists: Professor Judith Sloan and Dr Neil Byron. The APC received 300 plus submissions in late 1999 and produced a draft report in early May 2000. Further submissions were invited and public hearings took place in June 2000. The final report was issued in August 2000.

The report stuns architects

The report stunned architects across the continent. The APC made one single, simple recommendation: repeal all the Architects Acts (I would point out that the Architectural Blatherations's submission was the only one recommending this). This would deregulate the occupation, and let anyone call themselves an architect if they wished. The APC argued that the various Acts produced no economic good to the Australian people, and restricted competition by letting architects hide behind a legislative shield, cutting off building designers from access to some protected markets.

A word is needed here on building designer. This is the term used in Australia for people involved in the design of buildings who are not legally registered architects. It is important to understand that many of these people have exactly the same qualifications and experience as registered architects: a five-year Bachelor of Architecture degree from an accredited course, and many years experience. The single difference, in many cases, is that they have never bothered to sit the examination required for registration.

The architects' arguments against the report

At this point the architects started running around like chickens with their heads cut off. We've posted some extracts from their submissions for you to read. The mildest reaction, interestingly, came from the Association of Consulting Architects (ACA). This is an employer's organisation that represents every major firm and most medium-sized ones. Its main job is mediating salary conditions with employees. The ACA said it really didn't care much one way or the other: their firms would not really be affected if the title architect was open to all and sundry. They relied on their body of work to get jobs, not the titles held by their owners and employees.

The strongest reactions came from the Architects Boards, the bodies that administer the Acts. Like all bureaucrats threatened with oblivion, they attacked the report with all the bluster they could muster.

The Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) was just as flabbergasted. Their tactics had backfired (as usual). A write-in campaign organised by their judicial arm in the state of Western Australia (the Architects Board of Western Australia, ABWA) was not only a dismal flop, but actually counter-productive. These 200 one-paragraph letters simply said We support the position of the ABWA. Now what was the point of that, pray tell? The Commission wanted to hear argument and assess facts; not read hundreds of near-identical letters. Dismissing them as the unhelpful rubbish they were, the Commission listed them simply as submissions 149 to 373 on its website.

The main arguments the RAIA, academics and others used were these:

  • The Acts exist to protect consumers. No they don't, said the APC. They were set up to protect architects from competition. The only punitive powers the Acts have is to deprive people of the title architect. That doesn't help consumers at all. To achieve redress against a bad architect, a consumer has to sue them; a common-law process that has nothing to do with the Acts.
  • Other occupations have title protection, so why not architects? Well, said the APC, anyone in Australia can call themselves an accountant, a lawyer or an engineer. Even the title doctor is not legally reserved. These occupations are roaring successes, so what's so special about architect?
  • The standard of building design will fall if anyone can be an architect. But, said the APC, Australia has world-class engineering design, quite unaffected by lack of title protection for engineers. The Sydney Opera House, after all, is largely a triumph of engineering design.
  • Australia won't attract overseas students. A favourite of the academics, this one. The APC pointed out that New Zealand has title protection and almost no overseas students; and that the most successful discipline in Australia in garnering foreign students was accounting, a discipline without any protection.
  • Australian architects won't be able to get work overseas. Here even the architects had to backtrack a little and admit that Australian firms got overseas work based on their reputations, not on the fact that their principals had passed certain examinations. The Association of Consulting Architects couldn't think of a single case of a foreigner asking What are your qualifications? instead of What work have you done?

The consequences

As a result of the APC's report, one Australian state reformed the entire system of architectural regulation.

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