2020 Ended with Fragile Growth in Architects’ Confidence

woman architect at desk

AS 2020 ENDED the December RIBA Future Workload Index returned the highest balance score (+10) since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) monthly survey, 29% expected workloads to increase.  While, just over half expected workloads to hold steady, 20% of practices expected a decreasing workload in the coming three months.

Confidence was beginning to return to other sectors as well as Private Housing (+14, up two points from November).  Both the Commercial and Public Sectors returned to positive territory for the first time since February 2020 – the Commercial Sector at +1, up from -19 in November and the Public Sector at +2, up from -7. The Community Sector recorded an improvement although remained negative, returning a balance figure of -8 this month, up from -13 in November.

Confidence among large and medium and sized practices also continues to strengthen. Smaller practices have returned to positive territory after a dip in November.

Architects’ workloads

Reports of personal underemployment are lower than they were a year ago.  Workloads are reported to have rallied too. During the first lockdown they stood at 67% compared to 12 months ago; December results (taken prior to the third lockdown) were 95%.

London-based practices remain negative about future workload with a -6 balance score in December, up slightly from -7 last month.

All other regions are positive about future workload. The Midlands & East Anglia returned to positive territory with +7 in December; the South of England at +8; Wales & the West at +22, up from +15 in November. The North of England was the most positive in December at +29 – the most positive outlook for the region since 2019.

Concerns about future practice viability remain, though have lessened. Overall, 3% of practices expect falling profits to threaten their viability. Meanwhile, 46% of practices expect profits to fall over the next 12 months, 34% expect profits to stay the same, and 9% expect them to grow (8% don’t know).

Recruitment

It’s a better picture in terms of staffing with the RIBA Future Trends Staffing Index returning a figure of +2 in December. More practices (84%) expect permanent staffing levels to remain consistent, up from 81% in November. Overall, redundancies stand at 2% of staff.  6% of staff now remain on furlough.

RIBA Head of Economic Research and Analysis, Adrian Malleson, said, “The growing optimism seen in our December results is heartening, with workloads being just 4% lower than they were a year ago and an increase in confidence in the commercial and public sector areas.

“However, additional commentary stresses the twin uncertainties of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic. Understandably, these make 2021 a highly uncertain year and the construction market may get worse before it gets better.

“Some practices report projects being held up by delays in the processing of planning applications but there are also reports of Public Sector workload beginning to increase.

“It is a mixed and changing picture but with an overall growth in confidence. Whilst this confidence is likely to falter in the current lockdown, there is hope that it will return, once restrictions are eased.”

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