Work placements for the student’s benefit, not their employer’s

JCT Student Competition 2016 – Overall Winner’s Essay
Tom Haworth, Westminster University
An essay addressing skills shortages in the construction industry, focusing upon the lack of experience-based architectural training during the early years of UK architectural education.


The Challenge Of The Unknown

As a current Part Three student, I am approaching the end of a long qualification process. This essay contains my reflections on the process so far, and the change I would like to see, based on my observations.

The problem, is that architects are currently not taught how to deliver their ideas. It is my contention that this is sorely absent from the early years of architectural training, and it means that architecture as a profession is failing to match the growth and evolution of the wider construction industry.

When delivering any project, there are successes, mistakes  and compromises. It is learning to adapt and deal with these peaks and troughs that makes a great architect. I’ll admit this requires experience which in construction takes years to develop, and the process is ongoing. However by starting the process sooner in the education system, by changing the conversations in and around architecture schools, students could start to understand how architects can fully deliver the value they bring to projects.

How does this relate to the Skills Shortage in the Construction Industry? There is a disconnect between the way in which the architecture profession educates its students and how they can contribute to the construction industry. I propose the introduction of a placement system to teach architecture students about the industry sooner and in a more structured manner than what currently exists in their education.

Architects are revered by some but tolerated by many on construction sites up and down the country. It is my contention that if students were taught how to engage with other parties and stakeholders, they would have an appreciation of the processes and motivations beyond their own on a project.

Architectural Education Is Too Insular

While design skill and creative thinking are the calling cards for the modern architect, great idea is not worth the paper it is written on, unless the mechanism for delivery is clearly understood and then shrewdly implemented. For example, understanding how much fee a structural engineer is allocating to the project in proportion to the total contract value, can go on to explain where their priorities/incentives lie in relation to the project as a whole.

From £50k extensions to a £500m football stadium, it is a collection of people from an array of backgrounds that deliver a project. A thorough understanding of this ecosystem is essential. It is my contention that architectural education should mobilise a student’s understanding of the construction industry at the advent of their training, not the end.

A concern that could be raised about my proposal is that immersion in the details of the construction industry too soon in a student’s career hinders their creative development. However it is my contention that a design process without constraints is not reflective of the world in which we live and work. It may be affirming to those with great design dexterity to achieve great heights at university, but those who have succeeded are in fact those who made their ideas marketable and more importantly, deliverable.

I would hate to try and put hours to the time I spent (and my employer paid me for), learning how to plan a bathroom, how to draw a staircase, complete a fire escape plan. These basic tasks are the bread and butter, but instead of learning them at University, the obligation is put onto employers. Young architecture graduates are made to serve the large commercial practice format, they aren’t actually trained to be useful, fee-earning employees.

Architects should be in a stronger position in the construction industry and the built environment as a whole. We are often lead consultant, but our inability to adapt to the introduction of design and build contracts, the complexities of risk apportionment, amongst other things, have so far limited our capability to add value to projects.

The Problem – Too Much, Too Late

I am studying Part 3 this year, and I am enjoying the course; but I can’t help feeling that the volume and
intensity of information is too much, too late. We get saturated with information at a crucial stage of the
training, overloaded by law, finance and management lectures. This is the learning equivalent of cramming for an exam. Just when we start to get some responsibility afforded to us at work, we are laden with legal jargon and are expected to process it in time for an exam and interview a few months later. What I propose aims to build a student’s understanding of how we contribute to the industry sooner in their career.

Following the inescapable law of supply and demand, the education system is answerable to the job market. Students are molded to fit the business models of the practices with highest buying power. However, it is my belief the profession is not doing enough to tell graduates what standards are expected of them, giving the schools permission to continue on a more academic discourse, while turning out graduates with limited technical and regulatory knowledge.

There are many different roles a new grad can step into once beyond university. But students come out
of University and don’t understand the processes and day-to-day undertakings of an architectural practice. This affects quality control and production methods of all practices, often requiring a square-one approach to training new staff.

Graduates do not have the relevant business or relationship skills.

Some students are fabulously talented, but if an idea cannot be communicated to its audience, it will not
stick and it will not sell. There is a sector in architecture that gives a more charitable and benevolent offering to the built environment, but these are ultimately underwritten by capitalist enterprise. For example, the Foster + Partners teams working on issues affecting the developing world, such as power, infrastructure and sanitation. But these are only possible due to the initial capital being provided by a hugely successful, highly capitalist front for the practice.

To read Tom’s essay in full, please visit the student competition page.