17 July 2011

Thesis: Online Survey Results

This post outlines the results from a recent survey that examined the perceived role of architects in the design and construction processes that shape our built environment and asked whether “architects have a role to play in shaping 21st century cities?’” The survey results are part of a wider investigation into issues of professionalism, the future role of architects and the complex design and construction processes that shape the built environment. The research is being conducted as part of the Masters in Architecture and Urbanism programme at the Manchester School of Architecture (2010-2011) and being supervised by Eamonn Canniffe and Dr Craig Martin. The survey was conducted online using the Google Documents service and was live for 28 days, between April 11th 2011 and May 9th 2011, with questions designed to test any assumptions drawn from various sources that have informed the research to date. Completed by 105 respondents, from both the supply and demand side of the built environment industry, invitations were sent out to every architectural practice in the AJ100 (2010), the largest engineering firms and contractors, and promoted online through social networking media.

The survey begins by examining the role of the architect and asks participants to select the tasks that they would expect an architect to undertake. In the next section the relationship between architects and wider society is examined, including questions on risk, liability and value. The third section presents respondents with a series of statements made by key figures in recent discourses on the future of architects, asking them how strongly they agree or disagree with them. Finally, respondents are asked how they feel the role of the architect, and his or her relationship with society, will change in the future. Demographic data was also collected, with participants filtered into two types: those who consider themselves to be part of the architectural profession and those who do not.

There is growing speculation about the future of the profession, highlighted in the recent report published by the Building Futures Think Tank at the RIBA The Future for Architects (2011). This survey reveals that the majority of respondents do believe that architects have a role to shaping 21st century cities but that the way in which they practice, principally the relationship between ‘design’ and ‘construction’ processes will have to change for architects to continue to be relevant.

If you took part in the survey, or are interest in reading the full report, please contact me via email for a pdf copy at mail[at]luke-butcher[dot]com.


Demographic data about participants was collected at the end of the survey but it is important, before beginning further analysis, to make some observations about those who completed it. The survey results should be considered in relation to this data as it frames the personal experiences of respondents and their relation to both architects and the architectural profession.

Respondents were able to select whether they classified their primary occupation as architectural or not and a larger proportion of respondents were ‘architectural’ (77%) than ‘non-architectural’ (23%). However, of those architectural respondents only 39% of these classified themselves as architects with 16% being students, 2% technicians or technologists, 7% academic and 36% classifying themselves as ‘other’.

Non-architectural respondents were further differentiated into those who work in the ‘built environment industry’ (79% of these respondents) and those who don’t (21%). Of those who do work in the built environment industry occupations and job titles included: civil engineers, mechanical engineers, environmental engineers, planners, project managers, developers, tradesmen and journalists. Interestingly a number of non-architectural respondents described their occupation and job title as something that other respondents considered to be architectural, such as interior designers.

International breakdown of survey responses

Information on the geographic distribution of respondents was also collected. 89% of all responses came from the UK, meaning that the survey results can be said to have a UK focus. Other responses did come from Europe (Belgium, Cyprus, Germany, Ireland and Spain), North and South America (United States of America and Chile) and Australia, although there were no more than 2 respondents from any of these countries. The majority of UK responses came from either the North West (32%) or the South East (31%), with two major metropolitan centres (London and Manchester) accounting for 51% of total responses.

UK breakdown of survey responses

Gender breakdown reveals that 54% of respondents were male, 41% female and 5% preferred not to say.

The Role of the Architect

The survey began by asking “what types of jobs/tasks would you expect an architect to undertake?” these functions were defined by those used in the 2005 report ‘Architectural Practice Around the World’. With the exception of ‘other’ all functions were selected by at least 60% of respondents. Of the functions with the lowest responses there are other professions within the built environment industry who would be accepted to carry out these tasks; for example, ‘Territorial Planning and Development’ (60%) could be handled by a planner and ‘Design of Structures’ (62%) by a structural engineer. ‘Design of Buildings’ (98%) received the most followed by ‘Drafting or Technical documentation’ (89%) and ‘Feasibility Studies’ (88%).

What types of jobs/tasks would you expect an architect to undertake?

The architect, according to respondents, is an individual whose primary responsibility is the design of buildings but who is also involved in a range of other activities associated with the built environment including producing technical documentation, feasibility studies, urban planning, conservation, interior design and the supervision and coordination of construction. These functions should be protected in law although the difficulties of doing so are obvious when you consider that an architect might be expected to undertake tasks that may be the responsibility of other professionals, such as the design of structures. As well as protection of function, the title of architect should be protected in law. Furthermore the practice of architecture is neither solely an art nor a profession but a combination of both.

How important is the architect in leading the design and construction process of ...?

Participants seem to agree that design and construction are treated separately under the current system although a greater proportion of those who do not classify their primary occupation as architectural view them as being separated. Within both design and construction processes respondents agree that the architect plays an important role in leading these processes. The architect is seen as being more important in leading the design process than the construction process but nonetheless has an important role to play. That the architect is less important in the construction process is reflected in the tasks an architect is expected to undertake, with more emphasis on design tasks.

The emphasis on design shows that architects have lost some ground compared to what a practicing architect would have been expected to undertake 50-100 years ago, when they would have been expected to lead both design and construction. Tasks such as controlling the construction costs would have fallen under the jurisdiction of the architect but with the advent of quantity surveyors they are less expected to do so, the same can be said where other professionals have emerged within the built environment industry.

The Architect in Society

If an architect is both an artist and a professional it can be assumed that, as a body, architects will share common characteristics with other professions. These include having a skill based on theoretical knowledge derived from an extensive period of education and having attained a prescribed level of competence in order to join a professional body or to work autonomously. This sets up an interesting relationship with society and the wider public and it is not uncommon for a professional body to have its own code of ethics, to monitor the relationship between those within the profession and those outside of it, including the public.

The survey asked participants to consider whether an architect’s primary responsibility should lie primarily with the client, who employs them, or society, who the work may have an impact on. Respondents could also choose to divide this responsibility between client and society and 39% of all respondents opted to share responsibility equally between both client and society. Perhaps unsurprisingly 95% of all responses showed that architects should accept some level of responsibility in the design and construction process. That 47% of respondents felt architects should accept more responsibility in the process is of more interest.

Should an architect’s primary responsibility lay with their client or society/the public?

Respondents were asked to give their opinions on why architects can or can not add ‘value’ to a project and to give an explanation of what they understand value to mean, when applied to architecture and the built environment. Common explanations of value given by respondents involved the architect adding a qualitative, social benefit that improves the quality of life, aesthetically and experientially, for all who use and experience the built environment. The idea of ‘doing more with less’ was also prominent, maximising potential with a given set of inputs. Some participants did stress the importance of economic and monetary benefits, with a number commenting that an architect can add economic value to a project through his or her expertise.

The general consensus from the comments was that architects are limited in the value they can add to a project. These limitations though are on both the demand and supply side of the industry. Architects were criticised by some for being ‘ignorant’, lacking integrity and professionalism, and for being short-sighted in their outlook. Concern was also raised over limitations from private and public clients who are only concerned with project margins and that certain types of contract, such as design and build, have shifted focus away from design quality. Some respondents were more optimistic, pointing out examples of where architects have been able to add value by working with society and working closely with the client.

The survey results would suggest that architects should have a relationship to society where they are equally responsible (and perhaps by extension accountable) to their client and society. Architects should be accepting both responsibility and liability in the design and construction process, and in the future the level of these should be at least equal to current levels but a large number of respondents believe they should accept more responsibility. Proportionally more non-architectural respondents believe that architects should also accept more liability in the process. There seems to be little appetite for architects to become further removed from positions of responsibility. It remains unclear as to whom they should be more responsible for and accountable too although it would seem that they should be accountable to both their client and society. The survey could have asked respondents to comment not only on issues of responsibility but also accountability as this is different to liability. It would appear that value can be added but it requires all parties involved to be working towards it. Architectural and non-architectural respondents both felt that architects do accept responsibility in the design and construction processes. They could though accept more responsibility.


In the third section respondents were presented with seven statements and asked to what degree they either agreed or disagreed with them. The statements were chosen to reflect the current debate on the role of architecture and the future for architects. Any number of statements could have been chosen due to the frequency of discussion at present. These statements could be assumed to be representative of wider opinion, due to the prominence of the individuals who make them or the medium in which it is presented. It is therefore useful to gauge opinion on them.

Recent discussions have focused on the social implications of architecture. These have been fuelled by the world financial collapse in 2007 (that forced many practices to reassess they way they worked) and the growing awareness of the ‘sustainability agenda’. It is also a reaction to the last 15 years of architectural practice where architecture was closely aligned to the market-driven ideology of ‘architecture as spectacle’.

It would seem that respondents share the views of these commentators at the forefront of the discussion. There is overall agreement that “Architecture is essentially a social activity” (Sir David Chipperfield) and that “Every architect should, at every minute, be aware of the sociological implications of his or her choices” (Eric J. Cesal). Further comments about the “dysfunctional relationship” with society and the “fragile professional position” (Sir David Chipperfield) this creates demonstrates that architects are not currently able to best serve the society they should be serving (based on results from the previous section).

There is less consensus about how “marginalised as a luxury” (Finn Williams) architects are as a result of their relationship to society, with no agreement as to whether architecture is “unnecessary” for the majority of the built environment. Evidence already presented in this report would suggest that ‘good’ architecture is necessary to improve the quality of the built environment and therefore it shouldn’t be considered otherwise, perhaps explaining the lack of overall support, for or against, this statement.

The Architect in the Future

If the role of the architect has changed over time it may be safe to assume that in the future architectural practice will differ from what has gone previously. The future for architects will be difficult to predict and may or may not be markedly different from the type of practice that dominates today. It is with the future of architects that the final section is concerned, with respondents asked to consider not just the future for the architectural profession but the current design and construction processes at work today.

Architects, based on the results of the survey, do have a role to play in shaping 21st century cities but it remains unclear what form this role will take. The architect in the future may have to be involved earlier on in projects to make the best use of their skill set and then remain involved as the individual ensuring the “vision is created on the ground, not just on paper”. Examples of architects already doing this exist, and were given by respondents, but perhaps the wider profession is restricted by the design and construction process itself.

Whilst some participants saw the architect as one of many specialists contributing to the processes that shape the environment others were wary of further specialisation, fearing that this will dilute the profession’s decision making abilities, and that instead fewer professionals are be needed, each accepting greater responsibility. It would appear that what are currently treated as two separate disciplines ‘design’ and ‘construction’ need to be closer aligned and that this will only take place following changes to the processes involved in both ‘design’ and ‘construction’. Few respondents expanded on the exact dynamics of these processes or how they could change, with many focusing on the need for change in procurement, legislation and politics, believing that this would in turn enact change in the profession and the associated processes. There was little said about the need to change the way architects actually work, with the exception of having a greater awareness of sustainability in their designs.

The majority of respondents, based on results in previous sections, would seem to agree that architects have a range of skills to enable them to contribute to the built environment. If architects are to have a role they also need to better promote themselves and communicate with other professionals, and the wider public, about the skills they have and the value they can add to a project.


This survey shows that architects do have a potential role to play in shaping 21st century cities but that the exact nature of that role is up for debate. The primary responsibility of an architect today is the design of buildings but they are also involved in a range of other activities associated with the built environment including the production of technical documentation, feasibility studies, urban planning, conservation, interior design and the supervision and coordination of construction. Respondents felt that both the title and function of an architect should be protected in law but as it is difficult to define an exact function this would prove difficult. Furthermore the practice of architecture is neither solely an art nor a profession but a combination of both.

Questions persist not just about the future for architects but the wider industry, with a consensus that both design and construction processes, within which the various professionals operate, need to change. Again, the exact nature of this change remains unclear. It would seem that ‘good’ architecture does enhance the built environment but that it is questionable if the architectural profession, in its current form, is best placed to maximise on this potential and in turn maximise potential for both society and their clients. Although there are many examples of successful architecture enhancing the built environment respondents are critical of numerous projects that do not. This is surely not just a criticism aimed at the architectural profession. Judging by the responses from architects, and other professions, they seem eager to improve the situation and are frustrated at other factors that are making it challenging for them to do so.

Participants seem unclear on whether the future will lead to greater specialisation within the industry or if reactionary processes will lead to a generalisation of the services offered. It seems unlikely that architects would be able to oscillate between these two positions and it may lead to them becoming more ‘specialised’, shedding certain tasks that are more suited to other professions and taking on responsibility for others. There does seem to be an appetite for the architect to act as some form of ‘enabler’ who is able to bridge between both design and construction and coordinate projects, although this will surely be dependent on other external factors, such as project size, procurement method and other professions. It would seem architects need to become better communicators and more focused on selling to others what skills they can offer.

In some respects the initial survey did not probe far enough into these possible futures whilst some questions themselves may have been unintentionally leading. It would also have been good to have more responses from the demand-side of the industry, and to make comparisons between the wishes and beliefs of architectural and non-architectural respondents a little easier to see. Certain question types also had their own inherent limitations; for example the Likert-type scales (strongly disagree to strongly agree) offer no indication of rating between the intervals, nonetheless they are still useful for indicating order.

The findings from this survey were used to stimulate the next stages of this research project, the next step of which included a series of interviews, round-table discussions and case studies.