Op Ed: Canadian Architecture is in crisis

In January, David Green wrote in Architects Journal about the challenges faced by UK architecture practices. He frames the challenge facing practices as being at the crossroads of a high demand on the built environment while the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) is in “disarray.” He links this directly to the financial challenge presented by ever-lower fees.

The RIBA, like Canada’s Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC), does not enforce standards of practice. This is because the standards for practice are left to the regulators.

In Canada, we have a similar situation, with 11 regulators—one for each province (Yukon and Nunavut have no regulatory body for architecture). Nominally, these 11 Canadian regulators cooperate through ROAC, the Regulatory Organizations of Architecture in Canada.

These regulators are governed by provincial Acts, which set standards for practice that hinge on the importance of public safety as their primary objective.

Of course, architects are expected to adhere to building codes and minimum standards for practice. But merely being minimally code compliant is too low an objective; these Acts cannot regulate significant aspects of the role architecture can play in society.

As a companion to David Green’s article, Chris Williamson wrote in Architects Journal that, “There is so much interest in architecture right now. The standard of architecture is also, I believe, higher than ever.” He went on to advocate for how the RIBA can restore pride in the profession by, among other things, addressing low fees.

In Canada, too, the profession—and the public—want more of architecture than minimum code compliance. This was laid clear in the work done by the Future of Architecture committee over the last eight years. The Rise for Architecture report identified both a need and an opportunity for national leadership in advocating for a stronger national vision for architecture in Canada, centered around healthier, more equitable built environments, and greater accountability for how they are created.

Who should be advocating for architecture in Canada, and how should that advocacy be focused? In my view, a core issue for local, provincial, and national architecture advocates should be raising the standard for architecture—as supported by fair fees, improved procurement, and decent working conditions for the next generation of architects. A business advocacy voice is needed for architecture.

But somehow, this seems to have taken a back seat to other priorities. The regulators, either individually or through ROAC, could meet part of this need.  They see themselves, however, as limited by their responsibilities to the ‘public interest’ as narrowly defined by provincial acts and interpreted by regulators.

Often, awards are seen as a form of advocacy, and many of Canada’s architecture awards programs are greatly valued for the recognition they provide. . The Governor General’s Awards and the RAIC Gold Medal are among the profession’s most prestigious national recognitions, and provincial awards programs like the OAA’s Design Excellence awards and the OAQ’s Prix d’excellence are similarly valued. David Green notes that, likewise, RIBA is good at publicity for awards. But this also has a downside, in his view. In the case of the UK awards, he writes, “there is the perception created… that such buildings are somehow accessible at costs which are, in fact, completely unrealistic for more clients in most areas.”

While architecture awards are supportive of those who win, it is less clear what they do for the profession overall—let alone for society. Not to detract from the winners, but how relevant are awards for projects with enormous budgets, or that set expectations that are unreasonable for most clients? How does an award resonate with a small town looking to build a library, and help them understand why a better RFP improves the chances of a successful project?

Alongside awarding exemplary work, the organizations that support architects need to engage in tougher forms of advocacy around better procurement, which would raise the standard of architecture across the board.

Times have shifted and the days of winning a public project based on experience and talent alone are long gone. As Alex Bozikovic has said, “Many of the best Canadian public buildings of the 20th Century were designed by emerging architects. Raymond Moriyama was not even 40 when he got the call for the Ontario Science Centre. In today’s procurement process, he wouldn’t even be considered.”

Except for a few pockets of enlightenment, procurement is being driven by departments or personnel with little or no understanding of architecture, its role, process, or obligations. Contract supplemental conditions are longer than the original contract, and filled with clauses that transfer an unreasonable amount of risk. Organizations will use a heavily modified contracts as the basis of their agreement. To their credit, some provincial regulators offer practice support. But the majority of contract issues, no matter how onerous, currently come down to business decisions, because the number of complex RFPs is very large, and the sphere of regulatory issues is very small.

We need to see a future for our profession. We need a call to action to embrace the sort of positive change we need from our regulators and national advocacy bodies.

Since 2014, the Future of Architecture committee members have met, collaborated, and talked about this sort of future. This work was funded by CALA, now ROAC, and brought together national voices concerned about the future. Consultations were held with the public, with members and with the government. Funding was obtained to hold workshops with students and university schools of architecture across the country, bringing together the bright minds of tomorrow to create an idea for where and how our profession needs to adapt. This culminated in a series of calls to action for the profession, for architects and practices, and for all levels of government. But since completion of the work, there doesn’t appear to have been any commitments to any outcomes.

Some people will say that all of these big ideas and calls to action are out of reach, when the cost of running their business is becoming unsustainable.

This brings us back to the question of fees. Advocacy for architecture businesses is not the same as advocacy for architecture. How do we create an advocacy voice for the needs of practices faced with a continual race to the bottom, unacceptable contracts, and a worsening business climate that, at the same time, is demanding ever more of our profession?

Provincial regulators cannot enforce a fee guide; this is specifically regulated by the Competition Act. A 2007 report specifically noted that any published fee guideline is voluntary in nature but is problematic from a competition perspective since “they risk facilitating overt or tacit collusion.”

That said, Quebec makes a case for a minimum fee standard through C-65.1, an Act Respecting Contracting by Public Bodies, commonly referred to as “le decret.” This act sets out hourly rates and fees for contracts with government and, while not robust, it is, at least, a starting point for reasonable fees. If everyone bids according to le decret, then fee-based competition disappears, and selection is based on skill and talent.

Currently, a firm can submit a fee for a project that is absurdly low, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. That low fee can—and often does—create an expectation of reasonableness in the minds of clients who come to expect low fees as “good enough.”

A recent public project I followed in Ottawa did exactly that, and it’s not outside of the current norm. The RAIC fee guideline suggested an architecture fee in the range of 6 per cent for a complex building; adding in engineering and specialty fees put the recommended fee in the range of 10-12 per cent. The project was awarded for a fee of less than 4 per cent, all-in. The client’s expectation is that this normal, because “that’s what industry pays.” That sets the bar for future expectations and assumes that the going rate in the private sector is comparable to the public sector where services, scope and responsibilities may be different.

This is a serious issue. This requires robust client education to know why a low fee is risky, and how to get the right fee.

It is an even bigger issue for the survival of firms.

In the UK, according to Green, half of practices saw billings fall in 2023, and 20 per cent of practices are in danger of financial ruin. In the US, the architecture profession is also clearly in trouble: the AIA Billings Index showed, as of November 2023, declining billings, and a soft market with weakening business for the fourth consecutive month, despite a supposedly thriving US economy.

Meanwhile, just like in Canada, younger architects in the UK appear to be rejecting the established expectation of long unpaid hours, unpaid overtime, and a workplace culture that sacrifices quality of life for professional careers. This is also true in the United States: in 2022 when SHoP Architects employees planned to unionize to “prevent exploitation of our time and our talent” they noted that “we have grown accustomed to unsustainable practice such as endless overtime and deadlines which result in burnout and lack of work-life balance.”

In Canada, discussions on fair labour practices go unheeded by client groups who are concerned only if there is a violation of the Employment Standards Act, and not if there is a moral failure to adhere to better practices such as paying time for hours worked, let alone paying a living wage.

Canada does not currently have the equivalent of an AIA Billings Index; developing a Canadian Architectural Billings Index, in partnership with Statistics Canada, would be ideal. It would lend support to data that some regulators have collected and shared, such as the OAA’s 2018 report that showed that architecture affects 14 per cent of Ontario’s GDP. This could become an important tool for advocacy on fair fees, investment in public sector projects, and the value of a healthy profession to the economy.

If the Competition Bureau believes that “fee guides [should be to] provide consumers with information they need about prices” and this falls to regulators, who are generally constrained in their advocacy roles by their provincial Acts, who will be our advocate for fair fees? We, at the front line of the profession, are on our own, fighting for scraps at the bottom of the pile.

Architects need to voice their concerns to create a viable future not just for our profession, but for Canadians as a whole.

Architects need their regulators and insurance providers to insist on ethical, unamended, fair contracts and reasonable, fair, appropriate insurance coverage as a minimum standard of practice. It should be professional misconduct to agree to contract terms that are unfair; to underpay (or not pay) employees, and to underbid public sector contracts.

Provincial Architects’ Acts need to be updated to create clarity that advocacy for fair fees and procurement is an acceptable activity, as this serves the public interest: if firms can’t survive, and there are no more architects, who will design our buildings?

Our national and local advocacy organizations need to address the core needs of professionals to address the business needs of our industry. We need a business advocacy voice.

Individually and collectively, architects need to advocate for the practice of architecture, at local and provincial levels; we need to be supported by a broader organizational structure to connect with all levels of government and save our profession, in the public interest.

This is an existential challenge for the architects in Canada.

If we want architecture to be a viable career, and a viable business, we need to collectively raise our voice, demand action on our future and create a cohesive relationship between regulation and advocacy to empower change.

The time is now.

Architect Toon Dreessen is founder of Ottawa-based Architects DCA, a volunteer with the Future of Architecture initiative, and co-founder of the newly launched Ottawa Architecture Foundation. The Ottawa Architecture Foundation (OAF) is a public-facing organization dedicated to fostering conversations about architecture, design, and the built and natural environments.