Looking into the crystal ball: what you need to know about 2017

11 December, 2016


If we’ve learnt anything in 2016, it’s that a massive percentage of the world’s population feels left out.

In the UK this became a vote for Brexit that hit architects hard. We don’t know how Brexit will turn out and if London will retain such a concentration of knowledge-based industries, from fintech to architecture. But what we do know is that the vote to leave was a backlash of people left behind by globalisation, who feel that a London elite has little concern for them and their problems. Most recently, Patrik Schumacher’s housing policy speech confirmed this suspicion: rich and mobile people like Schumacher don’t understand the lives of everyone else in society.

The second big takeaway from 2016 is over transparency. This is partly because in an age of social media there are very few places to hide: everyone and everything is knowable. But the pressure for greater transparency is also driven by a loss of faith in institutions, RIBA being one example of a body that no longer seems to have architects’ interests at heart.

So, how well UK architects make it through 2017 will depend not only on their ability to cope with this new world but to understand what caused it in the first place and have some good ideas how to fix things.


Brexit: only brands with a strong message and strategy will find success

Before June 23rd architects were in a fortunate position of having more work than they could comfortably handle. After June things became a lot more uncertain with practices losing millions of pounds of work overnight. Brexit’s outcome is unclear but more certain is that running a practice has just got a whole lot harder.

              What to do

  • Define who you are. The uncertainty over Brexit means it’s even more critical to stand out and find your USP. If you don’t you will fail, Roger Black told architects at the last Architect Pitch. “We’re being hit by architects all the time and the work is all very much the same”. Only brands with a strong message and strategy will find success, he said.
  • But this doesn’t mean becoming a specialist (remember those architects who ‘specialised” in schools only to see all the work collapse when BSF was scrapped)  But it does mean focusing on your key messages. What is the service you’re offering and how can you differentiate yourself from someone else offering much the same thing?
  • Use the Christmas break to do some thinking and go back in the New Year with a new plan about who you are
  • Enter the next Architect Pitch.


Virtual Reality: a generational shift

While 2016 saw the launch of Google’s Tilt Brush that lets you paint in 3D space while wearing a VR headset few architects will be designing within virtual reality in 2017. But it’s not as far away as you might think. The property industry has embraced VR faster than designers simply because it allows them to sell more effectively. Prospective buyers or tenants can experience the space before the construction has even started.

The benefit to architects is that if VR is woven into the creative process from the beginning it allows ”deep level design decisions to made quickly”, says Ben Davies of digital agency The Neighbourhood.

“There’s always generational shifts and new tools- think of CGIs 30 years ago or even drawing back in the day -and very soon it will become completely normal to be in an immersive environment”, he says.The issue – and the reason perhaps that VR has yet to find its way into practices – is that those making decisions about what technologies to use find VR a difficult tool to grasp “because they haven’t grown up with it”, adds Davies, who is working on several VR projects for architect clients.


Modular prefab: a great idea in principle

After the excitement of 2106 when the government pledged to build 100,000 modular prefabricated homes as a way to solve the housing crisis, 2017 will see reality slowly set in. Of course it’s a great idea in principle. But  to make this method cost effective ie. rolling out huge numbers of homes, would mean the construction industry completely changing how it works and that’s not going to happen.

The successful schemes – and they will be fairly small – will be those where the architect, developer and contractor all work for the same company. In other words, the initial design doesn’t get lost in translation on the factory floor, and design, development and construction teams are all involved at the very start of a project.

But modular schemes that do make it through, such a those by Pocket,  will re-open the conversation about the way we build and architects are trained and whether it’s finally time for a change.


The experience: the attraction of places will be found in the small, individual and local

In an era when young people rate experiences over things, the attraction of places will be found in the small, individual and local – the beautifully crafted bench or the weekly food market – not the arrival of a Tesco or a building designed by a ‘stararchitect’.

In 2017 developers will be looking for architects that understand experience-making rather than place-making and where the events and activities on offer – the architecture, public spaces, shops and cafes – all work together.

               What to do

  • Architects need to learn to talk engagingly about how a place will feel and the emotional effect it will deliver. Narrative or story telling has traditionally sat in marketing teams but increasingly these are skills architects will have to offer because it’s where the conversation starts.

The connected office: bringing architecture, design and technology together

The future of the office is hard to predict especially as it’s being disrupted by new technology and demographics. For example, cloud computing and the proliferation of mobile tech means it is no longer necessary to work at your desk and with the need for fewer fixed computers, desks will begin to disappear to be replaced by meeting rooms, coffee bars and giant screens to ensure everyone remains connected.

In 2017, companies on the move will want a service that can bring architecture, technology and design together with tech the most important of the three. That’s because spending on IT budgets has gone from around 5% to over 20% in just over a decade.

               What to do


The food hall: authentic messages and authentic interactions

While retail will continue to freefall in 2017, food halls will see aggressive growth as Millennials choose to spend their money eating out and prefer to socialise in non-branded spaces that offer an individual experience.

In 2016 one of the founders of Italian-American chain Eataly opened Mercato Metropolitano in a disused paper factory in Elephant & Castle, south London specialising in small-scale farmers and local producers.

It was set up as a reaction to ‘large scale big industry which is overdeveloped and short on principles” – a sentiment exactly tuned to today’s younger consumer who wants authentic messages, authentic brands, and authentic interactions, says the Huffington Post.

The explosion of food halls will continue as retailers see them as a way of boosting footfall and sales while in the US, hoteliers, office and apartment building owners are plugging in food halls on the ground floor of their buildings to create buzz and excitement. Could the same happen here ?

              What to do

  • Get yourself to Mercato Metropolitan in London, Nick Johnson’s market in Altrincham and his new space opening in Manchester’s Northern Quarter next year.


The Viking invasion: clients warm to Scandinavian openness

BIG’s arrival in London in 2016 gave practices a scare.  Architecture’s equivalent to Kayne West, Bjarke Ingels grabs headlines and airwaves because of his artistic fearlessness and the compelling narrative he generates. BIG may be in a league of its own but it’s not the only Scandinavian practice aimed at the UK market.

Snøhetta, while not active here yet, is looking for the right commission to launch a London office while White Arkitekter, which came to London in 2015, has just won its first major job from the Diocese of London to redevelop Saint Augustine’s Church in Colindale.

It’s been a good year too for Norwegian/UK practice Haptic whose Istanbul airport (with Grimshaw and Nordic) won the infrastructure project of the year at WAF in November.

Clients warm to Scandinavians’ openness, their entrepreneurial spirit, craft tradition and the fact Danish architects are still responsible for cost control and project management, which gives them a certain edge over their UK counterparts.


Film: producing film and video content has never been easier

Architects don’t like film. It doesn’t give them the control a book does and neither does it sit in the reception asking to be stroked.

But this is changing. in the UK Grimshaw Architects has made 27 short films about individual projects and released them on its new website.The architecture looks gorgeous but it’s the human voice that’s most important – the people who use the buildings as well as the clients – that makes this a breakthrough moment.

Other practices are following but cautiously. Most haven’t got Grimshaw’s back catalogue but producing film and video content for websites has never been easier. Add to this that internet connection speeds are ever improving. we will see more and more use of video on architects’ websites in 2017.


The temporary: containers with a conscience

Entrepreneurial architects are setting up local regeneration projects that provide local employment, like Pop Brixton,  a container community with a conscience offering start-ups subsided rates and encouraging tenants to get involved in the community.

While short-term lets on empty space has long been seen as a way to help landlords through bad times, pop-up investors are starting to see the potential in this new, socially committed pop-up model because of their ability to create unique experiences and attract younger consumers.

                 What to do

  • Visit Pop Brixton, take on pro-bono projects, join steering groups, do voluntary work to meet people outside your own professional circle, come up with a profitable idea that has community benefits and learn how to write to a business plan that will attract funding.

People power: why there’s no substitute for real conversations

If 2016 was about protesting at the ballot box, 2017 will bring further disruption but closer to home it will embolden people to protest against unpopular developments using communication platforms like Twitter and SnapChat.

              What to do

  • Get out there ! Don’t think you can hide away in an ivory tower. And don’t rely on social media to get your point of view across. When real insight is needed, there’s no substitute for close contact with ordinary people.
  • Open your business up a little. Show what’s happening behind the scenes. Pop Brixton’s architect Carl Turner has his studio on site – there’s no working behind closed doors for him – because it’s how you get people to trust you.