A rocky start to 2021 found the U.K. architectural profession grappling with the realities of an official Brexit from the E.U., amid an ongoing domestic economic slump compounded by a third national lockdown.
While the concurrence of Brexit and the pandemic has made distilling the individual impact of each challenging, the trade deal’s likely effect on the construction industry has at least become clearer over the last three months. Florian Frotscher, associate principal at Woods Bagot, believes that changes due to Brexit may include “increased costs of importing raw materials [from Europe], likely to add to construction costs, which could impact client decisions to proceed with projects.”
According to a joint statement from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Architects Registration Board (ARB), “60 percent of construction materials used on UK projects are imported from Europe. New rules will therefore have a huge impact on the sector.” And Brexit’s shock waves could extend much further. The same statement said that “the EU is the second-largest market for the export of UK architectural services worldwide, [and] 1 in 5 architects practicing in the UK originally qualified in the EU.”
The failure of the British government to fully consider exported services (as opposed to goods) during Brexit negotiations has resulted in unilateral conditions that negatively affect U.K. architects seeking to work in the E.U. Architecture remains a significant player in the U.K.’s service sector, contributing “£1.5 billion to the UK economy through direct and indirect exports each year,” according to RIBA’s Boosting the UK’s Architectural Exports 2018 policy note.
As of January, U.K. architects had lost automatic recognition of their qualifications in E.U. member states, except for the Republic of Ireland, where a mutual recognition agreement had already been reached. The U.K. government, on the other hand, will continue to recognize the qualifications of E.U. architects, though the Mutual Recognition of Professional Qualifications no longer applies.
To maintain access to opportunities for work in the E.U., many practices are looking to plant their feet on the continent. Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, for example, has opened a Paris office, and Stanton Williams plans to register all its principals in France, but smaller practices may find this untenable. Teoman Ayas, a founding partner of MIMStudios, said: “While we try to make use of connections in Austria and in Turkey to collaborate on potential projects, at the moment we are not in a position to consider a satellite office. I fear that in the long run this reduced international collaboration within the workplace will lead to a certain cultural drought as well.”
Larger practices are finding new bureaucratic hurdles, too. Frotscher said these include “a perception that shortlisting U.K. practices will require additional bureaucracy” and complicated VAT claim-back procedures that could either “be more time-consuming, leading to potential delays in cash flow, or in some cases no longer possible, adding costs to the project.”
A diversified architectural services export market may provide a counter to these Brexit winds, however. RIBA’s 2017 Global Talent, Global Reach report notes that £500 million ($691 million) in British architectural revenue came from international work in 2016, and more than 80 percent of British architectural exports serve markets in the Middle East, Asia, and North America.
Certain British firms confirmed the strength of this buffer. Responding to a Dezeen survey in January, directors at Allford Hall Monaghan Morris said: “To date, thankfully, [Brexit has had] no noticeable impact. The majority of our projects are in the U.K. and the U.S. and our clients for European projects (in the Republic of Ireland in particular) are international organisations.” Thomas Patterson, director and founder of Lux Populi, said, “We have largely dropped marketing in the U.K. and the E.U., with a new focus on the Middle East and Africa, where business is booming.”
And, while doors to the E.U. may have been shut, newfound autonomy has the U.K. government seeking to revamp the national architectural qualification system, including allowing the ARB the flexibility to recognize international qualifications it deems equivalent to U.K. standards. A consultation on proposed amendments to the Architects Act 1997 was held from November 2020 to January 2021, the forthcoming results of which may provide reciprocal professional recognition between the U.K. and non-E.U. nations like the U.S. Because of Brexit, international architects may soon gain easier access to the U.K. market, which may be music to stateside ears.