Nine in 10 UK architecture studios feel Brexit has had a negative impact on them, exclusive Dezeen research has found.
Three years on from the UK’s departure from the European Union (EU) on 31 January 2020, Dezeen conducted a survey of 50 architecture studios asking about their experiences of working post-Brexit.
Respondents ranged from small studios with 15 or fewer people to larger practices with a hundred or more employees and mega-firms with a global presence, such as Foster + Partners and BDP.
The responses were overwhelmingly downbeat, pointing to higher construction costs, difficulties attracting European talent and additional administrative burdens.
Given the choice, 84 per cent of studios said they would rejoin the EU if the option was available. Only one studio (two per cent) said it would not, with the remaining 14 per cent indicating they were unsure or do not have a position.
Findings “little surprise”
“It comes as little surprise that the UK’s architects find little if nothing to commend Brexit and its aftermath,” said Eddie Miles, CEO of large international firm Hyphen of the survey results.
“It may take a generational shift, but we are pretty sure that closer cultural, political and commercial relationships with our European neighbours are inevitable, including hopefully applying for re-admission to the EU.”
Overall, 90 per cent of studios surveyed by Dezeen said Brexit has negatively impacted them, with 66 per cent feeling the impact has been “somewhat negative” and 24 per cent saying “very negative”.
The remaining 10 per cent felt there has been no discernible impact, meaning none of the respondents believe Brexit has had a positive impact on their practice.
Studios were able to share comments about their experiences of life outside the EU at various points in the survey.
"Brexit has been a catastrophe," said Piers Taylor's Somerset-based firm Invisible Studio. "The barriers are obvious but it it is the cultural loss that is even greater. Architecture depends on cross-cultural exchange of ideas and benefits from free movement. It is staggering how diminished the UK scene has become post-Brexit."
The studio revealed it is now actively planning for a future outside the UK.
"We feel little interest in working in the UK, and feel limited interests in engaging with the UK as an idea or a social and cultural landscape and [this] has led us to refocus on working outside the UK," the studio added. "Post-Brexit, we'd be happy never to work in the UK again."
"Outside any ideological position on Brexit, from a purely business and commercial perspective, Brexit has been negative, making everything harder, adding to the costs and burdens of working in the EU," said major London studio RSHP.
"To date, it appears that there have been no benefits that anyone can list or point to," it added. "We'd be happier if there were."
"We could go on and on about how much of a disaster Brexit is for the UK as a whole, and what's more worrying is that we're yet to see the worst of the ramifications," remarked small London studio Surman Weston.
The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) said Dezeen's findings closely mirror what it has been hearing from the sector.
"The feedback the RIBA receives closely aligns with the results of the Dezeen survey," RIBA head of economic research and analysis Adrian Malleson told Dezeen.
"The EU is a vital market for UK architects and construction industry. RIBA members were clear that our new relationship with Europe needed to ensure low trade friction and high building standards. The former has failed so far, and the latter is under some threat."
Struggles recruiting and keeping EU staff
Losses of EU staff since Brexit and difficulty recruiting from countries in the bloc emerged as clear trends in the data.
More than half of respondents to the survey – 56 per cent – said their studios have experienced a loss of EU staff.
Asked if Brexit has made it harder to recruit people from EU nations, 70 per cent responded "definitely", while a further 10 per cent said "only slightly". Just one studio, a large London-based firm, indicated it had made no difference, and none felt it has become easier.
Several studios highlighted issues with staffing as a key concern.
"Recruitment of architectural staff has been made more difficult as EU staff have vanished and there are not enough UK-trained architects with relevant skills seeking work," said Sarah Wigglesworth Architects. "Salaries have risen. It is even harder for small firms to compete on salaries."
"One thing that is very clear is that our access to Europe's talent pool has shrunk drastically and so recruitment is a significant problem, and that affects resourcing of projects," echoed Hyphen.
The picture regarding recruitment from non-EU countries was less clear, with 22 per cent indicating that attracting talent from the rest of the world has been harder since Brexit but 42 per cent saying there had been no change and 34 per cent unsure.
Only one studio, a London-based firm, felt that recruiting from non-EU countries has become easier.
Rising material and labour costs
Just under half of respondents – 48 per cent – felt that Brexit has had an impact on their ongoing projects. Of the rest, 20 per cent felt it had not and 32 per cent were unsure.
In particular, many studios cited increasing material costs and slower supply chains, with much of the UK's construction materials produced in EU countries.
Another recurring theme was a shortage of skilled construction workers that is reportedly compromising build quality and driving up labour costs.
Combined, these issues are restricting budgets, with a small number of respondents mentioning cases where projects have been cancelled altogether over viability concerns.
"Pretty much every project has been impacted by rising material costs and availability of materials and longer lead times, a direct result of Brexit," said south-coast studio RX Architects. "Our contractors quite often mention that skilled labour is in shorter supply, which leads to less quality on site and higher prices for labour."
Among other problems highlighted were increased difficulty in winning competitions for projects in the EU, with London studio Waugh Thistleton Architects saying clients are "nervous" about hiring UK architecture firms and Michael Pawlyn's firm Exploration Architecture mentioning struggles obtaining professional indemnity insurance at an affordable rate.
However, there was not a clear trend showing that studios working overseas felt Brexit has led to a reduction in projects abroad. Of the 34 relevant respondents, 30 per cent said there had been no change and 44 per cent were unable to say.
Only 18 per cent of these 34 studios said there had been a reduction. Just one felt the number of overseas projects has increased – global firm Atkins, which said it deliberately sought out "more global opportunities" in an attempt to reduce the potential impacts of Brexit on its business.
Positives of Brexit
Respondents were specifically asked to describe any positive impacts of Brexit on their studio. Most that answered this question said there were none, and one Scottish studio simply responded: "Lol."
A handful mentioned that Brexit had encouraged them to expand abroad or that, due to their already-established presence in the EU, they have been able to out-compete smaller UK firms.
Aside from that, few benefits were mentioned, though one studio suggested that Brexit could make it easier to remove VAT on construction projects involving existing buildings as this rule was initially tied to EU legislation.
"One positive I have seen is that there has been renewed talk of equalising VAT on new builds and work to existing buildings," the respondent said. "If that change comes to pass, that would be great (and the right thing in terms of the climate crisis), although I suspect it's not likely while the government has such a big budget deficit."
There is evidence that UK studios are attempting to maintain ties in Europe despite Brexit-related difficulties, with a significant proportion of those surveyed putting resources into having a greater presence in the EU.
Responding to a question about investing in having a greater EU presence post-Brexit, 42 per cent of studios said they are already doing so.
Another 14 per cent said they are considering it and a further 12 per cent said they would if they had the resources.
Some studios shared examples of work they are doing to stay connected to the EU. For example, mid-sized London studio Henley Halebrown mentioned its Dialogues series of talks, which proactively invites architects, writers and curators as speakers.
"We feel that these grassroots cultural exchanges are more important than ever," said the studio.
The UK officially left the EU on 31 January 2020 following the Brexit vote in June 2016, with a one-year transition period meaning no changes kicked in until 1 January 2021.
Leaders across several industries have been increasingly vocal about the alleged negative impacts of Brexit in recent months, with IKEA, Asda, Siemens and the Bank of England among those to speak out.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development expects the UK's economic performance over the next two years to be worse than any other advanced economy, apart from Russia.
"The government continues to take full advantage of the benefits of Brexit, restoring the UK's status as a sovereign, independent country that can determine its own future," a UK government spokesperson told Dezeen.
The full list of respondents to the Dezeen survey is below.
The top photo is by John Crozier via Unsplash.
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