Architects’ confidence remains strong – RIBA Future Trends April 2021

In April 2021 the overall RIBA Future Trends Workload Index fell by 5 points to a balance figure of +24, after an increase in March. Whilst the previous month’s optimism has moderated, expectations about future workload remain strongly positive.

Thirty-four per cent of practices expect workloads to grow in the coming three months, whilst most (56%) expect them to remain the same.  The percentage expecting workloads to decrease has fallen to 10%. Practices of all sizes are expecting workloads to increase, with larger practices remaining the most optimistic.

All regions reported an expectation of increasing workloads over the next three months.  London practices maintained a positive outlook with a balance figure of +12. The South of England remained confident with a balance figure of +19, although this is a drop of 13 points from last month’s high of +32. The Midlands & East Anglia went further into positive territory, up six points from last month, with a balance figure in April of +26. Wales & the West continued to report a firmly positive outlook, posting a balance figure of +31. The North of England remained the most optimistic region, with a balance figure of +44.

Among the work sectors, private housing remains by far the strongest, posting a balance figures of +35 in April (compared with +36 in March).  All sectors are broadly steady in their outlook, although the community sector has dipped to a negative balance figure.

Like the previous month, the commercial sector posted a balance score of +7, maintaining a positive view of the workload to come. However, the accelerated trend to online shopping may continue to suppress the retail sub-sector, and future requirements for office space remain unclear.

Optimism about the public sector grew slightly this month, to +2, up from zero last month. The community sector dipped back into negative territory this month, posting a balance figure -2, down from zero last month.

In terms of staffing: 

  • The RIBA Future Trends Staffing Index increased by 4 points to +11 this month.
  • 5% of practices expect to employ fewer permanent staff in the coming three months, while 15% expect to employ more. A clear majority (80%) of practices expect staffing levels to be constant over the coming three months.  
  • Medium and large-sized practices (11+ staff) continue to be most likely to recruit permanent staff in the coming three months, with both groups posting strongly positive figures of +43. Over 40% anticipate some increase in permanent staffing levels over the next three months.  
  • With a balance figure of +6, small practices (1 – 10 staff) also expect staffing levels to grow, although fewer smaller practices anticipate recruitment.
  • The Temporary Staffing Index returned a balance figure of +5 in April
  • For the first time since 2019, London has posted a positive permanent staff balance figure.  Up from zero in March, April’s figure is +9, with 13% of practices anticipating recruitment.
  • The South of England (+6, up by two points) and the Midlands & East Anglia (+8, up by 6 points) are moderately optimistic about future staffing levels.
  • The North of England (+15, up two points) and Wales & The West (+13, down 5 points from March) remain comparative employment hot-spots.  In Wales & The West, more than a fifth (22%) of practices expect permanent staff numbers to increase.
  • Personal underemployment fell to 18% (by 2 points) in April.  Overall, since the onset of the pandemic, redundancies are at 3% of staff.  Seven per cent of staff remain on furlough. Staffing levels are at 99% of a year ago.
  • The savage reduction in staffing levels that many feared at the start of the pandemic has not materialised.

RIBA Head of Economic Research and Analysis, Adrian Malleson, said: 

“While the overall Workload Index has fallen slightly and confidence has moderated in some areas, April’s Future Trends marks a consolidation of March’s surge in practice optimism. Practices are increasingly confident about longer-term profitability, with 16% expecting profits to rise over the next year and 39% expecting them to be steady.”

“Challenges remain for a significant number of practices, however, with 4% suggesting they are unlikely to remain viable over the next 12 months, and a third expect profitability to fall (although both these numbers continue to come down).”

“The commentary received in April describes a growing market for architects’ services – high levels of work and enquiries, with staff increasingly being brought off furlough to meet demand.”

“Work in sectors such as education is increasing but the fastest growth is in the residential sector, with projects such as energy retrofits, extensions and refurbishments needed to support home working.  There are regional hot spots as people relocate, often from London. However, whilst there is more work, in many cases it is lower value than pre-pandemic. Practices have also reported that a slow pace of planning administration continues to put a brake on some projects.”

“RIBA continues to be on hand, providing support and resources to our members as they navigate these challenging times.