Neil Stonell advises to continue honing your skills and building your portfolio, because historically downturns are followed by upswings, and great skills will always find a home.

Neil Stonell

Neil Stonell is the Managing Partner of Grimshaw’s Melbourne studio and a member of the Architect Champions of Change group.

Economic downturns & lessons learned

Times change, the industry is always in flux. The architectural profession has experienced many downturns, which have always been followed by upswings. The situation we are in is not entirely unusual, although the health aspect and the impact on society is unprecedented.

I entered the UK employment market in 1988, amid an economic downturn impacting the scale and type of work available.

I took a job with a sole practitioner who did shop fit-outs. It turned out to be excellent for on-site experience – retailers would come in with a job and three months later it would be built and opened for business It enabled me to start on small projects and build up design to site experience quickly and grow or upsize practice scale and project size at each change of employer.

It also taught me to be flexible with employment demands. The perfect opportunity is not always around and, in fact, may not be what you think it needs to be at the time.

Employment, the profession & the future

A decrease in work is unavoidable during a recession but there are ways to be ahead of the game.

Keep your resume and portfolio up-to-date. Make sure it is compelling and be innovative in how you present it. Unless there is dedicated HR, studio leaders only have a short window to understand a CV and discern if there is a cultural fit. If you are currently employed, work hard and be as valuable as possible to the practice.

I am always on the lookout for great designers and capable architects and sometimes I will see a resume of someone that I don’t have space for right now. Often it is about making contact and staying in touch as the right opportunity may not be there at that moment in time, but if the person and studio are the right fit for each other it is worth biding your time.

Develop and maintain strong relationships, such as lecturers, former colleagues or employers, friends of friends, as you never know who may lead you to your next opportunity.

Look for a mentor in the industry. They will have their finger on the pulse and you will be surprised how generous people can be with their time to help others.  Quite often these conversations are welcome breaks from day to day practice management discussions.

Keep learning. Hone your architectural skillset or perhaps investigate gaining some management skills (financial and other business-related skills become increasingly valuable as you progress). Take advantage of free industry learning events, too. Understand how all aspects of the industry works. Understanding how buildings go together can be as important as what they look like.

It’s critically important at this time to be flexible. Offer part-time working arrangements to employers (i.e. two days a week if that’s all an employer has available).

Beware of over-promotion. There is nothing worse than being employed and then struggling to meet expectations. Be honest but clearly talk to your strengths.

Look after your mental health. Uncertainty is not easy to manage so you must make the time to look after yourself and your mental health. Easier said than done in these times I know but it’s incredibly important to remain focused.

Architecture is a marathon not a sprint. Play to your strengths and remember – diligent, hard-working people with great skills will always find a home.

Opportunities for the profession

In this moment in time, budgets will be under pressure and economic efficiency will be key expectations for our clients. Understanding how buildings go together has always been important but a good knowledge of construction and fabrication will help designs navigate value management processes and post tender adjustments. There are new avenues for the profession to explore and create revenue from – BIM, Design technology, Virtual and augmented reality etc. Also, flexible or innovative investigations into digital fabrication and how to develop new interfaces with supply chains will provide opportunities.

Working in aligned fields & building skills

Be flexible while staying focused on your end goal. Working in aligned fields will broaden your knowledge, provide new skills and grow your network. If design and architecture is what truly motivates you, you will always find a job when they are available.

It also doesn’t mean that you stop designing. If you don’t have employment right now, look for other ways to continue building your portfolio – competitions, volunteering, writing etc.