Increased competition, increasing complexity of the profession, tension on prices: the major Belgian architectural firms are today confronted with multiple challenges. If the relevance of their work is not questioned, they must now show more creativity to keep a piece of the cake.
A salutary kick in the anthill for some. A stone in the pond for others. Large architectural firms now have to face much more competition than before. The little habits between promoters and architects have been undermined by the new approach of master architects who now encourage the setting up of competitions to encourage emulation and see new faces emerge. What today put on the same starting line about thirty Belgian architectural offices capable of applying for the construction of a large office building, a residential complex or a project mixing functions. Not to mention the appearance of young offices of more modest size but determined to clear a place in the sun before long.
A salutary kick in the anthill for some. A stone in the pond for others. Large architectural firms now have to face much more competition than before. The little habits between promoters and architects have been undermined by the new approach of master architects who now encourage the setting up of competitions to encourage emulation and see new faces emerge. What today put on the same starting line about thirty Belgian architectural offices capable of applying for the construction of a large office building, a residential complex or a project mixing functions. Not to mention the appearance of young offices of more modest size but determined to clear a place in the sun before long. “Of course, there are always some differences related to the size or skills of an office, says Renaud Chevalier, CEO of Assar Architects, which has 160 employees for a turnover of 18 million euros. Everyone cannot apply to build a 100,000 m2 office building or a 200,000 m2 hospital. But it is obvious that the gap has narrowed between the architects. It is more open.” And if Grégoire de Jerphanion, one of the founders of DDS+, an office of more than 80 employees based in Brussels, specifies that competition has always existed, he points above all to a different distribution of the cake: “Collaborations are multiplying today This is positive both for large offices who can discover playing fields that are not in their core business and for smaller players who can access projects that they could never have considered on their own. It is a will of the authorities but also a societal evolution. In public contracts, it has become practically mandatory to have two or three different signatures”. In Brussels, this situation was notably initiated by the new approach of Kristiaan Borret, the local bouwmeester in place since 2015. If it made many cringe at the time, it seems much better accepted today. “The market shares between the different architectural offices are more shared, he explains. Which is obviously never pleasant for those who had important ones. I can understand that, but everyone has their role. The old model is in any case behind us and the new working model is not yet completely determined. successors. I see that architects are becoming much more open to enriching practices. The competitions make it possible to exchange ideas, to learn about another approach. I believe that this is a real step forward in terms of architectural quality. And more and more promoters share this feeling, by organizing private competitions on their own. On the one hand, it’s better than the small affinities of yesteryear, but on the other hand, I plead for competitions open to all and which allow constant innovation. Star architects have an immediately recognizable architectural signature. However, the younger generation is less interested in this aspect. The existing building now determines the architectural choices more, especially since the circular construction is put forward. The architectural style is therefore replaced by a less showy but more subtle and intelligent architectural approach.” If the gap therefore decreases between the different offices of the country, the architectural landscape is nevertheless still dominated by a few behemoths accustomed to large-scale projects and international awards.The largest in terms of turnover is Jaspers-Eyers Architects (22.5 million, 130 employees).The office of Jean-Michel Jaspers and John Eyers has a string of major projects in Belgium.In the same galaxy , we can mention offices such as B2Ai, ArtBuild, Assar, Conix RDBM, Polo Architects, Archipelago, DDS+ or even A2RC.” Alongside these offices, there are, it is true, more and more which are medium-sized and which have between 15 and 30 people, notes Renaud Chevalier. They have the capacity to respond to calls for tenders for buildings of 15,000 to 30,000 m2. Their difficulty is then to have to focus mainly on one project, unlike larger offices that can work together on several files. There is also a concentration of skills. Growth through acquisition, which has also been one of Assar’s growth vectors.” Finally, it should be noted that some consolidation of the sector is expected in the coming years, given the increased complexity of real estate and architecture.”There have already been a few, our office can attest to that,” smiles Frederik Jacobs, co-CEO of Conix RDBM Architects, an Antwerp office with nearly 70 employees for a turnover of 7 millions of euros. And I think that will continue. Some founders of one office or another are approaching retirement age. BIM technology is essential today. Digitization requires a lot of investment, both financially and in terms of personnel. It is not given to everyone to be able to devote themselves to the design and the realization of a project. Not to mention that the number of regulations you have to comply with continues to climb. So choices have to be made. For example, our office has decided to no longer participate in competitions. We prefer to work with around ten regular clients who trust us, both in Belgium and the Netherlands.” While the talent of the Belgian offices is well established, certain choices nevertheless tend to raise doubts about their skills or even on their ability to carry out a large-scale project, because there are now countless projects that are carried out by two offices, one Belgian, the other international. international credibility.A Danish wave has, for example, swept over Belgium in recent years (Henning Larsen, Snøhetta, BIG, CFMøller), not to mention the Dutch (Neutelings Riedijk, OMA), the English (Hassel, Caruso St John) , the French (Viguier, de Portzamparc) or even the Japanese (Fujimoto). “Collaborating allows you to exchange ideas, recognizes Renaud Chevalier. This desire to expand the palette to a greater variety of offices, and therefore also to foreign offices, was initiated by the bouwmeesters and is now accepted by the promoters. This allows you to work differently. Even if, it must be recognized, the Belgian offices often have as many skills as the large foreign offices and do not necessarily need to be backed by another office. Especially since these foreign offices are often not used to building according to Belgian standards, where the quality/price ratio is quite high. Which can pose a problem.” An observation in any case shared by Pieterjan Vermoortel, CEO of B2Ai Architects (130 employees, 14.7 million turnover), who believes that “Belgian architects should be more aware of the architectural quality of their achievements. They have produced a significant number of exemplary projects. For example, we have built, with Aaprog and Boeckx, the AZ Zeno clinic in Knokke-Heist, a particularly innovative building. We must therefore not hesitate to put our work forward.” And Frederik Jacobs to engage: “I agree. Because using so many foreign offices can give the impression of not being appreciated at its fair value. That is problematic. Calling on a large Belgian office today gives as much prestige and commercial value to a project.” The fact remains that for the time being, the business card of one or the other foreign office still makes the difference. The commercial value of a project (and therefore resale) will be reinforced, even if the difference is more present in the office segment than in the residential one. “However, I think that we have arrived at a pivotal moment, believes Grégoire by Jerphanion. Selecting a foreign office made it possible to close certain cultural debates and avoid tensions. It was an easy choice, even if these offices have an incredible strike force. The Belgian offices have made immense progress as a result of these collaborations. Fashion has passed. From now on, there will above all be more collaborations between Belgian offices of different sizes and experience.” Finally, alongside all these observations, architects must also adapt to a real estate sector in full mutation. Under pressure via costs soaring construction costs, exploding land purchase prices and sale prices that must remain affordable to as many people as possible, the sector must also begin its energy revolution, not to mention new constraints, such as the reduction in demolitions /reconstructions, even more and more space devoted to circular economy operations.So many elements that complicate the lives of architects.“Our profession has become very complex, believes Pieterjan Vermoortel. To respond to this, we have also acquired skills in interior architecture, techniques and stability. It’s a new approach that brings us a multitude of opportunities to improve architectural quality. The constraints also make it possible to have a more efficient architecture. In any case, there is more reflection than before.” An opinion which is in line with that of Grégoire de Jerphanion, who specifies that sustainability and circularity have become essential: “You must therefore broaden your field of expertise to stay competitive. Flexibility and the ability to react quickly to market developments have become mandatory”. Especially in a context where construction costs are soaring, pushing some promoters not to activate their permit or to postpone the development of a project. ” I admit that I have great concerns about the evolution of construction costs, explains Pieterjan Vermoortel, who however has not yet had to suspend or postpone a project on which he is working. A project must remain affordable for the end customer, whether residential or office. However, the balance is becoming more and more difficult to find. On the other hand, I have less fear at the idea of seeing the architectural quality decrease following this reduction in profit margins. Both public authorities and promoters have now understood the importance of having quality work. All the more so in this period when the energy component no longer leaves anyone indifferent and calls for a duty to set an example at all levels.”