Achieving architectural commerciality

As a profession, we are often rightly criticised for lacking commercial sensibility, explains our Director, Ken Earl. In this the first of two articles, he outlines why our education system must adapt.

Over the course of my career, I have lost count of the number of schemes that have landed on my desk from clients saying, “Can you improve on this? It doesn’t stack up. The plans really aren’t maximising my opportunity.”

These schemes are often very convincing at face value with lovely 3D visuals and graphics as well as beautifully constructed and proportioned elevations which give them the wow factor. But all too often, whilst they have been worked up to a detailed level of information – at great expense to the client – the commercial opportunity has just not been maximised.

Of course, I am not suggesting that commercial factors should be the sole drivers of a project – though it’s not all about aesthetics and design ego either. Press coverage for a scheme completed or winning an award are great things to be aspired to, but they should never be the main driver for any project. What we must never forget is that we are spending someone else’s money.

The solution lies somewhere between these extremes; a commercially successful scheme that has design integrity and makes a positive contribution to society, the built environment as well as the wider environment. It is fundamental that as a profession we strive to understand the client’s specific commercial drivers and strive to add value to the process.

So how do we set about achieving this balance? I believe the first step is to re-evaluate our architectural education system.

It takes at least seven years to train to become an architect and yet, architectural courses largely overlook commerciality. Student after student that spends time in either our Leeds or London office receives a short, sharp shock at the realities of working in an architectural practice.

Without a doubt, employing students and recent graduates brings with it great benefits to an architectural practice, including a fresh design approach, new ideas and an injection of enthusiasm.

I fully appreciate and embrace the fact that we have a duty to help train the future members of our profession. But due to the commercial shortcomings of the architectural education system, the time (and money) required to train graduates so that they gain a thorough commercial understanding is unnecessarily excessive.

Applying commercial thinking is central to everything we do here at Box Architects. Leeds City Council recently approved our plans for an 18-storey tower. The existing site has several constraints, and its potential as a viable development site was not immediately apparent. And yet in a report for City Plans Panel, Sarah McMahon, Principal Planner at Leeds City Council, remarks: “The overall design is of a high quality, contemporary, suitability scaled and positioned scheme that would be appropriate for this site and would make a positive aesthetically appropriate contribution to the context of the wider area.”

It is my contention that architectural education is too focused on design and should include commercial training to address the perceived imbalance within the profession. I believe creativity has as much to offer the commercial world as it does the artistic – and the two are not mutually exclusive.

In my next article, I’ll explain what steps we can take – both as a practice and as a profession – to address the lack of commercial sensibility in architecture.

What are your thoughts on commerciality? As a profession, are we embracing commerciality in architecture? I would be most interested to hear your thoughts, so please do post your comments below or email me at