Shortage of architects in Chch

BUSY BEES: Finding staff is now a big challenge, says Christchurch architect David Sheppard.
BUSY BEES: Finding staff is now a big challenge, says Christchurch architect David Sheppard.

As the rebuild is shaping Christchurch, local architect firms are gearing up for the commercial boom in a competitive environment. Cecile Meier talks to two players about the growth of work in the field.

Official data last week shows architects' businesses in Canterbury are some of the fastest growing in the country.

Locals say it took off about a year ago and since then it's been busy, so busy firms struggle to find experienced new staff to tackle new projects.

Owner of Sheppard and Rout, David Sheppard, says the major stumbling block is finding suitable staff to keep up with the demand. His medium-sized firm's staff has increased by 50 per cent over the last 12 months, going from 15 to 22 architects.

"The number of architects working in Christchurch is not enough to deal with the huge increase in the quantity of work," Sheppard says. Sheppard had to hunt suitable staff in Wellington, Auckland, Asia and the United Kingdom.

Warren and Mahoney might be the largest architect firm in Christchurch, but they are facing the same problem.

Managing director Peter Marshall says the firm has hired 12 new architects in the last 12 months coming from the UK, Australia, or Kiwis returning from overseas. None were locals. Marshall says growth must be managed carefully.

"We're growing gradually. It would be very easy to get a lot of people and then find you don't have as much work as you thought you had. So we're just growing cautiously. But equally you've got to be slightly ahead of what your requirements are because if you do secure two or three big projects you need the staff to be able to carry it out."

Both Marshall and Sheppard expect more work to come. "A number of projects are still at the conceptual level because the clients are still searching for tenants but that situation is becoming a little bit clearer with government interested in providing employment opportunities in Christchurch," says Sheppard.

The market has remained very competitive, particularly for the key projects.

New players particularly from the real estate sector bring their own architect in the game - local firms now compete with Auckland and Wellington firms. Some are even setting up office in Christchurch.

"In some ways [the new competition] is good because we could obviously not handle everything on our own. What we don't want is for larger practices to come in and expect to get all the work," Sheppard says.

Marshall has noticed architects help each other more. "We're seeing a lot more collaboration between architects within New Zealand and Australia, especially for projects requiring a specialisation like hospitals and labs. That helps us manage our growth," Marshall says.

Architects are busy in all sectors - commercial, institutional and residential. And Marshall and Sheppard predict a busy year ahead, especially for builders.

"Architects lead the boom, we're the first to become busy," Sheppard says.

"A lot of buildings have been designed and are yet to be built, and and a lot of land owners are still waiting to get a building consent," Marshall says.

Local architects are ready to rise to the challenge.

"There are pressures on us, we have to be fully aware of what's going on but we're positive. We're much better off than other architects in other parts of the country," Sheppard says.

Figures from Statistics New Zealand show that business services, led by architectural and engineering services made the largest contributions to the June quarter's GDP growth. Business services were up 2.6 per cent, followed by retail trade and accommodation, up 2.1 per cent.

Economists and business commentators agreed the rebuild was helping fire activity around New Zealand.

The Press