Architectural rankings – is it possible to be objective?

The number 1 by WarmSleepy, on FlickrI’m taking a little break today from my series on collaborating with engineers because over the last few days I have been a bit baffled and slightly annoyed by the online chatter in relation to Building Designs annual world’s 100 largest architectural firms list (WA100). The main list ranks architecture firms based upon the numbers of fee earning architectural staff. You can see the list of the top 100 here. Across the globe they also look at the work firms are doing in various industry sectors and regional sectors – less information about these lists is freely available online, but you can find some information on the Australian firms in this article.

However, the big problem with these lists is what do they really mean? ArchDaily has further examined the numbers and dug deeper into the lists in a piece titled “The World’s Largest Firms Have Been Ranked… But Does It Matter?” (although from the web address I believe the article was originally called “…but not in any way that matters”) This article discussed alternative ways of ranking. First identifying one of the other listings found within Building Designs paid compendium – the top five most admired architectural practices and then coming up with their own lists based upon analysis of the WA100 figures . These were the top 5 fee earners, top 5 money makers and top 5 most efficient firms.

In looking at the analysis, ArchDaily makes it clear that a top five most admired architectural practices list will always be quite subjective, whilst “Building Design clearly states that their ranking is an objective resource outlining data on the world’s 100 largest firms.” Based on the ArchDaily article or the Building Design WA100 information I have found online, its not clear how the Top 5 Most Admired List was put together. One assumes it relates to the level of prestige, perhaps coverage in architectural media, architectural awards and similar other factors. 3 of the 6 firms (there were two firms listed at Number 5) don’t even feature in the WA100 list. No one would debate the fact that the top 5 most admired or even top 5 most awarded firms list is always going to be subjective, whatever process is used to achieve the results.

The interesting thing is that Building Design really believes its WA100 list is objective. The publicity behind the list does not mention that the data is self-reported by the architectural firms. And that’s not all. To even be in this list one has to be a subscriber to Building Design. I know this because I made enquires about this list when it came out last year to find out why the firm I worked for wasn’t on it. So this is the first bias of the ‘objective’ data.

The second bias is the self reporting. Architecture is an industry which is frequently identified with big egos. This could perhaps lead to exaggeration of these self reported figures. Architects frequently overstate how many staff they have, how big their jobs are and about just generally how big or great their practice is. Because these figures include not just registered or licensed architects it is pretty difficult for anyone to verify if the actual staff numbers are true. If the company is not publicly listed or undertakes work other than architecture it would also be difficult to verify if the earnings reported are true either. It is also possible that due to differences in services offered or differing fee structures that the figures are impossible to compare – the old saying of trying to compare apples and oranges. So in the end, it becomes a pretty meaningless comparison.

On another interesting point – I personally know that 3 of the top 5 firms listed in Regional highest earners: Australasia have been making staff redundant in the last 12 months. It actually wouldn’t surprise me if it was actually all 5. Its interesting to me that in a time where architecture is still struggling to stay economically viable and there are many architects looking for work worldwide, that firms would actually want to promote these kinds of figures (especially on the internet where all the currently unemployed architects like me have so much time to read and comment!).

Is there any point to architectural rankings at all? I doubt the clients really care if their firm is ranked no #73 in the world on size – they care more about the quality of service they receive. Sure some people will care about if their architect is most admired – but that will mean something different to every single client. Can you think of any worthwhile or objective way to rank architectural or design firms?

At this point I will admit to my personal bias here – as anyone who checks the about section of the website will already know – I worked for one of the firms mentioned in these articles and was made redundant in 2012.

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