Australian architects do not need to be too worried about the influx of cheap drafting and design services from China, Professor Xing Ruan, Director of Architecture Discipline at the University of New South Wales, has said.

Speaking to Scott Flett, a registered architect in NSW, Professor Ruan downplayed the concerns local practices might have about the competition they could face from Chinese firms with the signing of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in November last year.

Although the number of registered architects in China far outweighs the number in Australia (36,000 versus Australia’s 11,000), becoming a registered architect in Australia requires possessing the suitable qualifications, gaining local experience, and passing the Architectural Practice Examination (APE).

This tedious process will lessen the impact the FTA could have on the movement of Chinese architects to Australia, Flett writes in the Business Spectator. APE enrolments and the Architect Accreditation Council of Australia, the body responsible for the registration and regulation of architects, will also monitor the effect of the provision.

Although the Association of Consulting Architects Australia’s (ACA) National President, Steve Kennedy, mentioned that there is a real danger the FTA will result in heightened competition, particularly for smaller firms, regulations expertise – knowledge Chinese firms might not necessarily have – will set local firms apart and keep them in demand.

However, the same can be said for Australian practices looking to do more work in China. Although the FTA will allow Australian architectural and urban planning firms to obtain more expansive licenses to undertake higher-value projects in China, barriers still remain before access is ‘truly free’.

According to Flett, foreign architecture firms working in China would have to seek the approval of a Local Design Institute (LDI) through the submission of their construction drawings, effectively giving construction control to the LDI.

As a project moves from development to construction documentation, the LDI often takes control of the building process, with little collaboration on the design intent of the details.

“You must give the bulk of the work to the Chinese Design Institute and you, in a sense, become a consultant to that institute, as opposed to in the other countries, like in Australia, where your expertise is called for across the entire length of the project," BVN principal James Grose previously observed.

While the new FTA provision seems to allow Australian firms to operate in China without the oversight of the LDI, issues such as intellectual property rights, payment security, procurement transparency, and the lack of Client-Architect Agreements standards have not been addressed and continue to be significant challenges.

“Nor does this list include significant barriers outside the scope of an FTA: language, culture, local building and construction standards, and proximity to construction sites,” adds Flett.

“These all mean that mutual market entry between Australia and China will remain muted for many years to come.”