Building designers, it seems, are hot property for associations wanting to represent them.

Two groups currently dominate and are vying for national leadership – the NSW headquartered Building Designers Association of Australia and Design Matters National, formerly the Building Designers Association of Victoria, with its head office in Melbourne.

The lure is the offer to help building designers with their work, including networking, educational courses and technical assistance through self help groups and contacts with industry “partners” who can help untangle tricky technical issues at short notice.

In recent news, both major associations announced expansions.

The BDAA has merged with the Australian Building Sustainability Association, or ABSA, adding around 250 members specialised in thermal assessment, bringing total numbers to around 2000.

And from Victoria, the Design Matters National (previously Building Designers Association of Victoria) said this week that in line with its strategy for national growth, it had merged with the Building Designers Association of the Northern Territory (BDANT) and (UPDATED) on Thursday 17 December with the Building Designers Association of Western Australia (BDAWA). It too claims 2000 members.

Chief executive officer Peta Anderson says it’s a growing force with members including building designers alongside qualified architects, thermal performance assessors and other professionals, attracted by support networks and educational offerings.

She said the association ran three or four webinars a week on “anything to do with building design… and a series on sustainability.”

During Covid, the team ran a small business survival kit, “which we ran for free to help them prepare for Covid including topics such as finance, insurance and mental health”.

The group had a solid background that also included around 430 thermal assessors.

Although membership numbers claimed by both groups are similar, Ms Anderson said, “We are the largest national association for building designers in Australia.”

“We started in Victoria in the 80s, but we are truly national,” she told The Fifth Estate this week.

According to CEO of the BDAA Chris Knierim, the biggest value his members get is the communications and mutual support, especially through chat groups. “Some people might need to design a house with a BAL 40 but they’ve never done one, can someone give me some advice?’.” People in the members’ chat group will inevitably and quickly help them out. Likewise with technical issues.

“They don’t have to go to the hardware or wait three days for answer from a company’s technical team,” he said.

A media statement announcing the merger with ABSA this week said: “ABSA members will gain unprecedented power in terms of their reach, advocacy and creative possibilities, not to mention expansive access to a whole new network of sustainable building designers in need of their services. 

“The benefits of this unprecedented partnership are bound to exceed the boundaries of both associations, flowing outward across the Australian building industry and built environment.”

The merger is bound to form “unbeatable teams” that will render the environment as a whole “more functional, eye-catching and ultimately eco-conscious”.

The merger creates a “perfect synergy” between the two professions who would normally try to work with each other anyway, Mr Knierim said.

“We’ve already a sustainability master class,” he said. He also said that with Covid the organisation had seen up to 500 people sign up for online webinars, a number that would not occur in person. This was attracting the attention of big corporate partners who struggled to achieve anywhere near this level of reach, he said.

The outlook

On the outlook for members, Mr Knierim, who joined the association in 2012 from a background as a builder, said that while life was unlikely to spring back to pre Covid times, members had been “totally bombarded with work”. Some have had to put on more staff.

Of course, JobKeeper had helped, and despite some media commentary (and scepticism in some circles) the $25,000 HomeBuilder grant has generated significant activity, he said.

This was important in an economy where construction supports an estimated 25 per cent of its value.

A trend he says to watch is that more people are starting to ask for locally sourced products. This is partly in response to Covid and the difficulties of overseas sourcing but also more recent trade ructions with China.

That’s not to say anyone’s throwing open a range of new factories just yet, but the question being asked is the first step, he said.

“A lot of people are asking, ‘is it Australian made?’”

There’s also the sense that sustainability is becoming a more prominent concern.

According to Peta Anderson, who came to Design Matters National in February from a background in communications and training, there is a healthy workload for her members as well.

“They’re busy. I was worried they were not. But it turns out that once restrictions were lifted, everyone wants everything before Christmas.”