Don't be fooled by the crimson trousers: RIBA president-elect George Ferguson is deadly serious about advancing architects' interests. We met the seasoned campaigner, entrepreneur and, er, fashion icon.
George Ferguson is the man in the crimson trousers. Well, either crimson or mauve, depending on his mood.

As a way of picking out the new RIBA president in a crowd, the crimson slacks beat the gold-plated presidential gong. They also signal clearly that this is not a grey-suited committee man. As president-elect in May, he indicated that he would like to cut the 60-member RIBA council by one-third – although he has since conceded that this would be difficult to achieve within his two-year term of office.

Ferguson looks and sounds more like a maverick campaigner and activist than the stuffed-shirt front man of a professional institute. As well as the trademark trousers, the Bristol-based architect sports an open-necked shirt, wavy brown hair and a ready smile that radiates charm and enthusiasm. In public, he speaks his mind without a script and engages his audience in a natural, forthright manner. "Instigate" and "We must stick to our guns" are his catchphrases.

And Ferguson has the campaigning credentials to match the appearance. In 1984 and 1987 he stood as a Liberal Democrat candidate for parliament, but lost. As a campaigner against crass urban development, however, he has had far more success. In 1987 he opposed a massive shopping centre that threatened to sweep away much of Torquay's old town. As a result he was commissioned by Greycoat Estates to design an alternative, more appropriate scheme – although this was never built.

I think it’s bad not just for ourselves but also for society as a whole if we give away our services for nothing

And in 2000, he criticised proposals by Crest Nicholson and Arup Associates to build bulky office and leisure buildings at Cannon's Marsh in the historic heart of Bristol. The campaign had the effect of stopping the development and throwing it open to design competition, which, in this instance, was won by Edward Cullinan Architects.

"George stood to make powerful enemies over Cannon's Marsh," says Sasha Lubetkin, founding director of Bristol's architecture centre. "But he didn't do it for personal gain. He's a genuine campaigner and a visionary who has unstoppable energy."

That campaign made 56-year-old Ferguson a local hero in Bristol. Last month, the Bristol Evening Post hailed him as "the sort of person that Bristol desperately needs" – a rare accolade indeed for an architect.

Ferguson carries the same concern for the little person at the mercy of corporate forces to professional matters at the RIBA.

I think it’s bad not just for ourselves but also for society as a whole if we give away our services for nothing

His approach contrasts with that of his predecessor, Paul Hyett, who urged architects to coalesce into large practices. Ferguson's bugbear is the steady erosion of the status of architects, and in particular the low fees paid to small practices. "The big, big message, and it's true now as much as it has ever been, is that we architects give in too easily. As professionals, we owe it to ourselves to stick to our principles and produce the best possible result not just for our client but for society. Now that leaves a few difficult questions. I think it's bad not just for ourselves but also for society as a whole if we give away our services for nothing, and I think architects are terrible about it. The loss of the mandatory fee scale in the 1980s coincided with a massive reduction in the standards of design, because if you give away your services, you do not put as much into it."

Luckily for him, Ferguson does not suffer from either the penury or the lack of assertiveness of many of his fellow architects. He is the founding director of Ferguson Mann, which has 25 directors and staff in Bristol, and Dartington, Devon. It is part of a nationwide network of architects called Acanthus. The practice's current flagship project is the development for Urban Splash of the grade I-listed Royal William Yard in Plymouth, another project won after an earlier scheme had been thrown out. He has also grown rich as the developer of his own schemes – notably the conversion of the tobacco factory where he now lives.

Ferguson's strategy to raise fee scales for architects, it has to be said, boil down to little more than exhortation and long-term education, as he accepts that no government is likely to sanction the reintroduction of mandatory fee scales. "We've got to stand together to get a proper reward – I feel strongly about that." More specifically, he urged architects at a small practice conference held in March to "edge up to an hourly rate of £100".

Beyond that, Ferguson puts his faith in "education about the value of architecture". By this he means "demonstrating to clients that they don't get good results by being mean to the people who are able to deliver those good results". That in turn calls for culture change. "If you ask me what my priority is as president, we need to instigate a series of initiatives that begin to change the culture in this country, starting with the young," he says.

On the matter of teaching young people about the built environment and architecture, Ferguson sees eye-to-eye with CABE and Baroness Blackstone, arts minister until last month. His preferred model is the Hackney Building Exploratory, "an absolutely brilliant initiative, which applies the techniques used by the science and engineering industry in hands-on, really involving education".

Personal effects

Where do you live? 
In a loft apartment on the top floor of an old tobacco factory in south Bristol. I bought it and converted it into a mixed-use development with a theatre, fame school, restaurant and bar. [It was featured recently in Channel 4’s Britain’s Best Homes series.]

Are you planning any other developments?
 Yes, I bought a brewery nearby. I really like the idea of mixing the brewery with a health and fitness centre.

Where do you stay in London? 
I’m buying a little flat in Welbeck Street, around the corner from the RIBA.

Why do you wear crimson trousers? 
I like a bit of colour, and it’s my little stand for independence. I wore them when I went to see the Queen, twice. I also hate wearing a tie, although I have submitted if I am refused admission. Nobody has yet asked me to take my trousers off.

Architects in crisis