Reforming the PFI and tackling the brain-drain of newly qualified architects are the top priorities of the incoming RIBA president. We find out how Jack Pringle plans to navigate the choppy waters of the architecture business.
RIBA president George Ferguson is probably best known for the defunct tobacco factory in Bristol he bought and converted into a restaurant, brewery, cafe-bar and flats – including his own penthouse. His newly elected successor, Jack Pringle, has courted attention by splashing on his manifesto a photo of his 10-man yacht, its spinnaker emblazoned with the name of his practice.
Such diversity of reputations is mirrored in the professional interests of Ferguson and Pringle, who last week won the RIBA presidential election in a six-strong contest.
Ferguson, founding partner of Acanthus Ferguson Mann in Bristol, channels his considerable charisma and energy into spreading the message about how architects can improve the nation’s cities. Pringle, the 52-year-old founding partner of Pringle Brandon, based in the City of London, pours similar levels of energy and enthusiasm into the business of practising as an architect.
The PFI was Pringle’s foremost election issue. In his manifesto, he proclaimed: “I do not see architects homogeneously integrated into some PFI, design-and-build, over-regulated future. I believe in an independent profession full of variety, sought after for its creativity and free to voice its opinions and advise its clients.”
Such sentiments no doubt helped Pringle win the hearts of his fellow architects. But this is not simply the voice of a latterday William Morris designer pitting himself heroically against an increasingly depersonalised industry. Probe a bit deeper, and you soon hit hard business sense concerned with the client’s best interests.
“This is not about whether architects get a good deal out of PFI,” he says. “The issues are about getting good buildings, getting the right buildings and getting them at the right cost.
“There is evidence that some people in government are not as satisfied as they might be with the PFI. And if you look at reports in the press about some of the new hospitals, there seems to be growing awareness that PFI is not delivering what it should.”
Pringle is too much of a realist to campaign for the abolition of the PFI: he well knows that that would break the Treasury’s public sector borrowing requirement rules. Instead, he wants to explore more benign variants of the model, such as that provided by NHS Estates in Northern Ireland, where the client commissions a design before inviting tenders.
“It would put the architect and the client in a position explore their real needs, and it would drive innovation in new design,” he says.
Another PFI variant is for the client to sign up facilities management contracts for periods of just five years. “It would cut the PFI team’s costs of bidding dramatically,” says Pringle. “And the client wouldn’t get a 30-year time bomb.”
As RIBA vice-president for education, Pringle has also been concerned about the high costs of architectural training in the era of top-up university fees, and the related problem of the low pay of salaried architects. “We’ve made modest projections for student debt of about £30,000-40,000 over the five-year course,” says Pringle. “But the House of Lords has made projections of £57,000, which is incredible.
“We’re lucky in that we get really able young people going into architecture. But there’s a brain-drain of highly skilled young people. I spoke to one graduate recently who went to work for £35,000 at a bank, saying: ‘I love architecture but I’ve got debts to pay’.”
Low salaries and long hours also squeeze women out of the profession, he continues. “Women enjoy being architects in the early part of their career, then they have children and enter a more family-friendly profession. This is serious. We are suddenly looking like a sort of 1950s profile – middle-aged, male and white. It’s really not good enough.”
He says the solution is to raise project fees for architectural practices – not simply by raising the all-in fees but by introducing a top-up system based on success in terms of cost, quality or speed of work. His own practice, which employs 70-80 staff, specialises in space planning and the fit-out of central London office buildings, has experimented with this. “We’ve talked with clients about having a base level of fees and then top-ups based on levels of success in the project,” he says. “Clients are comfortable about paying more if they think they’re getting more out of it.”
So do the diverse interests of Ferguson and Pringle reflect a conflict between the current and future presidents? Most probably not: complementary interests might be a fairer interpretation. “We can and do work very well together,” says Ferguson. “Jack has a very specific interest in education, which is essential, and I’d like him to keep a handle on that.”
Although this is a responsibility that Pringle is keen to hold on to, his main focus is PFI reform. “I think that’s one thing that’s so important. It’s got such a lot of money sunk in it, it’s such a big workload for architects, and it’s so important for the country that we have to tackle it straightaway.”
So far, Pringle seems as good as his word. He plans a PFI conference this autumn, and then to approach the Treasury for further discussions. And that could pave the way for architects taking a much bigger part in defining how the PFI is handled in the future.
Where do you live?I live in a five-storey, flat-fronted Georgian house in Camberwell Grove, south-east London. It lends itself to very modern interiors which it has.
Where are you going on holiday?I'm going to take my two daughters on a tour of Italy in September.
What is your favourite relaxation?I race my yacht just about every weekend. It's a very nice, high-tech IMX40 boat. I also have a share in a 1967 light aircraft, which I fly out of Biggin Hill. If it moves, I love it!
Which of the buildings you have designed are you most proud of?Probably the country hotel near Loipersdorf, a village in south-east Austria, which I designed with Pierre Botschi.