He's no superstar, but the RIBA's practical, birdwatching new president intends to make his name through education and the recruitment of ethnic minorities.
Paul Hyett was sitting in the dining car of the Newcastle-to-London train when his mobile rang. It was quarter to five, and he'd been on tenterhooks all day. At the other end of the phone was Richard Hastilow, chief executive of the RIBA, and he was making his first call to the new president. "I was delighted, but I couldn't express too much excitement as I was in the dining car," says Hyett. "But I almost bought everyone there a glass of champagne." A regard for such practicalities is indicative of the new president. Best known for his populist columns in The Architects' Journal, he couldn't be more different from the incumbent, Marco Goldschmied. Goldschmied, the flamboyant business partner of Lord Rogers, owns a yellow Porsche and a penthouse in Rogers' trendy Montevetro building, whereas Hyett rarely drives and lives in suburban Woodford Green, just beyond Leyton in east London.

They might be very different personalities, but Hyett plans to continue Goldschmied's work on sustainability and the promotion of the profession. Hyett is also focusing on education and how it can be used to promote urban design and encourage ethnic minorities into the profession.

Construction will be cheered by his intention to link up with industry bodies such as the Association of Consulting Engineers and the Construction Confederation to pursue his campaigns. "There is a need to change the ways of working in and with the construction industry. We need to look at the change of culture of construction and the change of attitudes," promises Hyett.

His appointment, which he takes up in June, has largely been welcomed by architects. Passionate, enthusiastic and practical are the words most often used to describe him. The fact that he comes from a small practice is seen in some quarters as an advantage, because he understands the places where most RIBA members work. In short, he has what one architect describes as the "common touch".

The 48-year-old would not stand out in a crowd of male creatives. He is tall, dressed in the requisite nearly black suit, dark shirt, invisible glasses and slightly jazzy tie. But the sober attire belies a starry-eyed exuberance that appears when he talks about architecture, education or any other subject that has caught his imagination. On his new hobby, birdwatching, he says: "I love it because with the binoculars I see a world I never knew existed. I've just discovered there are three types of woodpecker." Born in Newport, where his father was an architect for the Cwmbran Redevelopment Association, he was brought up in a series of new towns in South Wales and Hereford.

His schooling was blighted by a mild form of epilepsy known as petit mal, from which he still suffers occasionally. As a result, he was not an academic success, and joined the merchant navy. Aged 20, he took some sketches he had made of buildings in Alexandria, Naples and Palermo to Canterbury School of Architecture and, to his surprise, was offered a place. After a year, he transferred to the Architectural Association.

He graduated in 1978 and worked with Cedric Price, Nicholas Lacey and Arno Jobst before setting up on his own in 1987. At 40, he resumed his education at the Bartlett School at University College London, achieving an MPhil in planning. Last year, his practice merged with Ryder Company of Newcastle and Hyett became chairman. The firm took the name Ryder.

I love bird-watching because I see a world I never knew existed. I’ve just discovered there are three types of woodpecker

His enthusiasm for and commitment to education in architecture led him to be appointed RIBA vice-president for education in 1998, and education will be the key theme of his tenure as president. His experience of planning has shaped his view that there needs to be a greater crossover between planning and architecture if the urban renaissance is to be achieved. His suggestion is to radically overhaul the architectural degree system, so a Part One student can take a second degree in a speciality such as urban design.

Hyett's other key issue is sustainable design. He is particularly concerned that, unlike architects, QSs and estate managers have not fully embraced the importance of sustainability as part of their courses.

He also has a mission to use education as the springboard for encouraging ethnic minorities into architecture. "We have had phenomenal contributions from ethnic minorities in music, fashion, dance and sport. We don't see it in buildings because they are underrepresented," he says.

"What we have to do is recognise the importance in our cosmopolitan community of finding new cultural expression through architecture." As for the RIBA itself, he plans nothing more than tweaks to its operations. "I don't think the members have the stomach for big changes," he says. The only significant move is to hold regional meetings to fend off accusations that the institution is London-centric. He would also like these meetings to be attended by a representative of the Society of Black Architects.

There will be no changes to the RIBA election system, despite backbiting, letters to the AJ and the scraps at council meetings that characterised the run-up to the vote. Hyett describes the process as "not entirely pleasant" but stands by his view that former director-general Alex Reid was not a suitable candidate because he is not a practising architect. However there are no hard feelings: he and Reid have a supper date in the near future.

Personal effects

Who’s who in your family?
I married my childhood sweetheart Sue on 1 April 1976. A number of guests did not turn up because they thought it was an April’s Fool. We have three sons: James, 18; Ben, 17; and Peter 14. What car do you drive?
The family car is a Citroën Synergie, one of those people carriers. What is your favourite film?
Lawrence of Arabia. I can remember bunking off school to see it. Who are your favourite architects?
Carlo Scarpa, Allies and Morrison and Chris Wilkinson. Which is your favourite city?
Paris. It straddles the river both culturally and politically.