In three years, Sir Stuart Lipton and Jon Rouse turned CABE from an idea into a key British institution. Now that it's on the brink of another massive expansion, we find out where they're taking it now
Back in 1999, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment was just a twinkle in chairman Sir Stuart Lipton's eye. Now the successor to the Royal Fine Art Commission has almost 40 staff and £4.5m a year in funding, and those figures will double by the end of 2003. CABE's message – that high quality is vital in the built environment – is setting the industry's agenda.

The commission is best known for its review department, which scrutinises designs put forward voluntarily by architects and planners. But now it is setting up centres for the built environment around the country and tackling the skills shortage in local authorities, and its next aim is to become the consumers' champion. But to do so, Cabe will be treading on the toes of other organisations – and it is in danger of overreaching itself.

Cabe will be more than doubling in size later this year, having landed a massive increase in funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister – £12m a year, and £17m over the next three years for new unit CABESpace, which will promote good design in public spaces (see "Park life", page 44). Cabe wants to expand its remit to become the general public's champion for architecture and urban design. To do this it will increase its staff to 96 by the end of this year, and later this month will announce a detailed restructuring and recruitment plan. This will mean its three directorates – Design Review, Enabling and Partnerships – will become six, including CABESpace, Development and Learning, and Policy and Communications.

Chief executive Jon Rouse is confident he can avoid the obvious problem with such an inflation of roles and responsibilities – that CABE will change from a gazelle to a hippopotamus. "The trick is not to let the expansion change us," he says. "This is the great dilemma we face. Since I arrived – when CABE was established – our turnover has increased 1000%; our staff team has gone from three people to nearer 100. The original culture was dynamic, lightfooted, fun, irreverent. The new directorates must keep the same vibrancy that was in the original team two years ago."

Rouse says he has had an easy ride so far and admits that CABE's expansion could make his life more tricky. He compares its growth with that of a child: "When you're a baby, people coo over you and say 'how fantastic'. Then around the age of two you start throwing tantrums, learn to talk and people realise you're serious and they have to engage with you on a different level."

Surprisingly, CABE has received a pretty warm welcome from an industry that is notoriously hostile to interference. "It's impossible not to be impressed by how CABE has risen to the forefront of design standards in such a short time," says Peter Crossley, managing director of architect Broadway Malyan – a firm that has knowledge of CABE's sharp end. "CABE has been an extraordinarily successful phenomenon," agrees Ben Derbyshire, chairman of architect HTA. "It has succeeded in raising the importance of design, quality and value in building and construction."

CABE's culture – its flexibility, openness and willingness to debate its architectural judgments – is in stark contrast to the hierophantic aesthetes that made up Norman St John Stevas' Royal Fine Art Commission.

"The RFAC had a narrow focus," says Sir Stuart Lipton, chairman of CABE. "It had a remit of reviewing building quality. CABE's is much more extensive, covering education, public space, new ideas in housing, regional representatives, working with government, helping clients understand how to go about procuring a good building."

Some put it more frankly. "The RFAC was a superfluous organisation that meddled in the planning process," says Maxwell Hutchinson, architect and former RIBA president. "When it was wound up I raised a hearty cheer. At first, I thought CABE was a reintroduction of the same layer of bureaucracy, but I've been pleasantly surprised. It's shown it can do things in a very different way and has extended its remit for the better."

In fact, Hutchinson is so keen on CABE that he wants it to take over from English Heritage the responsibility for listed buildings. "EH has a massive deficit problem and it's not fulfilling its obligations," he explains. "It should stick to looking after ancient monuments."

CABE's not quite ready to go that far but – in a sign of what is perhaps to come – it's about to relaunch EH's urban panel as a joint venture. "The help many local authorities needs spans the expertise of both EH and CABE," says urban panel chairman and EH commissioner Les Sparks. Sparks is also CABE's chairman of the regions, so he's in a unique position, with a foot in both camps.

"We look at places with a history but that are undergoing significant change," Sparks says. "EH can look at the character of a place, archaeology, heritage, listed buildings. CABE can advise on regeneration and how to incorporate new design. They're complementary roles."

Could some of this work be done by the RIBA, though? The architects' society has changed direction in recent years, leaving a gap in the market that CABE has stepped into. "I'm not sure the RIBA is as interested as it used to be with the politics of architecture," Hutchinson says. "CABE has found plenty of things to do that could have been done by the RIBA, but the RIBA is increasingly interested in the practice of architecture – it's moved on as a professional institute." "The RIBA has had to make space for us," Rouse adds. "But there's no bitterness, absolutely not. They've been very gracious – they could have kicked up a fuss but haven't."

All this expansion means the recruitment of more Bright Young Things – CABE staff are notorious for being very young, with little industry experience. Some see this as a problem, especially when it comes to dealing with wise and cynical housebuilders.

"CABE have a lot of intelligent young staff, skilled in research and media strategy, but with no real understanding of industry values and needs," one observer told Building. "They don't have a grip on reasons why companies do certain things."

Bur Rouse considers his staff's youthfulness to be a benefit. "Below director level we do have quite a lot of inexperienced staff," he says. "But I wouldn't swap their drive, their enthusiasm, their intelligence and their ability to think laterally for anything. And I don't believe for a moment that my team of directors don't have credibility with companies; they have massive credibility; they are senior industry players."

The government is certainly taking CABE seriously; the commission is funded by Labour, but is far from being a political stooge. "CABE regularly clashes with government over policies it wants to see," says David Birkbeck, chief executive of non-profit company Design For Homes. "It's not a puppet of the government; CABE challenges policy and tries to redefine it. I've been in meetings where the air has turned blue because of the difference in the way CABE sees the world and the way the ODPM sees the world."

A good example is Britain's housing crisis. Birkbeck credits Rouse with getting the message through to government that thousands more homes were desperately needed, and a massive building programme commenced. "Rouse has done the housebuilding industry a much bigger favour than they realise," Birkbeck says. "He's lobbied the government for many of the things the industry has wanted for years. He made the government wake up to the fact that there was a lack of housing being built."

Unsurprisingly, the House Builders' Federation doesn't quite see it that way. "I'd credit us with alerting the government," sniffs an HBF spokesperson. And although the HBF is working with CABE on design through the joint Building For Life initiative (see "In bed with Wayne Hemingway", page 44), they're not too keen about E E its expanding role. "We appreciate CABE's views and we're demonstrating our happiness to work with CABE on the design issue," the spokesperson said. "But it's important that issues of design and density aren't confused. There's a grave danger in trying to decide what kind of dwellings people should live in. Housebuilders are aware of what customers want and we resist any notion that this can be brushed over."

But Chris Murray, formerly CABE's director of partnerships and now head of the development and learning unit, is adamant that simply building whatever sells is not justifiable. "You can sell a shed in some parts of England for huge amounts of money – that doesn't mean it's right to build sheds, and it also doesn't mean it's right to use social housing in the way housebuilders do," he says. "I've seen a lot of developments in which they use social housing to shield the private housing from a railway or a motorway. It's extremely poor quality, it's just not good enough and it's not on."

CABE doesn't just want the industry to change – it wants the public to become more choosy. With the forthcoming staff and budget increase, the body is repositioning itself as the people's champion – a role that perhaps the Consumers' Association would have relished?

"It's not an area we'd think of going into," a Consumers Association spokesperson told Building. "There are other people – such as CABE – that would do a better job than us."

CABE's Murray clearly agrees. "Consumers need to know more about what's on offer and what the possibilities are," he says. "We need a different kind of consumer. People are very interested in design but they haven't made the link between design that affects them personally and the urban landscape as a whole."

And Lipton takes an even broader view, seemingly wanting to change the nation's psyche. "We want to encourage people to think about the holistic design of spaces," he says. "Not only should something look good, it should function efficiently. We want the nation to think that architecture isn't just something you add on to a building, like wallpaper."

Perhaps over the next 10 years, the country will rethink its approach to design and construction to such an extent that CABE will be obsolete. That's Rouse's dream. "I'd like to see that the importance of architecture and design is so embedded in the culture, CABE can go back to being three or four people," he says. "CABE should be looking to put itself out of business."

What CABE said about the Brighton and Hove Community Stadium … and the architect’s response

Architect KSS Sports and Leisure Designs proposed a scheme for an all-seater stadium for up to 22,000 supporters that provided a range of non-match-day facilities, including a sports science and medical centre, a lecture theatre for the University of Brighton and a learning skills centre. CABE’s review of the scheme covered everything from landscaping to the selection of roofing materials.

CABEM The design implied a highly transparent roof; however, the committee feels that this is unlikely to be the case in reality, as the roof would be viewed obliquely, and structural elements would be likely to dominate. Andrew Simmons, KSS Their comments are totally valid. The roof was translucent to allow ultraviolet to pass through to keep the grass growing – but yes, you will see the structure by default

CABE We welcome ambitions to make the project sustainable … We would encourage the client and design team to take this aspect still further so that the project becomes and exemplar of sustainable stadium development … The roof could contain elements of photovoltaics. KSS The stadium’s use pattern of one major event every two weeks will not generate sufficient payback to justify photovoltaics. CABE We believe further work is needed on the hard and soft landscaping strategy … We would not wish the stadium to be screened – however, landscaping should be used in a more ingenious way to enhance the impression that the stadium has been positioned within the landscape … The landscaping strategy should be used to set up views of the stadium from the approaches. KSS Soft landscaping – they loved it. CABE The hard landscaping lacks the same degree of imagination as the stadium architecture. There appears to be little context or overall concept, except in the exposed chalkface to the concourse. KSS Hard landscaping is used as minimally as possible. If you’ve got 25,000 people leaving the stadium in six minutes flat, then it has to be absolutely flat with no obstructions, changes in level or bollards. KSS We’ve just completed a public inquiry on the scheme and CABE’s positive approach to [the design] was noted at the pubic inquiry.

Not just lip service: Chairman Sir Stuart Lipton

It has taken remarkable political skill and wrangling to win CABE’s incredible increase in funding – from £1.5m in 2000 to next year’s £12m. The man responsible is Sir Stuart Lipton, who admits it was a steep learning curve – he had no previous experience of dealing with politicians. “I’ve learned a huge amount,” he says. “When dealing with government we’ve got to be very positive and demonstrate the benefits very clearly. We’ve got to show the value to the nation. We’ve got to explain carefully how public space is part of the country.”

Despite this, he downplays the difficulties he faced, but many observers credit him as the man behind Labour ministers’ sudden interest in public space and the value of architecture and design. Lipton achieved the turnaround by cannily recognising that to be persuasive, he had to speak politicians’ language. So out went eulogies on the joy of architecture for art’s sake, and in came discussions of “added value”. “The relationship with government is all about demonstrating value to society,” Lipton says. “But there isn’t enough benchmarking of that value. If we can demonstrate that a better designed school produces 10% better results in exams, then clearly there’d be a lot more emphasis on design quality.”

Developing benchmarking methods and ways of valuing the benefits of good design is high on Lipton’s agenda. “We’ve got to a stage where it’s no longer about convincing government – we’ve got them convinced,” he says. “The government has recognised that we do add value, that we do a decent job. But we have to earn our way. It’s now about convincing schools, hospital trusts, local authorities and private developers.”

Lipton is evangelical about CABE’s mission, which he says he was formulating years before the organisation’s inception. “I’ve always believed in CABE’s agenda,” he says. “The major projects I’ve been involved in all have those ingredients. So a fair amount of it I’ve practiced for a long time. I’ve always had a passion for good architecture. I understand that if you work with good people they will deliver outstanding design, if they feel motivated.”

As chief executive at property developer Stanhope, Lipton could be forgiven for being a little cautious about some of architecture’s more off-the-wall creations. But the controversial buildings are precisely what he wants more of. “When you’re on the edge … when you recognise it’s new and difficult, that’s the time you’re probably getting to something that is important,” he says. “Can you imagine when the people of Sydney saw their new opera house? Or when the people of Berlin heard Norman Foster was going to design their new Reichstag?”

The fear of the new is a historical phenomenon, he points out: “If you go back and look, all the projects that are now listed and loved had tremendous criticism at first. Our task is to be at the sharp end. We’ve got to be looking at the new designs, at the edge, looking for the new and challenging. And we’ve got to communicate to people why we believe in change.”

Young man in a hurry: Chief executive Jon Rouse

Jon Rouse is quite a diplomat – nobody has a bad thing to say about him – which is no mean feat, given that he has spent the last three years proffering advice to businessmen far more seasoned than he is. Just 35, Rouse’s CV is formidable, boasting three degrees – in law, urban policy and an MBA in corporate finance – five years at the Department of Environment, rising to the rank of private secretary to the minister of state, and five years with English Heritage. In 2000 he authored the Rogers Report, which set out plans an urban renaissance. Rouse demonstrated his mastery of urban development and paved the way for his recruitment by Cabe chairman Sir Stuart Lipton. “A lot of the reasons why I came to CABE were to do with Stuart,” Rouse says. “I like working for successful people because I think you learn a lot from them. Stuart could give me access to a world and a knowledge base I didn’t possess.”

He is unashamedly ambitious – “We’ve only achieved about 5-10% of what I want to achieve as an organisation; we’ve only scratched the surface” – and unabashedly political. “Both myself and Stuart are political with a small p. Our approach is opportunistic,” he says. “At any one time there will be some doors we need to open and as soon as you spot them, you put your resources there and push on them. There’s no point pushing on doors that are closed, all it does is create bad will. It’s better to retreat and fight another day.”

Rouse takes an inclusive approach and believes in bringing everyone into the debate. David Birkbeck, chief executive of non-profit company Design For Homes, says: “He thinks there’s no point fighting some kind of guerrilla war. Rouse is willing to work with housebuilders. If you’re going to change an industry you have to work with them.”

And Rouse is confident that his approach is working. “I think we have the goodwill of a lot of the industry,” he says. “I can point you to a lot of companies with whom we have a great relationship; it’s based on trust, it’s based on personal relationships, it’s based on experience over time in dealing with one another. But for each six we work well with, there are probably another 12 with whom we don’t have that relationship. So there’s more footwork to be done.”

Rouse is pushing forward with his long-term strategy for CABE’s expansion. “I don’t think we’ve succeeded. I don’t think we’ve achieved the culture change either within the public consciousness or within the industry that we set out to achieve, and it’s probably going to take us 10 years. If we haven’t achieved it by then, we probably never will and we ought to give the job to someone else.”

Observers believe Rouse’s presence in the boardroom is vital for the organisation’s continued success. “There’s a suspicion that CABE is as good as it is because Jon Rouse is such an outstanding individual,” one industry insider commented. CABE could overnight become just another body dispensing good advice. The question is, how ambitious is Rouse? How long will he stay with CABE?”

My, haven’t you grown

  • September 1999: RFAC becomes CABE, Sir Stuart Lipton appointed as chairman

  • October 2000: Jon Rouse appointed as chief executive

  • October 2000: CABE’s first high-profile campaign, Better Public Buildings, is launched by the prime minister

  • November 2000: CABE becomes jointly sponsored by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, widening its remit to cover housing, regeneration and planning issues

  • January 2001: Staff expansion programme requires a move to larger offices in Waterloo

  • September 2001: Joint venture Building For Life heralds a new alliance with housebuilders

  • April 2002: Regional representatives appointed to drive home CABE’s messages across England

  • October 2002: ODPM announces the creation of public spaces campaign CABESpace at the Urban Summit

  • February 2003: ODPM announcest that CABE’s budget for 2004 will be twice that for 2003

CABE’s new agenda

In bed with housebuilders
Unlikely allies CABE and the House Builders’ Federation teamed up last year to launch Building for Life, an organisation that aimed to raise the quality of new homes and ensure that they were sustainable and well-planned. Under Sir Terry Farrel, BfL set up a website and sought out and began to showcase examples of best practice. Now, with design guru Wayne Hemingway as its new chairman, it is becoming more ambitious, launching a nine-point housebuilders’ manifesto last month and setting out to charm the industry and the public. “We want to help housing to be better in all respects, not just how it looks, but how it performs,” Hemingway says. “We’re trying to get the public to demand more. Housebuilding is quite often manufacturing by numbers. Companies produce what is simple, quick and profitable to produce. They need to realise that this is an important thing we’re dealing with, it’s not just another commodity. Housing is about people, not about money.”

Isn’t this a bit utopian for an industry that, like any other, is dominated by the bottom line? Hemingway disagrees. “The industry is receptive – things can’t stay like they are,” the 41-year-old insists. “We are quite businesslike and we understand they have to make a profit. There are ways of achieving things while housebuilders can still make money they’re happy with.”

The epitome of the straight-talking northerner, Hemingway was born in Morecambe and grew up in Blackburn. His first career was as a fashion designer – the famous label he ran with wife Gerardine, Red Or Dead, won the British Fashion Council’s “Street Style Designer of the Year” award three times in a row in the late 1990s. But after 21 years of catwalk glamour, Hemingway’s attention began to wander, and he noticed the lack of well-designed affordable housing. “My wife and I travel a lot and when we came back to the UK we just saw boringly built houses that we wouldn’t want to bring our children up in,” he says. “We want good design for people on average incomes. Our philosophy is that design should be affordable.”

The couple set up Hemingwaydesign, a consultancy specialising in interior, building and product design. Their aim was to bring well-designed houses within the reach of the man on the street. “Most people can afford to have really well-designed clothes now, but they can’t afford a well-designed house,” Hemingway says. “Quite often, more care and attention goes into the design of a car or a blouse or a power tool than a house.”

Park life: The work of CABESpace CABESpace aims to improve the quality of public spaces across England. CABE wanted to give special attention to public space issues. It hopes to partner with other organisations already working in the field. Its initial priority will be to improve local authorities’ public space strategies. In the longer term, CABESpace will work to ensure that public space, including parks and green areas, is a priority for funding across government. “Green spaces are considered vitally important because of their contribution to the local environment and their effect on people’s lives,” Jon Rouse said, launching the scheme in December 2002. “Yet investment in public space has seriously declined. In real terms, public parks have lost out on £1.3bn in cumulative public investment since 1979.”