In the second of a three-part series, Ben Derbyshire says why the profession could be about to regain its clout

Ben Derbyshire

In my last blog I detailed the decline and fall of the architectural profession in terms of influence over the last 30 years. There is hope. I sense we may be witnessing the beginnings of a renaissance in the fortunes of the profession with signs that the RIBA may be getting its act together.

The years of recession, the return of confidence, the revolution in digital media and the consumer in society combined with new technologies may just be coming together at the right time. 

If the profession were to act collectively and effectively now, we may be able to regain the ascendency. This a moment not to be missed.

RIBA president Stephen Hodder and the chief executive Harry Rich should listen carefully to members who are at the cutting edge of change in the way design services are provided if they are serious about their effort to make sure architects’ regain their clout. 

The executive should pay careful attention to the expert groups that work within the RIBA and in housing, they need to give a voice to the newly reinvigorated RIBA Housing Group chaired by Andy von Bradsky of PRP. This is now a thoroughly expert and well connected group which should be placed at the centre of any serious policy approach.

The profession now needs to seize the opportunity to renegotiate its relationship with society based not on public and political patronage, but on the principle that what it has to offer adds value to society and the economy. Today there are encouraging signs this may happen with vigorous campaigns to restructure regulation, education, and the marketing of architect’s skills. 

For years we have been criticising the teaching environment that encourages a culture of needless individualism from young architects and leaves us in practice with the task of retraining

In addition, the opportunity of new technologies, especially Building Information Modelling (BIM), is for the profession to regain a central position in the development process. So we should support Stephen Hodder and Andy von Bradsky in the driving through changes that will allow better quality design to add value to the housing industry.

But first, the RIBA needs to take over regulation of the profession from ARB, which should be disbanded. Various unfortunate incidents, widely reported over recent years have pointed up just how impoverished the ARB has become as the guardian of professional standards. But this is not the only reason the organisation should be wound up. 

The notion that the profession needs an independent guardian of professional standards is by now completely discredited, and not only by ARB’s own failures in this area. As the information age gathers momentum, and so many aspects of life become governed by consumer feedback available as open source information and on comparison websites, it’s clear that ARB’s patrician style of regulation is completely outdated.

If the RIBA is to succeed in the task of regaining architects’ market position, the institute needs control of both quality and the profession’s commercial relationship with society. To deny this is to hobble it completely – successful marketing is not possible without control of both quality and price.

It’s also encouraging that the profession is embarking on a long overdue review of education. As fees rise to £9,000 a year, it has been evident for some time that, as Jeremy Till, pro vice chancellor of London’s University of the Arts puts it, architectural education will become a victim of its own hubris. 

Because if reform has become a priority for some educationalists it is no less so for the world of practice. For years we have been criticising the studio based teaching environment that encourages a culture of needless individualism and innovation from young architects with inadequate experience and leaves us in practice with the task of retraining. 

The generalist world that this system was designed for is now a thing of the past. A better approach would be a three year degree followed by apprenticeships and the wider use of Masters degrees that would service the requirements of an increasingly specialised industry. The RIBA system of chartered practice should be extended to provide trainees with a range of practice opportunities in which to serve their apprenticeships and practices such as mine should be incentivised to extend our policy of study support for employees pursuing Masters.

It’s really encouraging that the related questions of educational standards, levels of competence and regulation are now the subject of review. We can arrest the decline of the profession and build a foundation for its future if we get these changes right. In my last blog in this series for Building, I will set out my vision for architectural practice in the future – as designers in industry.

Ben Derbyshire is managing partner of HTA Design