The construction industry is increasingly concerned that architecture schools are churning out students who have no idea how it works. Paul Hyett, who has just taken over as RIBA president, is one of those fretting at the neophyte designers' lack of industry awareness, not to mention any notion of how to run a business. It is, he says, "a huge problem. If we don't bring these issues more fully into the curriculum and see architectural education as vocational, then the reputation of the industry will be damaged".
When quizzed by Building, the Bartlett school students in Gordon Square were bewildered by the idea that they ought to know how to cost and manage their schemes, choose procurement routes or set timescales. Not one undergraduate managed to give more than two correct answers to six basic questions about the construction industry (see box overleaf). One pony-tailed student, sweating under the pressure of interrogation, guessed that the PFI was a regulatory body, another was convinced that design-and-build schemes put the architect in total control. Egan and Latham, meanwhile, may as well have been craters on the moon.
But the students at the Bartlett are not the only ones to be dazed and confused by the vocabulary of today's industry and the mystery of practice management. This month, during a spate of end-of-year shows, thousands of undergraduates will be talking up their ambitious architectural experiments, but not many of them will be discussing the benefits of partnering between glasses of sparkling wine.
Hyett is worried that even where the practical side of being an architect is taught, it is often based on defunct models. "There aren't enough tutors with recent experience in practice," he says. "They are teaching an inappropriate culture that presumes there has been no development in the way architecture is delivered." His fear is that if students are not picking up on the team-working direction in which the industry is trying to move, then collaboration is likely to give way to conflict.
The main thing holding back the study of construction and architectural practice is that design is such a dominant element of any architecture course. At the Bartlett, the syllabus boasts that its programme is workshop-based, with 70% of it taught and assessed through the design portfolio. Yet Philip Tabor, the Bartlett's director of architectural studies, says he is "disappointed and surprised" by his students' answers and their poor grasp of practical issues, especially given his efforts to thread lectures about the subject into the first years of courses.
But he maintains that the bias reflects the culture within architecture and points to the fact that firms are mainly looking for graduates who can draw. "Design will always be the primary activity within training," he says, and points to the students' innovative work – from submerged libraries to floating stock exchanges.
Tabor is convinced that even if studying practical issues packs little punch in the first three years, students will at least pick up on them during part three, when they spend time in a practice. "It is difficult to do this in class or with exams that simply mean parroting back text books. It's in the office that they'll be most receptive to these issues."
He does not seem troubled that this means that students are not absorbing the culture of the industry until five years into their education. Some argue that by this stage it is too late to find the necessary balance between theory and practice. "Once a student has been through part one, they are trained with a certain mindset," says David Russell, a retired architect and lecturer at Brighton University. "It is usually an esoteric, artistic approach – the students are blissfully unaware of the actualities of building."
He adds that, although some universities are making efforts to include the subject earlier on, they seldom stress its importance. If the management issues are to have a proper impact "they need to be part of the basic philosophy from the first year".
Many in the industry fear that the poor preparation students are receiving has serious implications for working in practice. "There are some architects who still think in the traditional way," says Peter Lobban, chief executive of the Construction Industry Training Board, pointing out that this can hinder the most creative of minds. "They see collaboration as a risk that will limit their work and so won't consider partnering. It is an attitude that can be fostered in universities and one that needs to be reversed."
Poor management skills are shown in the way architects run their practices, especially the smaller firms. Mike Wetherell, the Architects Registration Board's head of education, says this is where the problem is most acute. "Graduates can slip into bigger practices easily, but a lack of skills is much more evident in small firms."
If we don’t bring these issues into the curriculum, the industry’s reputation will be damaged
Paul Hyett, RIBA president-elect
Last year, RIBA's small practice survey revealed that more than half the firms it consulted earned less than £200,000 a year, and a quarter earned less than £40,000. Yet the Bartlett students polled by Building were under the impression that architects took home between 15% and 25% of a project budget rather than the actual figure of about 6%. The RIBA survey also reported that architects consider their fees to be too low, but have no idea how to increase them. Elspeth Clement, who ran the survey, makes the link between these failings and the lack of management awareness in universities.
Placing design ahead of running a practice has also meant that architects are losing control of project management to quantity surveyors; design-and-build schemes now make up nearly a quarter of the market. "The trend threatens to erode the status of the architect," says Clement.
But in spite of professional bodies' belief that universities must do more to promote practical issues, qualified architects are less convinced. The graduate recruitment programme at Foster and Partners reflects this. "We look for talent and high-quality drawing skills rather than a head for management," says partner Ken Shuttleworth. He argues that architectural education is about identifying an area of expertise and exploiting it. "They tend to focus on specific aspects and less on the broader picture. We certainly don't expect them to run a major project and would not refuse to take them on if their knowledge was sketchy."
This kind of specialisation makes sense in the larger firms, but even small practices advocate it. "The Renaissance concept of the universal man is no longer possible," says Ben Fereday of Fereday Pollard Architects. To him, the notion that project management may be taken over by quantity surveyors is an opportunity to redefine the architect's role. "It may not be a bad thing to E E specialise, especially as technological knowledge needed is getting more detailed."
If more firms follow this direction, then he argues that bulking up courses to include management could sacrifice design time. "The problem is it can dilute the academic side. If you muddy the water with management and costing it will stymie experimentation."
The problem of finding time is one of the key stumbling blocks to increasing practice and management study. "Adding without taking away is a problem," says the Bartlett's Tabor. "Students only have so many hours, and universities only have so many resources. It is quite right that the RIBA and the ARB are pushing for more training, but without saying what can go out, it's a battle."
The problems of time and cost are exacerbated by the increase in student intake: in 1998 there were 2070 students entering UK architecture courses, this year the number is 2300.
At least now, however, the issue is high on the agenda of the industry's professional institutions, and the ARB is carrying out a survey of architects to establish the roots of the problem. Paul Hyett is set to use his RIBA presidency as a platform to promote the issue, calling for an overhaul of the current system. Meanwhile, the CITB is developing computer software for students that can simulate the practical side of a project's evolution.
There are also encouraging stories within universities, even if they are occurring at part three stage. Alan Short, head of architecture at De Montfort University, who increased the management element of the fifth-year course, intends to repeat and extend this when he takes charge of the school of architecture at Cambridge University. "My first term will include an experiment introducing freshmen to the idea of how the industry is run. It will be demanding."
Meanwhile, the Architectural Association has sparked student interest with its Future Practice course. Set up two years ago, this presents the professional scene through case studies of problem projects such as Zaha Hadid's opera house in Cardiff. It includes a discussion of students' final projects in terms of buildability and practical management.
AA chairman Mohsen Mostafavi says this has led to enthusiastic papers and even a demand to extend the course. "It would be easy to include it in a dogmatic and boring way," says Mostafavi. "We try to find guest speakers who haven't done the conventional thing – it raises the issues and shows the students different ways to think about them. It instils a little bit more optimism."