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Architects first

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Architect, planner, developer and surveyor, Valerie Owen has certainly seen the profession from many different sides.

Now she's keen to teach others the lessons she has learnt One of the most often-repeated doctrines in schools up and down the country is that an architectural education prepares students for a great deal more than simply practice. If this holds true, the worlds of business and politics should be littered with former architecture students proving that the horizon-expanding experience of late nights in under-resourced university studios has turned them into a sought-after commodity. But this simply isn't the case.

There is, for example, only one architect in the House of Commons. And, let's be honest, Sidney Chapman is not exactly known for the creative and dynamic thinking that should be associated with the wonderful, wacky world of architectural education.

It is for this reason that London First managing director Valerie Owen proves to be such a surprise. She is not a practicing architect and hasn't been for some years, but has instead made a successful career working first for surveyors and developers Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) and latterly promoting business. One might assume this is because she has fallen out of love with architecture - she is, after all, also qualified as a planner and surveyor.

But no.Owen is still very much obsessed with the business of designing great buildings and she is a member of the RIBA council to prove it.

Liverpool-educated Owen - a lively 47year-old - meets me at her offices just off Trafalgar Square and immediately suggests popping out for a coffee because 'it is so much more interesting than a boring old meeting room'. I am struck by a sense of boundless energy despite the fact that she insists she's coming down with the flu.

So first things first. 'Why don't you practice anymore?' I ask as we settle in a slightly peculiar tourist cafe. But Owen doesn't exactly answer the question straight, instead waxing lyrical about how she had enjoyed practice hugely when involved. It transpires that Owen managed to fall out of the profession when she was signed up to open an architecture office for JLL - a move that led indirectly towards a glittering career 'developing offices throughout the capital'.

And then, three years ago, a bolt from the blue. 'I suddenly decided to jack it all in and travel round India for three months, leaving my husband back in London, ' she tells me with a glint in her eye, born of the knowledge that people are normally surprised by this information. In all honesty, it takes a substantial leap of faith to imagine Valerie Owen chilling out in a flea-infested backpacker hangout on some hippy trail. It doesn't go with the serious-businesswomanon-the-fast-track image. But apparently it happened.

Upon her return from this period of subcontinental contemplation, she decided to radically restructure her life. Having walked out on a high-flying career in property - Owen was JLL's youngest ever director - she decided to tone down the ambition. Part of the 'new Valerie Owen' manifested itself in an astonishing decision with her husband to adopt three children all at once and, in a related move, 'look to get into the public sector'.

This is where London First appeared on the horizon. Owen saw it as an opportunity to continue her business career while simultaneously finding time for her new family. She tells me that it has also given her the chance to look at issues that would be close to the heart of anyone with an architectural training.

Housing and the government's determination to foster a residential building boom has obviously become something of a preoccupation. However, the standard stock answers are left very much in the cupboard as she gives short shrift to the Piers Goughs and Will Alsops of this world, who would be keen to foist blobs on the great British semi-detacheddwelling public. 'House-buyers are very conservative, partly because of bad experience from timber-framed housing in the '70s, but mostly because people have had their fingers burnt in the equities market and, rightly or wrongly, are looking for their homes to provide a pension, ' she tells me. Sounds to me like the innerdeveloper has got the better of Owen on this one.

On a bit of a roll, she moves swiftly on to the perennial issue of architectural low pay and there's no mistaking the commercial business background in the monologue that follows. 'I believe the profession should promote a more commercial approach to professional fees, reflecting value capture as well as project cost.

'For example, developers can maximise their returns early on by securing a valuable planning consent or change in land use. The design skills required to optimise intensification of a site is simply not reflected in fee scales. We need to move architects further up the food chain.' Phew.

I've rarely heard so many buzzwords dropped into one sentence. But if you can decipher the management speak, it all makes a lot of sense.

All good politically correct stuff, but do not expect Owen to start holding court on the issues surrounding the paucity of women in architecture.

Looking moderately pained when the issue arises, Owen points out that the issues of 'remuneration, working conditions and high risk' affect everyone in the job and, as a result, people should not just be focused on gender. Obviously these problems affect some women more than their male counterparts, she adds, but 'what we need is more collective leadership and ownership of these problems, tackling them head-on for the benefit of the profession as a whole'.

And then it strikes me, as our conversation begins to tail off. Am I looking at the first female president of the RIBA? Not for the first time in our hour-long conversation, Owen surprises me.

'I believe the president should be elected on her or his ability to do the job. It is true to say a woman president is likely to attract more media attention and secure more air time when promoting the profession, but this should not be the driver, ' she says, with a knowing look.

Not a straight answer. But neither is it a denial. If Owen does decide to take up the baton from George Ferguson, the architectural profession across the UK will not know what has hit it.

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