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AJ exclusive: Former RIBA president Sunand Prasad answers your questions

After officially stepping down as the RIBA’s figurehead earlier the month, Sunand Prasad answers your questions about working for free, education and diversity in the profession

What would you like your successor to do about architects having to undertake large levels of unpaid speculative work which is rife at the moment? The lawyers always seem to get paid, why not architects?
Sean Griffiths, FAT

Unlike lawyers, architects have been giving away their intellectual property for years. There are many architects who refuse to do unpaid work, or only do it if there is proper risk/reward arrangement in place. On the other hand our practice has lost ‘tenders’ - there’s a term that does not readily associate with quality - where others have bid fees one third of ours, despite our fee proposal being cost based and well within the old scale. Ruth Reed will be very clear and robust on this but I am afraid she can’t, by herself, change the DNA of the profession, which is what we have to do. If in an architectural education questions of cost, time and other resource management were seen as a natural part of the intellectual and emotional adventure of designing, I am convinced a side effect would be that architects would be more fierce about the value of their own work. 

Does you feel you have made any steps in improving the image of architecture as a white middle-class, male orientated London-centric profession?
Naushad Islam, Eastern Green developments

While I was a CABE commissioner I chaired a study which found that students from minority ethnic backgrounds are joining in architectural courses in proportions greater those prevailing in the general population. So the position is a lot better than it was in 1990 when I first became involved in this issue. But rates of success and retention are sadly lagging, and the picture is patchy when you look at particular cultural backgrounds. The RIBA’s Architects for Change group has been campaigning on this as well as gender imbalance, and the RIBA supports the work of the Stephen Lawrence Trust to widen the pool of talent which the profession should attract. The recent report of the Panel for Fair Access to the Professions has potentially the most far-reaching proposals and is unusual for tackling class bias, but will they be acted on?

Should we still aspire to be ‘architects’ or does modern procurement require us to be just ‘designers’?
Steve Ballantyne, divisional director at 3DReid

I don’t get ‘just’ designers – as if designers are a lower order. But of course there can be no question of giving up ‘architect’ – quite the reverse. No procurement apparatchik can make you delete ‘architect’ and insert ‘designer’.

What is your opinion on the professional position of architects who employ staff - in particular RIBA part I & II 2 students - for scant remuneration, sometimes even below the national minimum wage? In your opinion is it possible that some of the wider professional problems we face - fee cutting, disproportionately ABC1 intake into the profession at Part III and so forth can in part be attributable to this practice.’
Ben Addy, founder Moxon Architects

Answer to first questions is ‘low’ except in some rare cases where the practice is genuinely non-exploitative. No RIBA Chartered Practice can do what you describe. I think what you are suggesting in your second question has validity but that does not mean that eradicating the first problem will mean progress with the second, which has deep roots. See answer to question 1.

What are the implications for the professions of the failure of audit culture ideology?
Paul Finch, new chair of CABE

Like all really good questions, this one initially just provokes more: Is audit culture also ‘distrust’ culture? ‘Guilty until proved innocent’. Sadly that culture seems to be alive and well, oxygenated by the MPs expenses affair. However, target culture has certainly failed. One implication of that is that the professions need to show evidence that they can offer truer forms of judgement and that they are prepared to engage much more widely and openly in public life (climate change being a good test case). We have had 25 years of running things by a method that depends on accountability by false proxies. What will replace this method? The urgent need to answer that is probably the main implication for the professions.

‘Is there a role for the RIBA to improve how architects can collaborate with developers?’
Christian Garnett of Christian Garnett Partners

One practical step would be to publicise and learn from the myriad examples of good collaboration between developers and architects. Another would be to devise ways in which the value that architects add is reflected in their remuneration.

‘Do you believe the RIBA has challenged architectural education sufficiently to produce architects that are appropriately trained for practice?’
John McRae, director of ORMS

I don’t believe it is the role of education to train architects for practice. Students at Schools of Architecture learn how to think critically and understand design as a way of thinking and analysis of a wider purpose than practice. What I have challenged schools with is being illogically selective in what they consider to be the ingredients and the consequences of design – so with some exceptions they tend to underplay cost, time and resource limits and overplay object making. The result is that architectural values are now at the mercy of people who have become specialists in what we leave out. If this situation was changed it would automatically bring practice and education closer. The schools in turn have challenged the RIBA to do something about prevailing architectural culture and validation regimes that reinforces the conditions that I am criticising.

‘Would you have done anything differently with Prince Charles if you had your time again?’
Richard Waite, news editor AJ

No. At all times I had in mind the reaction of the general public and its attitudes towards architecture and the profession.

Readers' comments (1)

  • I forgot! Getting paid for passion in architecture/practice requires perseverance and self respect......Most businesses try to keep their overhead/labor below 40%....this is contrary to a creative field.....By default architects must compete in technology to stay in business......very similar to the medical profession and legal fields......We are as strong as the weakest link

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