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It’s true: people don’t know what architects do

The public is largely ignorant of the work undertaken by architects according to shocking results of a new survey inspired by the AJ interview with Apprentice star Gabrielle Omar, writes Max Thompson

A ‘shocking’ and ‘depressing’ new survey has revealed that the British public is largely ignorant of some of the key services offered by architects.

72 per cent of respondents to a survey commissioned by InBuilding.org are unaware that architects apply for planning permission and a staggering 86 per cent have no idea architects select and manage contractors.

Less than a fifth know architects prepare construction drawings, and only nine per cent understand that they control site budgets; 15 per cent don’t even know that architects design buildings.

Less than a fifth know architects prepare construction drawings

Norfolk-based architect and ARB board member Ruth Brennan says: ‘Most people I meet who are not involved in construction have no idea that architects differ, that we do not all design glass shards or buildings with their pipes wrapped around their exteriors.’

She says she found the extent of the findings ‘depressing and quite shocking’.

However, RIBA president elect, Stephen Hodder, says the results are ‘open to interpretation’ and it is ‘encouraging’ that 85 per cent of people know that architects design buildings. He does however concede that ‘there is work to be done,’ particularly around the lack of awareness of the architect’s role in planning. He affirms, however, that architects, not the RIBA, should be responsible for changing perceptions.

‘RIBA has a supporting role, but it is for us architects to get out there and promote what we do in terms of social, environmental and economics benefits to society,’ he says.

Is it a bad thing that 15 per cent don’t know that architects design buildings, or a good thing that 85 per cent do? New London Architecture chairman Peter Murray is in the latter camp, proclaiming: ‘85 per cent is pretty good; in these surveys usually only 2 per cent of people know who the prime minister is’.

But Toby Fletcher of Kingston-based Fletcher Crane Architects is unconvinced, describing the missing 15 per cent as his ‘biggest worry’.

This lack of understanding is regrettable

George Wade of Will Alsop’s ALL Design is similarly deflated: ‘You would hope people would be more aware of the creative process; this says to me that people think of architects in the same vein as someone who would tile your bathroom.’

The survey’s standout result is that only 9 per cent think architects control a project’s budget: ‘It is very surprising,’ says Murray, ‘especially as it’s the architects that get it in the neck when budgets are surpassed.’

The results may be influenced by experience with architects running small domestic jobs which only keep a weather-eye on the budget, handing control of the purse strings to a client’s quantity surveyor or the client themselves.

However you interpret the findings, it’s clear the public understands little of the less glamorous side of architecture. David Hingamp of Peckham practice Ar’chic, for example, is most shocked that only 14 per cent of his potential clients realise architects negotiate with contractors. ‘It’s what I do all the time!’ he says.

‘The public clearly feels we can design a building but we can’t be trusted to manage and deliver it on time and on budget’, says Patricia Eckenweber of Bubble Architects. She goes on to say that: ‘Given that most architects work in small practices on small to medium-scale projects where they can play this larger role, this lack of understanding is regrettable’.

Worryingly, it is the younger generation that is most ignorant about the specifics of the architects’ role. While a third of those over 55 were aware that architects prepare planning permissions, just 14 per cent of those aged 18-24 could claim the same.

Likewise less than two-thirds of young adults knew architects draw up detailed construction drawings compared with a healthier 81 per cent of the older age group. A meagre 20 per cent of the younger group were aware that architects handle building control certificates and guarantees.

Among the architects contacted by the AJ, it is this lack of awareness of the profession’s wider skills that galls. And it seems it is intrinsically linked to the perceived ceding of ground to others including project managers, construction, design and management coordinators, and planning consultants.

Brennan sums up the feelings of many: ‘The message just doesn’t seem to be getting out. The RIBA must make more of an effort to publicise the value for money and complete service an architect can provide. I spread the word in my own small circle as much as I can but our national institute could do far more than individuals ever can’.

Every architect has a role to play in reinforcing this message

Hodder, who is adamant that the RIBA has a ‘pivotal’ role to play in getting this message across, is resting his hopes on a new website due to go live at the end of 2013. He says the site ‘will clearly communicate the role of the architect and the value of architecture.’

But, despite the forthcoming website, the RIBA’s bottom line remains that architects need to do more themselves.

‘The strength of the Institute is our collective spirit and every architect has a role to play in reinforcing this message,’ says Hodder.

With or without that collective spirit, the trouble is that, as Tomas Millar of Stroud-based Millar+Howard Workshop says, ‘architects do quite a good job of remaining invisible’.

And while many may bemoan the fact that they are losing out on fees to other professions, as Fletcher reveals, an equal number are secretly happy with maintaining the status quo.

‘The traditional role of the architect was to control everything; now we sit alongside various consultants,’ says Fletcher. ‘From a personal point of view, that allows me to get on with the bit I enjoy – designing.’

About the survey:

  • InBuilding.org, a new online community for architects, commissioned the survey from YouGov
  • The survey was inspired by The Apprentice star and London-based architect Gabrielle Omar interview in AJ 31.05.12
  • 2,031 adults responded from a pool of 350,000 potential UK pollsters
  • Richard Buxton of InBuilding.org, said: ‘The results support what Omar said about the public not knowing what architects do, and the profession being in need of a brand overhaul’

survey4

Other results

  • When asked to pick three of the most influential factors when appointing an architect, 71 per cent selected ‘that the architect is qualified and registered’ making it the most important factor in choosing an architect 
  • Good references (58 per cent) and the architect’s fees (46 per cent) are the next most important considerations. 
  • The death knell has been sounded for printed directories: only 7 per cent of respondents would use them as a first port of call when searching for an architect
  • The older generation (aged 55+) are significantly more reliant on reputation (67 per cent) than their younger (aged 18-24) counterparts (40 per cent).
  • Tom Russell from Tom Russell Architects says ‘networking rather than the net remains key.’ However,  18-24 year olds are more likely to use the internet (45 per cent) than over 55s (29 per cent)

Readers' comments (9)

  • Just to let you know that you can come and discuss the survey results with Gabrielle, Richard Buxton and Arlo Guthrie (the people behind it) in the forum on http://www.inbuilding.org.

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  • Please note that my views are my own, and not those of the ARB. I think it is good that 85% of people know that architects design buildings, although the other headline figures are rather depressing.

    Stephen Hodder states it is the architects' job to promote themselves which is true up to a point, but he may like to remember that the RIBA is the public face of its members, therefore it has a responsibility to inform the public of the benefits its members bring to architecture.

    I will be very interested to see the new website when it goes live. Let us hope that the RIBA is truely listening to what its members want.

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  • The figures are ‘open to interpretation’


    'Less than a fifth know architects prepare construction drawings'

    ???

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  • It would be entertaining to see responses from a similar survey for the role of landscape architects.

    Give us a laugh!

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  • Marcel Ridyard

    Ruth I agree with your comments and the RIBA is the marketing board for the profession. I believe that it is already doing a lot more than it used to in this respect and needs to keep it up. Capitalising on great PR such as Gabrielle Omar's good run on the Apprentice is the kind of thing that will engage the public.

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  • The lack of understanding about the wider skills & role of an architect is reflected in the ongoing confusion about who can become an architect. Only today I was speaking to a 15 year old who had given up on he aspiration to be an architect because he'd been told his dyslexia would prevent it.
    We need to be proactively working with this younger generation - the future clents, designers and users - to give them a better understanding of the role of the profession. Work is going on - at Placed we're delivering activities in the NW - but I feel that more needs to be done with this crucial group if we are to change attitudes and understanding.

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  • I thought all good Architects are dyslectic/right brain (thank goodness for the spell check)

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  • I have an essay about this which probably many people will misunderstand. If people want to see it tell me.

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  • there is no such thing as 'the public'. In marketing terms this definition is actually worse than useless. As the same group if they know what an actuary, supply chain or logistics manager does!

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