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Ruth Reed’s RIBA: How was it for you?


As the RIBA’s first woman president, Ruth Reed aimed to change perceptions of the institute. On the eve of her departure, she answers questions from key players in the profession

Aidan Ridyard, director of Broadway Malyan: ‘Why did it take you so long to meet education secretary Michael Gove, and why have you been almost silent in the national press about his comments?’
When Michael Gove made his ill-informed remarks about the role of architects in Building Schools for the Future, the temptation was to voice the anger of the profession. It would have been cathartic, but in the long term damaging to the profession’s ability to influence the changes to procurement in what remains a key area of public spending.

The backlash from his fellow ministers in our defence, which followed our measured and discreet lobbying, has been more effective. It is just possible that the support for good design in the foreword to the National Planning Policy Framework by Greg Clark is a result of the raised awareness of the benefit of good design in the built environment to the wider economy. The Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) has been clear in its support of the value to the economy of architectural services.

I did get to meet Gove, a meeting orchestrated by John Penrose, in which the anger of the profession was articulated. But the debate moved on to how the RIBA could work with the Department for Education and begin a productive relationship.

It’s all a question of approach and understanding the outcome you want to achieve.

Nick Willars, director of design project management, Buro Four: ‘What have [you] and the RIBA done to prevent the quality of the architectural service from being jeopardised by pressure on fees rather than closer scrutiny of construction costs?

The RIBA champions good design; architects have a responsibility to attach value to that work. The Office of Fair Trading prevents the profession from setting fees and leaves it to the market to bottom them out, so it is up to each of us to get the value out of our core skills. However, the excessive costs in British construction are due to risk-averse processes and a rampant bureaucracy rather than design costs. It is to be hoped that the scrutiny of the industry by Paul Morrell and the BIS will result in a more efficient system. The RIBA is taking a key role in informing that process, as well as pushing for a greater understanding of the benefit of wise decision-making before procurement begins. The RIBA is influencing key clients to invest in good design and the profession needs to price itself accordingly.

Chris Brown, chief executive, Igloo Regeneration: ‘What do you make of former RIBA presidents trying to pressure you into supporting the government’s proposed Use Classes Order change?Was this a symptom of RIBA dinosaurs as architects lobby group rather than as modern publicinterest organisation with historic Royal Charter?’

The RIBA is a membership organisation and all members have access to the press, including past presidents. Chris will be aware that I did not give my wholehearted support to my predecessors’ lobbying. I understand that the Use Classes underpin land-use planning that is central to our system. It is responsible for the land management policies that set us apart from most other countries and have resulted in a protected countryside.

I support a loosening of the requirements to recognise the ability to work from home and also the changing use of inner cities, to give way to city living.

I appreciated the debate and I do not mind who raises the issues. You are president for two years and in that time you bring your knowledge to inform RIBA policy. The executive and council provide continuity and ensure that the public interest message is nuanced and evolving.

Richard Simmons, former chief executive, CABE: ‘Architects often blame clients or planners for poor design. Does Ruth think that some architects produce designs that just aren’t good enough and, if so, what should the RIBA do about it, especially where its members are concerned?’

Some architects do produce designs that fall below the profession’s expectations. But we have to be aware they might have met their client’s requirements and the planning authority thought they were good enough to build. All parties need to be prepared to deliver good design for it to happen.

Raising aspirations for good design is central to the RIBA’s work and it promotes excellence through the awards system and by supporting design review. We’ve all been educated through peer review and all architects can benefit from a forum in which to discuss projects. By pushing for greater access to design review, the RIBA is helping architects to achieve a better outcome.

Kristin Cross, associate director, Satellite Architects: Is there apoint to promoting architectureat the cost of architects?

You cannot have good architecture without architects, so the RIBA’s charter remit promotes both. Since the RIBA is not a trade union for architects, it is better placed to influence policy in the built environment. For instance, it has championed a better procurement system for schools and has not sought to protect the jobs for the boys that the BSF programme provided. The goal is a respect for the profession that we can all capitalise on.

Graham Longman, partner, Make: ‘In addition to low pay, fewer jobs and an uncertain future facing graduate architects, about two-thirds of universities want to charge the £9,000 maximum tuition fees. How will this affect architecture in the near future?  Will we find a return to the profession being dominated by the well-off and privately educated?’ Architectural education is in a difficult position, having the longest vocational course of any profession, the lowest starting salaries and practices least likely to pay students on professional experience. There is no magic bullet, but there are some measures that can be taken and attitudes that can be changed.

The RIBA is lobbying Europe for flexibility in the prescribed course length. Time served is not necessarily the measure of a good education in architecture, and the way should be open for schools to devise courses allowing workplace learning or to intensify delivery to reduce the cost for students.

Pay is in the hands of the profession. The RIBA cannot police each appointment that delivers the fees to pay the staff. We all know what damage suicidal fees do, but practices still make bids below the cost of delivery. What I have instigated is the obligation on chartered practices to pay their students. This will level the playing field for staff costs in competing bids.

A change of culture within the profession to understand the value of our offer to clients and to charge accordingly, together with support for the students that are our succession, will address the prospect of outrageous inequality that the higher education funding regime is going to bring.

Tatiana von Preussen co-founder of vPPR: ‘It is difficult for emerging practices to pay themselves, let alone interns who require training in the skill sets necessary for architectural office work.  Could you envisage a partnership scheme, with private investors, that would be able to contribute to the payment of intern level architects for young practices, similar to schemes run by universities in the USA, including Princeton and the Cooper Union?’  

The issues return to the lack of value placed on architectural services by the architects themselves. High-value sponsorship would be an excellent idea if we manage to communicate the benefit of our skills. All the work in promoting the value of good design is undermined by the profession’s determined efforts to under-value itself.

Jonathan Brown, of Urbed: ‘Does the profession have enough to say about successful masterplanning as well as building, and is it brave enough to confront costly failures like Housing Market Renewal?’

Localism is a real opportunity for architects to be involved with issues beyond the boundaries of the project site. The issue is resource rather than ability. Community engagement with plan- making has always faltered because of the lack of funds to enable the professionals to assist groups articulate their ambitions for their neigbourhood and I fear the potential brought by Localism will similarly disappoint.

I have always been disappointed by the profession’s lack of enthusiasm for politics. Issues such as Housing Market Renewal are political ones that are debated at local and national level but beyond the lobbying work of the RIBA architects are rarely represented at these fora. With radical change to the planning system and public procurement it would be good to hear the profession’s position championed in town halls across the country. I have had my turn, now it is over to the rest of you.

Alistair Sunderland, partner, Austin-Smith:Lord: Could the RIBA better use its brand value to promote British architects at the highest levels worldwide, given the effectiveness of the American, French and German marketing machines?

We could be better at promoting the RIBA brand abroad and although we have begun to do this, supported by UK Trade and Investment, we need to do more. Much of our brand value comes from the international success of our education system. We validate more than 90 schools across the world, reinforcing the benefit of British design values. The RIBA needs to join up its membership with emerging international markets.

Quickfire Q&A

What was the highlight of your presidency? Standing under the portrait of Elizabeth I in Number 10 at the RIBA 175th anniversary reception.

What was the low point? The recession and its effect on people’s lives and livelihoods.

What will you miss about the role? Influence.

Will you miss the media attention? Not personally. I will only miss it as a means of getting messages out.

If you had the term again, would you do anything differently? When I return to university and write this up I think I will conclude that the fundamental approach was right.

How do you want people to remember you? Someone once described me as the listening president – I liked that.

Despite all the press coverage, is there something people still don’t know about you? I own over 80 pairs of shoes, and most of the time my feet killed me.


Readers' comments (2)

  • When someone says says that their greatest achievement in charge of the RIBA is securing the minimum wage for graduates (RIBAJournal June or July 2011) - would it be fair to say that Ruth has achieved pretty much nothing in her presidency? (except that practices comply with British employment law)

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  • The Presidency has become a sinecure; but without the money, of course.

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