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grass roots champion

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Brian Godfrey is taking a stand for small practioners in his bid for the RIBA presidency. He hopes to address the sense of alienation from Portland Place and to act as a spokesperson for a profession bedevilled by image problems by isabel allen. photograp

'Life on the chalk face, ' is how Brian Godfrey describes his existence as a small practitioner based in Teignmouth, Devon. It is, he says, difficult to make a living, mainly because decent commissions tend to be snapped up by large practices so that 'the big practices get bigger, the medium practices become large practices, and the small practices get squeezed out'. And while the regional branch of the RIBA is supportive, he claims that 'nobody else gives a damn about us'.

The only tangible benefit he has had from Portland Place has been the occasional commission which has come his way through the client advisory service: 'In 20 years there's been maybe three or four. And one of those was a chimneystack.'The jobs' combined fees amounted to less than a couple of hundred pounds.

Godfrey's decision to stand as a candidate in the upcoming RIBA elections was prompted by the conviction that the institute should be doing more for the regions and more for the eight out of 10 practices on the RIBA register which have less than 10 staff. He is already a member of RIBA council, and is used to making the three-hour trip to London. If he wins the election he plans to spend a couple of days a fortnight at Portland Place, arguing that with modern technology it should be possible to carry out his duties while spending most of his time in Teignmouth. In any case, he feels that the role of president should be less hands-on than it is at the moment.His view is that the running of the institute should be left to paid professionals. RIBA presidents 'should have more of a watching brief, because we're just passing through'.

He would be happy to see the role of the president as that of a spokesperson, saying: 'I know how to spout.' On the subject of sustainability he feels that 'we've lost our way. It's not our place to put the world to rights. Pollution is a governmental issue. We can have it as part of our brief but its not the cause celebre.'He concedes that there is work to be done on improving the profile and image of the profession, claiming that architects tend to be seen either as 'down at heel with stains on our ties' or as having 'bow ties, a beard and round glasses'.More damningly, he suggests there is a perception of the architect as an ineffectual character who answers any comment from the client with a deferential 'yessir' and sidesteps any query from a builder by saying: 'I don't know, I didn't do the drawing.' But for Godfrey, the image problem is largely of the profession's own making.Architects do tend to lack crucial skills, and much of the fault lies with education. He is concerned that ignorance about cost and technical issues is allowing surveyors and project managers to take work away from architects. 'The word architect is a Greek word which means chief technician, but construction technology is very badly taught, ' he says.'You take a year-out student and you spend six months telling him how to put one brick on top of another because he doesn't now how.' He is dismissive of the suggestion that schools of architecture should encourage students to specialise: 'It's a luxury small practices can't afford. I specialise in whatever comes through the door, whether it's a WC or a disabled entrance, a sports hall or a swimming pool. If you teach specialisation it means you're going to have a lot of students who can only work for large practices.'

Godfrey himself studied architecture 'the hard way'. He became a qualified surveyor by taking evening classes, and studied for his RIBA qualifications part-time at Plymouth. He also has a teaching certificate which he gained by part time study at Exeter. Between 1966 and 1982 he lectured at various colleges in the South West on subjects such as surveying and the history of building.Now aged 64, most of his time is devoted to practice and to expert witness work. His 'patch' stretches from Sidmouth to Salcombe, although he gets the occasional commission which is further afield - the current workload includes a Lottery-funded project for a sports pavilion and changing rooms in Lyme Regis.

He is unwilling to say whether his practice has a distinctive style, claiming that he is too involved to be able to judge, but says that the guiding principle of his work is 'if it's simple, it works'. He cites Mies van de Rohe and Le Corbusier as his great heroes.

His other great passion is cars - an interest which he shares with the current RIBA president - 'Marco has his Porsche 991, I've got a sports coupe.' One of his great pleasures is an annual spin round the racing track at Castle Coombe.

But for the moment, his main concern is the election.He has put aside a £3,000 'war chest' for the campaign, taken on two new partners to free up his time, and is in the process of gathering the 60 signatures necessary for his nomination papers. It is proving something of a struggle.Although he has the backing of the South West region, it is hard to collect signatures when the local practices are so scattered and there is the additional problem that many of his potential supporters see the RIBA as irrelevant. 'When you're in the outback you don't care what's going on.You're so busy making a living, ' he explains.'I'm doing this from the grass roots.'

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