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on the house

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PEOPLE: PRP Architects has for years worked on key housing projects, often with little fanfare. Now, with the appointment of Barry Munday as chairman, it is gearing up for a new era as it faces the challenges of a changing market

At a party this coming Saturday (29 September), Barry Munday will officially take over as chairman of PRP Architects, the fantastically busy but relatively underpublished practice whose stock in trade is large-scale housing - be it private, social or 'special needs'.

Described by one close to the firm as a quiet but trustworthy man to his clients, Munday began by 'serving his apprenticeship' at Powell and Moya, and now steps into the shoes of PRP's retiring founder, partner Peter Phippen. Meanwhile, his close friend and current director Chris Rudolf takes on the managing directorship - 'he's better with the money side, ' jokes Munday.

It is clearly a carefully-honed succession, with a new, younger, third generation of directors coming up and Munday charged with keeping things on an even keel. So, is it a case of change but no change? 'It'll be more evolution than revolution, ' admits Munday.

'We haven't taken too many quantum leaps.'

But he sees his role as keeping all the offices in the large group together and 'pulling in the same direction', maintaining quality as well as achieving, for himself and the practice, a higher profile at speaking events.

But Munday also hopes to further the way the firm tries to keep 'ahead of the game' in terms of research - how, for example, new planning regulations and changing demographics may affect what it designs and what clients want. And he is keen to explore avenues of the housing arena, which appear to change with the whims of successive governments, as each revolutionary new funding mechanism for estates renewal is superceded by new and ingenious methods.

We are talking Estate Actions, Single Regeneration Budgets, Heseltine's City Challenges and the like here. And at the moment, we appear to be in the era of New Labour's 'New Deal' for communities.

But then there are also the PFI bids for regenerating housing estates. In a blur of acronyms, PRP is part of a consortium bidding to win a 'pathfinder' PFI at Plymouth Grove Estate in Manchester at the moment. These schemes of course suck up resources and a great deal of time and effort, for a reward which may not come in the end.

'We've been involved in health PFIs as well, and again they're just a huge investment at fairly high risk, ' he says. 'I think they've got to be done more evenly than they are. There should be less work for everybody in PFIs - there needs to be some way of collecting a preferred bidder more economically than four people doing complete designs.'

Munday trained at the Polytechnic of North London and had something of a 'false start' at Lloyds Bank architects department.

Then it was off to the 'fantastic grounding' he received at Powell and Moya - while he was there he worked on schemes including the British Pavilion at Expo 70 in Osaka. 'I also did some work at Chichester theatre, ' he recalls with a chuckle. 'I designed the bar.'

He fondly remembers not just Sir Philip Powell and Hidalgo Moya's differing ways of working, but lessons that being there taught him. Things like learning to love details and to appreciate the crafting elements he feels are missing in a lot of housing today. So why did he leave? 'It was just one of those things, where you could see a lot of other people in the queue ahead of you, ' he says. 'To make any progress was going to take a long while.'

It was also, he says, that his early interest in housing - the subject of his university thesis - drove him to try to find a practice that specialised in it. Although PRP does do other work - schools, theatres, hospitals and mixed-use schemes included - it is the nitty gritty, often unglamorous work of urban renewal, through new and refurbished housing of all kinds, that forms its bedrock.

It was 1973 when Munday started at PRP, where he thought he could make more of a mark. It boasted only around six staff, operating from the ground floor of a semidetached house in Hampton Court, to the west of London. The whole office often went to the pub for lunch together. A far cry from the 180 staff it employs now, in Birmingham, Milton Keynes, Thames Ditton and at Munday's base, above Smithfield Market in London's architect-friendly Clerkenwell.

The UK's changing demographics, with people generally living longer, have impacted on the work the practice does on retirement homes, with new and better IT giving rise to 'telemedicine'. And while Munday says that the advent of PPG3 has made a 'huge difference' to PRP's work on private housing and high densities, he is slightly anxious about the effects that the London Plan might have on the types of housing that will be built. He fears that Ken Livingstone's model may not be the best for families.

Munday says his firm tends to get compared with other offices, such as Levitt Bernstein and HTA Architects - he has great sympathy for the latter over the Greenwich Millennium Village affair. The scheme's builders, Taylor Woodrow and Countryside Properties, sacked HTA, which has now lodged a claim for £4 million. PRP was similarly dropped from a scheme to regenerate an estate in the Vauxhall area of South London, after winning a competition to carry out the job. 'As it happened, the whole thing fell apart anyway, ' Munday recalls. 'But I know how HTA feels.'

Munday's interest in housing extends to his own accommodation in a city area he is enthusiastic about - Kensington, and another rather more rural retreat, an old farmhouse in Provence, southern France.

He is also a director of Architects in Housing, which used to be the housing group of the RIBA, before being floated off to fend for itself. Under David Birkbeck, it organises conferences, has set up a website and an architect search-service akin to the Institute's Clients Advisory Service. 'It's like that but a lot better, ' Munday boasts, although the site has, perhaps, not yet made its mark in publicity terms.

It is a good time to be an architect, and an architect in housing - with a greater awareness of the discipline through magazines, the Sunday supplements and the broadsheet critics, and because of the growth of leisure time and the boost from the Lottery.And it's a good time to be at PRP Architects - says its new chairman.

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