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Professional competence is priceless

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Fred Pooley, the former RIBA president who died this month, made 'competence' one of the themes of his term of office. Fred's unassuming air, which belied a clever and effective intelligence, led some to underestimate the seriousness with which he chose his theme. By definition, most architects (as with any other profession) are not going to be superstar designers. Most practices will not win design awards for every building, or even most buildings, which they design. On the other hand, most clients for most buildings want, first and foremost, a decent professional job. What is important to them is not the award-winning potential of the new building or refurbishment, but its performance in relation to anticipated use, cost and delivery time.

This week we publish our annual survey of the country's largest practices. It does not measure architectural quality, but it is not unreasonable to assume that the practices listed must be doing something right - especially those that are consistently in the list. Consistency of delivery is essential for practice longevity, as the firms listed in the New Architects directory, also published this week, have probably already discovered. One of the potential difficulties facing fledgling firms is relative inexperience in handling big projects. This is a Catch-22 which has made it more difficult for younger firms to make a big break into the commercial world.

Happily, as the directory indicates, it is by no means impossible. And newer firms may have the design flair which can partly evaporate in larger organisations where delivery is king. What we really love, of course, is both design flair and assured delivery, and the ambition of all practices should be to provide just that.

Mandatory professional indemnity insurance, far from being regarded as a criticism of professional ability, is in reality a safeguard against unexpected failure - and one which can be purchased at extremely low cost. Those cost rates could be seen as a tribute to the general competence of the profession; they are certainly not a bar to young practices obtaining significant work.

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