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RIBA confronts the future

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The RIBA's conference on the challenges of the future took place at construction exhibition Interbuild last week. Austin Williams reflects on the speakers' contributions and their lessons for the profession Last week's RIBA conference, 'Facing the future', co-sponsored by the AJ, was held at Birmingham's NEC in the heart of the biennial Interbuild event.

This, as president Paul Hyett said, was partly so that the RIBA might stop being seen as London-centric, and also to show that it recognised its place as part of the construction industry. 'We must not think that we are above construction; we have no God-given right to oversee projects, ' he said in his opening address, although Vasillis Sgoutas, president of the Union Internationale des Architects (UIA) stated that architects are 'leaders in the field - the first amongst equals.We are not facilitators'.

The conference, held over two days, comprised plenary sessions, workshops and debates around four themes: living, working, learning and healing. On this last topic, delegates were involved in intensive strategic discussion over the full course of the conference, reporting back at the end of the second day.

Following directly on from Hyett, James Woudhuysen laid down a challenge to the sustainability agenda (see pages 8-9). 'If we believe that what we do now might be dangerous for the future, then we will end up with the architecture of self-doubt and selfloathing, ' he said. His dynamic and thought-provoking speech got things off to a controversial start.

In the first of the 'Hot Slots' - 15minute interludes in the main proceedings - Ted Cullinan presented the history of the construction industry in two cartoons, drawn on the overhead projector as he spoke. The cartoons showed a construction worker on Frei Otto's Mannheim shell structure in the 1970s as a hippy, replete with flares, bandana and bare feet; followed by a construction worker on the Weald and Downland Centre wearing steel toecaps, harness and hard hat. The conclusions were left to our imaginations.

Energy and construction minister Brian Wilson confirmed the government's commitment to developing Sir John Egan's strategy through the launch of Design Quality Indicators and these were explained later in the conference by Robin Nicholson of the Construction Industry Council (CIC) and Sunand Prasad of Penoyre and Prasad, who have been instrumental in setting them up.

Recognising that design could not be measured under the KPI system, they have developed a subjective appraisal tool 'to tell clients what design is', although 'no one is excluded from the process and everyone has a valid point of view'. Based on the heading of Commodity, Firmness and Delight, this 'new triple bottom line' has been re-titled Functionality, Build Quality and Impact. Stressing that the aim is to aid competitive advantage, the CIC wants volunteers for the first phase of the scheme.

Other sessions included Post-Occupancy Evaluation (POE), which Denise Jaunzens of the BRE said 'should be carried out in the spirit of collaboration and cooperation rather than conflict', adding that one might wish to 'ask your insurers first'; housing, where Simon Allford of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris suggested that we 'look to the Victorian idea of density'; and planning, where Jon Rouse of CABE started by looking at the 'success of Lottery-funded projects'.

Paul Hyett's keynote address on the second day was followed by a Richard Murphy Architects Hot Slot on educational buildings ('Don't tell me that architects can't do social engineering'). Continuing the education theme, Ruth Morrow and Judi Farren-Bradley gave examples of particular courses that are trying to develop 'teamworking skills'. Suggesting that, in architectural education, 'there is no use developing muscles which are no use to you when you go on to professional practice', Morrow of Sheffield University stressed the need to 'communicate effectively' and 'learn to sell yourself '.

Steve Evans of Cranfield University described his consultancy role with Nissan, through Project Cogent (AJ 26.7.01), which has been concerned with improving productivity through efficiency gains. Nissan, he said, is the company with the longest history of project partnering in Europe and yet it does not have contractual partnering agreements. 'The best way to cooperate is not to talk about cooperation but to get on with the real job of tackling a problem, ' he said.

The second day's keynote speech was given by Sir Richard MacCormac, who asserted that the 1960s represented a 'failure of humanism'. As architects, he said, 'our first obligation is to our humanity'. He saw a positive future for architects, given that currently, six per cent of GDP in the UK comes from the creative industries, (of which architecture is a part), and it is growing at 17 per cent a year.

The remaining session on sustainability saw a frank discussion on the problems of environmental design and experimental buildings by Bill Gething of Feilden Clegg Bradley Architects, from the BRE headquarters to the Open University Berrill Building and the headquarters for RARE. He explained instances of how they had 'forgotten to take into account the time change to British summer time' in the daylight modelling and so the solar shading was ineffective for the first hour of the working day; to a computer room where ('you might know this - but we didn't') they budgeted for one person heat loads per computer terminal, but two people regularly sit together. This 'worst practice' presentation was generally regarded as refreshingly honest and informative.

In closing, Hyett looked forward to passing on the baton to George Ferguson to carry on the tradition of 'State of the Union' addresses, and suggested that Acanthus was a good example of consolidating small practices into larger networks for effective team-building. 'Only by facing the future, ' he said, 'can we effectively shape it.'

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