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Rock begins the task of helping small practices

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riba president David Rock fulfilled one of his pre-election promises last week when he began a process of consultation on the problems faced by small practices - firms of fewer than five staff - which make up the vast majority of the profession.

Rock instigated a meeting of nine chosen advisers to hear their problems at first hand and try to shape the actions of the riba accordingly. Deputy director general Chris Colbourne was also present at the afternoon session, to listen to the group's thoughts on issues such as the Clients Advisory Service, insurance, specialist registers and the damaging 'loneliness' of the sole practitioner. Rock's own move to alter the Institute's name to the Royal Institute of British Architecture was also discussed before being presented to Council on 21 January, but was rejected as a cosmetic exercise.

The group consists of Tracey-Jane Neal, president of the Sheffield Society of Architects; John Sheridan from Birchington in Kent; Roy Stone, a sole practitioner; Alan Warman, chairman of central Hampshire riba; Dave Taylor from Aberdeen; Robin Hill; Stuart Hendry; Sarah Wigglesworth and Sarah Featherstone of Hudson Featherstone. Fifty-four per cent of the 2000 firms in riba's Directory of Practices are under five strong.

Rock suggested that the idea of workspace, getting practices or disciplines together in one building, could often dispel the loneliness of the sole practitioner as well as providing help through central services. Hendry advised that talking to one another was a help, while Hill said his monthly group meetings in the north-west were popular.

Hendry also cited the informal arrangement between understanding small practices, where they could offload work on to one another. Practices with more experience in particular fields would take on jobs and - hopefully - remember to return the favour. In that context of sharing problems and knowledge, the ribanet is coming into its own. Alex Reid's venture - now with 800 practices on the system - removes geographical limitations and provides a pool of instant advisers. But older and retired architects also represented a pool of knowledge which could be tapped into by younger firms prepared to pay perhaps £10 a month for their telephone help as 'mentors'. Again, the emphasis was on talking and networking and the need to keep the arrangement informal, freeing them of liability.

Insurance was identified as a major and expensive problem. Colbourne said project insurance was available but was more expensive. Rock said he had come across one example where a planning consultant always included indemnity insurance on his expenses and it was never queried - why shouldn't the client pay for it? But because there are more players in the pii market, the cost has halved and continues to go down. However, he warned that if one of the players pulled out then pii could double in the next few years.

Colbourne said the downside of the cas was that often clients could get the best ideas from five different architects and then not use any of them. But architects could use the service too to find specialist consultants. Sarah Featherstone, however, felt that her practice had been pigeon-holed by the service, despite deliberately underplaying Baggy House. Colbourne said it was a client-driven service and clients tended to want experience in particular sectors. He added that the Department of Transport is talking to the cas about developing the service for the government.

Concern was expressed about specialist registers such as those on conservation and their possibly divisive effect. 'Unless architects do more niching, we aren't going to get the work,' said Rock. 'The time when architects say we can do everything has gone.'

Hill said that 'plan drawers' represented a major threat to the small practice: they offered a poor-quality service, and their helpful treatment by the planners was very different to that meted out to architects.

A paper is to go to the next riba council on 21 January on guideline hourly rates and the need for an indicative rate. The group thought this problematic, not least because of regional variations, but also because a low rate would result in the client not valuing the service.

Finally, the group agreed that the riba was changing, by becoming more transparent and trying, at least, to listen to its members. This meeting was testament to that.

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