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Ruth Reed: ‘I want to start a dialogue’

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Education and communication are high on the agenda for incoming RIBA president Ruth Reed

A few things you may not know about Ruth Reed: she is course director of the postgraduate diploma in architectural practice at Birmingham School of Architecture, she loves maps and Victorian stations, and she likes the work of David Chipperfield and disco dancing. Just ask anyone who saw her throwing shapes after last year’s Stirling Prize dinner.

Next week, Reed becomes the RIBA’s first female president, replacing outgoing figurehead Sunand Prasad - the institute’s first Asian president. For Reed, the ‘first woman’ tag is ‘not an issue.’ But, as past president Owen Luder points out, she is only the third woman to have stood for election in the institute’s 175-year history. ‘Her election does reflect the change within the profession,’ says Luder. ‘However, it’s still a surprise it hasn’t happened earlier.’

In the two years of her presidency, Reed intends to make good her manifesto pledges, which she made under the headings ‘the regions’, ‘education’, ‘planning’ and ‘value’. She is also determined to address the RIBA’s ‘problematic’ communication with its members and the perception gap between what the institute is actually achieving and what the profession thinks it is. ‘People are always asking me the awful question, “what does the RIBA do for me?”. If I can achieve anything it will be for them to stop asking me that,’ she says.

Practices across the country should brace themselves for a visit from the 52-year-old in the next 12 months. ‘It would be too easy to go along to regional council and talk to the engaged membership,’ says Reed. ‘I want people to be open in admitting their frustrations about what they are and aren’t getting from the RIBA.’

‘I want people to be open in admitting their frustrations about what they are and aren’t getting from the RIBA.’

Ruth Reed

She adds: ‘I want to start a dialogue about what they actually want, not for me to turn up and give a speech about what the RIBA does for them.’

A nice spin-off from Reed’s ‘50 towns in 50 weeks’ tour could be increased membership. It could also bridge the gap between the self-proclaimed academic and the larger practices she will have to represent. Reed, who is also a part-time partner in architecture and landscape consultancy Green Planning Solutions, admits that her main contact with the big boys to date has been through her students’ case studies.

However, despite her commitment to the provinces, it is doubtful that there will be any extra funding for the RIBA’s regional offices, which currently have to generate a substantial chunk of their own funding. Reed says: ‘I need to have a conversation with new RIBA chief executive Harry Rich. But it is likely to be help in kind rather than cash in hand.’

Reed ties together her other policy headings - ‘education’, ‘planning’ and ‘value’ - in a drive for a fresh approach to achieving high-performance buildings, and her bid for the profession to meet the carbon critical agenda. In planning, she wants to simplify the process and trim the number of documents architects have to submit. She will also ask the government to look at how a building’s performance is assessed and how enforceable planning conditions are if a building fails to live up to its claims. She says: ‘We need to be clear about this - are we actually going to measure buildings on completion? And if so, whose risk is it?’

Under her ‘value’ agenda, Reed wants to ‘build the revenue and performance of buildings into the initial briefing process’. ‘It is about extending the offer to the client from the professional team from the construction of a building through to its maintenance,’ she says - a prospect she admits is easier with public sector owner/occupier clients.

In education, Reed wants to talk to SCHOSA (the Standing Conference of Heads of Schools of Architecture) and other academics about the ways schools approach ‘briefing’. More importantly for the current crop of student architects, she intends to bring in a competency-based test to help those who can’t find sufficient work experience to complete their case studies - something she has already done in Birmingham.

Reed intends to bring in a competency-based test to help those who can’t find sufficient work experience

‘There is a real difficulty and I don’t see a way of getting around practical training - and I don’t have a magic wand. But we can look at the case study, which is a big inhibitor, and other ways of measuring competency,’ says Reed. ‘We have just rewritten my case study module at Birmingham to allow students to write essays around issues in construction, rather than just one project.’

On the back of this, Reed, who was president of the Royal Society of Architects in Wales between 2003 and 2005, feels there will be a change of emphasis within the RIBA, although not a radical departure from Prasad’s administration.

Commenting on her predecessor, Reed says: ‘Sunand hasn’t introduced free student membership, nor a new RIBA bar like George [Ferguson] did. So you clearly can’t point to one thing. But the focus he has given to climate change has awoken a sense of responsibility… This has been incredibly important. That is why I have asked [Prasad] to carry on with that agenda and [to chair] the Way Ahead Review.’

Reed’s views on Prince Charles are also in line with Prasad’s, and she argues that the former president took a firm line on the heir to the throne’s actions with his ‘abuse of privilege’ stance.

But now Reed is in the limelight it will be up to her to defend the profession and to the lead the lobbying of government and opposition parties. Although concerned about the Conservatives’ regional policy plans, she says the Tories have been receptive to planning and procurement reform.

She will also have to face a growing interest from the media - something she says will learn to love.

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