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Architects must be advocates for public good: Q&A with Indy Johar on RIBA ethics drive

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The RIBA has made a new commitment to placing social responsibility at its heart. The AJ speaks to chair of the Ethics Group Indy Johar about what this means and what comes next

The first report by the RIBA’s new ethics commission, which was officially endorsed last week, sets out a roadmap for changes at the institute which would see the organisation and its members refocus on serving the public good.     

The document argues that the RIBA’s core purpose has slowly and subtly shifted in its aims from ‘demonstrating public benefit’ to ‘serving members and society’.

According to the commission, this change in the RIBA’s key objectives has ‘unwittingly led to a loss of focus’ as the UK grapples with a range of challenges from the Grenfell Tower tragedy to regional inequality and the ‘struggle to provide safe and affordable housing for all’. 

It has also meant that while other professional bodies and civil society groups have aligned themselves with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the RIBA is trailing its peers.

The commission’s first recommendation was for the RIBA to make an unequivocal commitment to work for the public benefit and place the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals at the heart of its activities. 

This was agreed on 11 December. The AJ spoke to Indy Johar, chair of the Ethics Group who worked on the report, to find out what happens next.

Why does the RIBA need to make these commitments to placing public interest and ethics at the heart of its activities? And why now?
Over the last 20 years, there is has been a reconfiguration of architecture, which has become more and more orientated towards client needs as opposed to the public good. Public good is more and more difficult to regulate. This is why, historically, professionals like doctors had the Hippocratic oath. I think there is space for a new professionalism.

There is space for a new professionalism

That’s a big journey, this is not a simple switching of the tap and it happens, but there is a necessity for [architects] to be advocates of the public good. Buildings last well after clients build them – they are class goods that outlast the people that pay for them and use them initially.

How has this shift (to a client-focused industry) happened?
The RIBA shifted because the macro-economics of politics has shifted. We’ve become a client–focused industry. In the 1980s architects became seen as service providers and that became the world view. How do we reinvent an institution as a professional body?

What is to stop these commitments being ignored by the profession?
I don’t think this should be a journey where every architect must tick all of these boxes and then you are meeting the public good. We have to build capacity. The reality is that architects are struggling in many ways. The first step is you convince the investors in our built environment – such as pension funds and the government – to become advocates. We need to build the case. Initially, I would suggest we start by advocating for transparency and accountability and how they [investors] perceive public good. Public good is not a definitive; it’s about how you understand something.

Slowly, that would be driven more by compliance. How do you shift the whole eco-system? On supply and demand side we have to grow this [emphasis on the public good], and create client demand for this.

But how to ensure this is more than just a conversation; what actions will be taken ?
You have to build public recognition first. We have to rebuild trust and integrity. We need evidence and data. The transition isn’t just about architects saying ‘we are going to be ethical’, it’s about building consensus.

We have to rebuild trust and integrity

We’re outlining the journey that needs to happen. We have to create a new sense of public accountability. We should become advocates of citizens put in an unjust environment and argue for their rights.

Could the RIBA assess practices’ performances in this area? If not, how will this commitment to the public good be upheld?
Do you start by driving post-occupancy evaluation? We know there are new things happening around outcomes-based contracts. What would happen, for example, if architects were paid on the performance of their buildings? There is too little work on post-occupancy evaluation and a large evidence gap. First, we want to build evidence, second we want to build civil accountability in how architects are perceived, and then we need to think about how to prescribe. What if the RIBA president did a state of the nation report every year, saying this is how the built environment is impacting on citizens?

What would happen if architects were paid on the performance of their buildings

Having built up behaviours and capacity, you can then talk about compliance. There could be a public-good evaluation [for buildings] and there could be a peer review where another architect could review your building. It would be focused on learning. If you build a culture of ethical accountability the system will shift.

Is the RIBA the right institution to lead this step change?
I don’t know if it the right one, but which other organisation has the budget and the resources? For me there is a responsibility to try – it’s the only institution with that scale of budget. For all its past failings, the issue is: can we afford to let [the institute] die? No, because institutions take years and years to build. We have 12 years, according to the IPPC report. We have to move with what we have. It’s time for architects to get involved [with the RIBA] and make it what they want it to be.

We have to try our best with the institution.

What kind of specific issues would the commission like to see the RIBA lobby on?
Indoor air quality – it has a massive impact on lives, stressful households, overcrowding. We should be advocates of our quality of life and justice. These are issues do to with public health, walkable cities, cycling and the ethical supply chain construction, the quality of schools and hospitals. This goes up every level.

Another recommendation is to improve institutional transparency but the RIBA has faced criticism recently for operating behind closed doors. How can this change?
We need to grow a culture of being more transparent, and we have to involve our members. This transformation requires us to have an open conversation. It requires increased levels of trust in people have to see this as improving the lives of citizens.

if there was a greater communication of the divergence of views in council that would genuinely build trust

People are scared of transparency. It requires a new behaviour. There are issues of not being transparent [at the RIBA] and loops of behaviour because it hasn’t had a culture of it. My view is that if there was a greater communication of the divergence of views in council, I think that would genuinely build trust.

What specific measures in the report can catalyse the profession to engage with the urgency of climate change?
Resources - starting with a director of ethics and sustainable development accompanied by the investment necessary to drive the transition of the institution and profession. Between now and March the RIBA Board is going to focus on deploying resources. It’s really in the board’s hands.

How important is this?
I hope this becomes the central conversation in transforming the institute. I think this is an opportunity for the profession. I do think it’s super important for the RIBA to take this forward - I think it’s integral to the profession being viable. 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • John Kellett

    Such a policy can only work if it is a legal requirement for architects to act ethically and all architectural work overseen by architects. If not everyone else, be they ‘professional’ or not, will be doing the unethical projects further squeezing architects out of existence.
    Excellent aims but useless without the legislation.

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