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Architects on marginalisation and what can be done about it


The AJ asked industry leaders about the causes of the profession’s diminishing role and how this can be reversed

The decline in the profession’s authority, which according to new RIBA president Ben Derbyshire has been going on ‘for decades’, appears recently to have come to a head.

The diminishing role of architects has become a key topic of the moment. For many, the profession’s waning influence was exemplified by the government’s failure to include any architects on the expert fire-safety panel set up following the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

Last week, at an AJ100 Breakfast Club in London, Almacantar chief executive Mike Hussey added to the debate by claiming that ‘the design industry [was] in danger of being, not just marginalised, but wiped out’. 

In a challenging speech for architects, the developer talked about the ‘massive disconnect’ between designers and the rest of the industry. He advised those at the event they needed to engage more with the construction phase and with ‘the commercial pressures that we have as a client’ as well as with rapid change in the industry.

‘[Architects] need to understand complexity and not just design challenges,’ he said. ‘They need to be open, engage with the client, understand what the client is saying. Forget about the process – it’s what we [the clients] think that really matters.’

Hussey also hit out at those pointing the finger at Design and Build contracts, saying: ‘Everyone will blame the process, but Design and Build will work if you’ve got the right people doing it.’

So what are the factors that have led to the profession becoming increasingly sidelined? And more importantly, what can be done about it? The AJ asked a number of leading voices about the profession’s worryingly diminished role in the construction industry.

Who we spoke to

  • Maggie Mullan, Maggie Mullan Architects 
  • Elsie Owusu, Elsie Owusu Architects 
  • Manisha Patel, PRP
  • Simon Allford, AHMM
  • Hanif Kara, AKTII 
  • Simon Bayliss, HTA
  • Sunand Prasad, Penoyre & Prasad and former RIBA president 

Why has architects’ authority in the construction process diminished so much?

Sunand Prasad, former RIBA president  A combination of three things. First, constructional technology has become more complex, with a far greater use of product assemblies or packages to be bought rather than designed. This is particularly extreme in Design and Build, where the package content may be decided by the contractor with no real discussion with the architects. Secondly, single point of responsibility contracting (Design and Build) shifts risk and therefore decision-making power on to the contractor and away from architects. Thirdly, architectural culture and education lauds those who can create arresting images and have compelling ideas, far above those who can organise, manage, lead, collaborate, cost, master detail and adhere to evidence.

Maggie Mullan, Maggie Mullan Architects  We missed the zeitgeist a while back. We are taught that the profession knows best and it is our responsibility to further the cause of architecture at all costs – to fight the ‘good’ fight. As a consequence ‘design’ has become a devalued currency, seen as something wilfully and expensively ‘bestowed’ on the ignorant masses.

Simon Bayliss, HTA  The rise of the Design and Build contract, particularly prevalent in housing, has probably had the most significant impact. When I qualified, nearly 20 years ago, the profession had a reputation for having insufficient regard for clients’ budgets. There was a hope that this approach would deliver ‘best value’, but in reality the architect ceded various responsibilities to the project manager and employer’s agent, who took no direct responsibility for either the design or the construction. During a period of such change, the profession has largely failed to reposition itself at the centre of the process, balancing design innovation with commercial sensibilities, whereas in fact we are probably best placed within the whole industry to lead in this area.

Elsie Owusu, Elsie Owusu Architects  Architects’ failure of belief in architecture as a creative art for public good and an expression of civic justice resulted in catastrophic collapse of architects’ morale and self-confidence. Architects are slowly beginning to recover and reinvent themselves and the profession, modelling themselves on the egalitarian ethos of creative and cultural industries and the business start-up.

Simon Allford, AHMM  We should be careful of talking architecture down. The profession has evolved very successfully since deregulation. Remember up until the 80s most architects were employed in the public sector. Let’s stop moaning and start acting ever more professionally.

Hanif Kara, AKTII  It is insightful and judicious to be asked such a question as it implies (falsely) an apocalyptic scenario by those interested in the homogenisation of what architects produce. It is a question that has been in the air for many years and largely remains unanswered. Yes, in some ways there is a popular call of architects’ uselessness that needs to be banished and challenged. Engineers fortunately see the work of many architects, by the nature of our role in the chain, so can make balanced observations with circumspection. Before the construction process, there is always the design and project-making, which is the power architects have historically. It is therefore paradoxical that at a time when we are constructing at a higher rate than any time in the past, architects have increasingly less authority in the procurement process and by implication the construction process. This seems to have happened over 30 or 40 years during which time the education of architects changed, giving birth to many disciplines. This effectively ‘thin sliced’ the architect’s role, forcing a reliance on others to establish if their design would stand or be affordable. This accelerated around the 1990s as technology (the digital) proliferated, giving power to those who could use and manipulate it best. In parallel, social changes demanded ‘one-off’ solutions from the architect. It allowed the birth of ‘engitects’ and ‘archineers’, climate engineers who ransacked software chests to do stuff (pervasive, colourful analytics for a purpose – or for no purpose). Clients and contractors palpably had more confidence in others. In that epoch ‘what architecture is’ was redefined – and not for the first time. Many also forgot ‘crafts’ and ‘materials’, ‘ecological concerns’ and how best to work with them (Vitruvius’s master builder idea eroded completely). It made them unable to respond to challenges on costs from constructors who had free rein to drive the client’s needs and desires. 

Twenty years ago, the profession had a reputation for having insufficient regard for clients’ budgets

Given the backdrop of the Grenfell tower fire, is it right that the profession is discussing this issue now?

Maggie Mullan, Maggie Mullan Architects  Yes – and it’s not just Grenfell. Brexit, limits on immigration and skills shortages in construction are converging to create an environment where a new set of leaders and problem-solvers are required. We let surveyors step into the breach at the onset of CDM regulations – we can’t be caught napping now.

Elsie Owusu, Elsie Owusu Architects  The starting point should be the tragedy of lives lost and destroyed – not solely the technical failure and the professional and corporate failure. Architects are a hugely diverse community of people who can act as advocates and give more powerful voice to concerns that would otherwise remain unheard, leading to the sad consequences witnessed at Grenfell.

Manisha Patel, PRP  The architect has a crucial role to play in the post-Grenfell world. The introduction of the Design and Build procurement system helped to address the issue of budget overruns but there was a price to be paid for enhanced cost certainty and that price was quality.

Simon Allford, AHMM   I see no reason to conflate the Grenfell tragedy or the rise of Design and Build with the rise or fall of an architect’s status. Grenfell is not yet fully understood and I am very wary of anyone using it to make other quite possibly unrelated points.

Hanif Kara, AKTII  I think using Grenfell as a ‘surrogate’ is not a good approach.

Simon Bayliss, HTA  The profession has to discuss the issue now as change was, in any case, long overdue. But it would be incorrect to debate the architect’s role as an explanation for what happened and inappropriate to reference Grenfell as evidence of the need for an increased authority of the architect. 

Has the profession been complicit in its own marginalisation? 

Maggie Mullan, Maggie Mullan Architects  Unwittingly, yes. We need to win work so we submit to the circus of frameworks, where it’s either contractors or project managers who have the client interface to determine the ‘brief’, and ascribe their own value system to how that is best delivered.

Manisha Patel, PRP  ‘Complicit’ is too strong a word. The profession sleep-walked into this position. Some parts of the profession remain in that nocturnal state.

Simon Bayliss, HTA  The profession has been worryingly disengaged as its authority gradually seeped away. As many quantity surveyor firms saw the opportunity to take the lead as project managers and employer’s agents, architects have allowed themselves to be marginalised, grumbling to each other as a lack of design management undermined the outcome of many projects.

Elsie Owusu, Elsie Owusu Architects  Architects became a male gerontocracy mesmerised with the political drive towards privatisation of the profession. It realised too late the negative effects of this process on education, diversity, training, design quality and career pathways.

Simon Bayliss, HTA  Without doubt, during the boom times, many architects retreated to making images and one-off buildings to satisfy a call for newness and uniqueness. Formerly unimaginable buildings gained a celebrity status. This split the discipline into those who design and those who deliver (the executive architect). Very few do both to the level needed, and often pass design responsibility to contractors. In my opinion this is the profession’s single largest own goal. Why this was allowed will yield different hyperbole depending on which side of the architectural divide is commenting. The fact remains it has taken away power and authority from both sides. What is ironic is that star architects can create phenomenal value for society and improve the status of architecture compared to other professions. 

Can marginalisation be reversed and, if so, how?

Sunand Prasad, Penoyre & Prasad and former RIBA president  Yes. Architects are bright and learn quickly when they want to. Education is key, not only in terms of knowledge and skills, but in setting values – in particular, developing a strong consciousness of the true consequences of our designs, and recognising how much there is to the art and practice of collaboration.

Simon Allford, AHMM  Practice is business. We are in the business of making great architecture. We need to recognise that designing the right professional environment to make architecture is as vital a creative act as designing a building. If you cannot do both you will struggle.

Elsie Owusu, Elsie Owusu Architects  Starting with rethinking architectural education, teaching design in nursery schools and creative design innovation in colleges, architects can reconstruct the profession to make it fit for the 21st century.

Simon Bayliss, HTA  The need for improved balance in cost and value should provide a great opportunity for architects to seize the initiative, and regain a central role within the design and construction process. The profession will need to develop a shared voice, hopefully backed by the RIBA. We may need to accept a process of relearning some of the lost technical and management ability that would be required to properly co-ordinate a larger design team.

Manisha Patel, PRP  It is already being reversed. Large parts of the profession have learned from the mistakes of the past. They have learned to view the client’s budget as sacrosanct and, very often, have developed a better feeling for cost parameters than the appointed cost consultants.

Hanif Kara, AKTII  Most things are reversible by retracing or by taking risks. For instance, the profession realises that certain events, such as the economic crash, natural disasters and political upheavals, throw them into crisis, and they should prepare better and stand first to respond to such upheavals … rather than behave like snipers. 

Collaborations, real not imaginary, between architect, engineer, craftsman and construction are noticeably valuable. More needs to be done to communicate its value to our clients.

If we draw from diverse fields like fashion, politics, economics, music it is clear that we are in a aesthetic age. There has been a social and political paradigm shift where architecture is a vital component of the way we live now towards a healthy, forward-looking society. If we believe and engage with that  we can prevent the apocalypse predicted in some circles.

Better use of architects’ technological prowess, together with collective unity and transition to relevant generations in a meritocratic way - instead of opaque silos” we witness on occasion among the profession - would help. More architects need to invest and connect with the industry to advocate our values to national success and economics given the unseen contribution we already make in brand UK .

The current dynamic of the contract relationship is deeply flawed, with the contractor now assumed to be the boss

Gatefold building

Studio Egret West wanted its name disassociated from the ‘dumbed down’ Gatefold Building in Hayes. The practice worked on the scheme until planning but was later replaced by an executive architect chosen by the contractor

Is there a fundamental issue with design and build – and novation – that restricts the architect’s influence over matters of quality? 

Elsie Owusu, Elsie Owusu Architects  The current dynamic of the building contract relationship is deeply flawed, with the contractor now assumed to be ‘the boss’. This approach often results in ‘trimming’ the design quality and detail for the sake of short-term developer/ contractor profit. There is a crucial leadership role for architects in the design team. The RIBA Plan of Work should be central to effective control and quality assurance.

Manisha Patel, PRP  The issue of novation is not central in relation to quality. Greater factors of importance include the careful selection of the wider design team, continuity of the design team from design to construction, and the role of the on-site quality inspection regime.

Simon Allford, AHMM  Design and Build allows a desirable risk transfer for clients. For architecture to emerge, you need to provide very detailed information issue at tender. You need a good client monitor – be that the design architect or another. If asked to choose, I prefer novation. We should be in the thick of it, learning from the conversations with the subcontractor. 

Simon Bayliss, HTA  It is always desirable for one architect to be retained throughout all stages of the design and construction process, but not all practices have retained the skills nor wish to deliver every stage. As many Design and Build contracts involve a very limited site role, if any, the architects’ drawings can, in the worst instances, become optional. Yet Design and Build can be used effectively. It requires the client to establish clear requirements to enable the best design that can be delivered for the budget available.

Sunand Prasad, Penoyre & Prasad and former RIBA president  It is possible to ensure quality in Design and Build – for example, if the original architect stays client side and the client is committed to quality. With proper, expert client-side scrutiny and quality control, which is currently a huge point of failure, novation can also work. 

Is there an issue with trust between clients and the profession? 

Maggie Mullan, Maggie Mullan Architects  Only in as much as there are non-convergent value systems in place, as a consequence of outdated procurement processes and frameworks. How can you be rewarded for the value you bring to a project, when project parameters have been drawn up by agencies that are neither aware of nor equipped to assess that value?

Manisha Patel, PRP  There is a remaining issue of trust between developers/clients and the profession, particularly among private developers. Contractors are less of an issue when it comes to trust, and many have their unofficial favourites who they implicitly trust to deliver to a particular level of technical quality.

We have to be influential much further back in the chain to generate real value to our clients

Simon Allford, AHMM  We should stop looking back with rose-tinted spectacles to a past few actually experienced or remember. Good clients exist and there are many who were trained as architects! Good contractors like good architects. Bad contractors often end up preferring bad architects.

Simon Bayliss, HTA  A recent RIBA survey reported that a majority of contractors don’t consider architects to be up to the job. It seems probable that most architects would say the same of contractors. However, we have good relationships with many developers and contractors, which employ us for all project stages.

Sunand Prasad, Penoyre & Prasad and former RIBA president  Architects are obviously trusted to do many things, such as winning planning permission. But if the trust was as high as the profession would like, we would not be talking about marginalisation. 


Readers' comments (3)

  • The architecture profession has been scoring own goals for many years especially in its apparent willingness to do work for free, or be seen as little more than an expensive a blueprint production service.. The ethical underpinnings of why the profession exists and should exist are profound.

    Last year the United States spent over $2.6 Trillion treating chronic diseases, conditions that arise from what we eat and the places we inhabit. As long as the profession is content to allow the banking, developer and real estate sectors to treat human habitats as commodities to be built on the cheap and sold for the highest price, the social and economic costs of treating the wide range of chronic conditions will continue to increase. Built environments play a decisive role in human wellbeing and contribute to the ability of people to live healthy, active and fulfilled lives. The marginalization of the architecture profession is having similar catastrophic consequences as would be the case if unqualified people were allowed in hospitals to diagnose patients or perform surgery.

    It is therefore incumbent on our profession to engage far more fully and persistently in the shaping of public policies that govern and enable the places people inhabit to exist. Our educational process isn't for the faint hearted or untalented. Our ability to add far greater value to society than is the case today is a lot greater than we often imagine. We must engage in this broader scope of engagement. And it's not about earnings and fees, important though these barometers of economic value surely are. It's about the hundreds of millions of lives that are compromised by the profession being marginalized the way it is today. It's long past time to act.

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  • Nigel Ostime

    Mike Hussey has a point about architects needing to understand clients better. The RIBA is on to this and has published the results of an online client survey which nearly 1,000 clients completed last year. Search 'RIBA client survey' at www.architecture.com. Essential reading.

    We will be discussing this at UK Construction Week: https://www.iconeye.com/architecture/news/item/12818-nigel-ostime-architects-creative-focus-can-be-detrimental-to-management-and-process

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  • MacKenzie Architects

    I would say the standard of the average building has improved over the past 30 years (detailing apart).
    I think international travel and magazines has helped that; we saw what others were doing across Europe and further afield.
    I actually think the Lottery made a difference too, brought in cultural projects in a way that hadn't happened for nearly a century, and even Grand Designs of course.
    I think the reduced work of the QS has had a large part to play in all of the big overspends. Between the QS and the Architect, they have prepared hollow cost plans that just build in trouble.
    The politicians of course are always poor clients.
    The Dome, Scottish parliament, Wembley, now HS2 and Westminster.

    I think the failure of the architectural education system to build a bit of business sense into our juniors is also a big part of it. Architects opening their practices straight out of college?

    But the major cause of our loss of status is the feescales.
    We should be hourly-rated against the Lawyers, the Dentists (for heavens's sake), the Doctors, the Bankers. That would give us the funds to do the job, and if you are charging by the email, it soon focuses the client on your worth -he hasn't a clue what you do anyway.

    Instead we moved ourselves out of a focal position in the industry, and said, please consider us as expendable as the builder; after all they are only drawings.

    Finally big practices and small practices, they live in separate worlds, but even the 100 biggest practices could collapse with one bad project (Fosters apart -that's a businessman)

    I think Norm should be invited to be the next RIBA President -and shake up the profession.

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