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The rise of the ethical architect

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Is a new breed of architect emerging that is more concerned with ethics and less in thrall to the corporate world? The AJ talks to three up-and-coming practices about their grassroots approach

‘Working for unethical clients is bad for business,’ says Citizens Design Bureau director Katy Marks. ‘I took a judgement early on that I would rather work for lower fees and protect my reputation. I am not happy about it, but I would rather do that than sell out.’

Marks’ language seems curious, almost antiquated in this age of rampant commercialism – sell-out hasn’t seemed a relevant term since Bob Dylan started advertising Chrysler. But for Marks, this stance is as much about good business sense as seizing the moral high ground.

‘I have seen others go down that road of working with cut-throat developers, and they have never been able to establish what their values are,’ she says. ‘You end up perpetuating a situation where architects are sat in a room with marketing people, estate agents, developers; are the lowest paid in the room and doing the most work. And ultimately the architect’s name is on the building so we get the blame.’

Hub Islington by Citizens Design Bureau

Hub Islington by Citizens Design Bureau

Though her name is not on the building, Marks worked on the Stirling Prize-winning Liverpool Everyman Theatre before founding Citizens Design Bureau in 2011. So far the practice has worked at a grassroots level, tackling a mixture of community housing, creative workspace, theatres and arts buildings. Marks believes architects need to show solidarity and firmly communicate common values. Partly through necessity and partly because of the practice’s ethos, Citizens Design Bureau bolsters its income with design surgeries and product design.

‘We can be much clearer about our value – that these are our principles and we will not move from them,’ she says. ‘That tends to draw out the best clients.’

Citizens Design Bureau is part of a new wave of architects producing good – and in some cases award-winning – buildings that place greater emphasis on certain ethical principles than on chasing the money.

Architecture on Trial - ethical business

RIBA Award-winning practice Architecture 00 is another that has avoided working for corporate clients and that talks of its ethos. Central to this is a strong understanding of economics.

‘It is lazy and unprofessional to just do what you are asked to do,’ says co-founder Lynton Pepper.

‘It should not be beyond the wit of man to make a scheme that has social benefit and makes a profit. For example, with housing you could suggest releasing land in a different way and, including community assets, you can make it more profitable.’

However, Pepper says the firm has missed out on jobs because of its unwillingness to build for the sake of it. ‘We reason out requirements to build a building,’ he says. ‘So, for example, if a school’s corridors are too narrow, rather than build a new building you could just put half the school on a different timetable. If you don’t need to build a new building then what is the point?’ To mitigate against potential loss of earnings, Architecture 00 weighs its fees heavily towards the brief stage.

The Foundary by Architecture 00

The Foundry by Architecture 00

Anthony Engi Meacock, founding member of Assemble, agrees that understanding economics can hold the key to working ethically. ‘We are interested in exploring alternative economics,’ he says, pointing to the practice’s Turner Prize-nominated work with a Community Land Trust in Toxteth, Liverpool, aimed at regenerating a run-down part of the city. ‘It is regeneration from the ground up. We are trying to deliver what they need, whether it is what to do with the old housing stock or what the high street needs.’

Despite its collective approach, Assemble has a potent entrepreneurial streak. The practice has drummed up much of its work by approaching various funding bodies, such as the London Legacy Development Corporation. The Yardhouse – a low-cost workspace in Stratford, east London – was even part-funded by the practice itself. Though self-funding is not a sustainable business plan, it was undoubtedly useful in establishing  Assemble’s values and has led to further work with like-minded clients.

Toxteth by Assemble

Toxteth by Assemble

‘Often we get involved in the business plan and that means we are working with people who are interested in thinking in a different way,’ Meacock says. ‘Real change needs to come from a higher level, but everyone needs to understand their moral obligations. To say that you will do the work just because otherwise someone else will feels very weak.’

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Readers' comments (2)

  • It's important to be clear that I'm not suggesting that we should be happy to accept lower fees to protect our values. I am suggesting that by communicating a set of clear principles strongly as individual practices and as a profession and by backing that up with a broader skill, knowledge and research base, we are in a position to demand higher fees. This is not a new dilemma and we are young'uns in this game but particularly in the midst of the current housing crisis, a response from the profession is more urgent than ever. It will be as much to do with how we structure our practices/income streams/appointment models as the work we take on that will define us.

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  • I couldn't agree more with the need for a more ethical approach. You know who else couldn't agree more? This guy Peter Morrison http://www.building.co.uk/rmjm-boss-architecture-dominated-by-white-middle-aged-men/3122270.article

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