The role and authority of architects is increasingly marginalised in construction. How can they win over decision-makers and regain their once vital role in key areas such as housing? asksClaire Bennie
Architects want respect. They work damn hard. They are totally committed to their craft and passionate to the point of obsession about the buildings they create. They flog themselves to master urban design, technical detail, community engagement, cost efficiency and to lead fractious multidisciplinary teams of consultants. So why do stakeholders (clients, contractors, the public, government and so on) not understand what they do, let alone respect or value them? Why haven’t the authorities come running to architects after Grenfell– in fact ignoring their potentially valuable input in the wake of this awful tragedy?
The growing public distrust in experts of any kind, whether they be doctors, economists or lawyers, is a challenging starting point from which to regain respect. Architects who yearn for the good old days when they were, by definition, the ‘master builder’ are unlikely to have that wish fulfilled. But, instead of looking forlornly backwards, we should look at ‘customer’ perspectives and assess what architects themselves (as well as their professional body) might do to change these. Perhaps through this process we might start to retrieve some respect and authority.
I’m going to focus on housing clients here. Architects barely got a look-in at all in the design or contract administration of housing projects until after the Second World War, when they suddenly came to prominence via high-profile public commissions to re-house a shattered but expanding urban population. The subsequent troubled story of many of those post-war buildings (the reasons for their demise are too complex to rehearse here) undoubtedly did little to endear architects to either public or private sector housing clients, let alone the public. So the relationship between architects and their various clients in the field of housing has been a recent and rather fraught one.
It pains me to say it, but in today’s UK housing sector we have allowed ourselves to develop an ugly and reductive cultural norm of short-term financial return on investment being prized above all else. Travelling to 10 other countries looking at housing in northern Europe recently made this embarrassingly clear to me: I was often called out for discussing each project in monetary terms first, rather than focusing on aesthetic, social or environmental successes. ‘You can tell she’s from London,’ was a recurrent slap in my face – and not from designers, but from clients, local authorities and planners.
That stark truth acknowledged, buildings cost a lot of money and their design and construction, often a one-off exercise on bespoke sites with bespoke teams, is a high-risk activity. Return-driven clients have therefore been steadily courted by new specialists in the built environment sector, whose promise is far tighter (and less complaining) management of their clients’ risk and reward. Enter the project manager. Exit the architect.
In housing, there are basically two kinds of client: the speculators, who build two thirds of new homes in the UK; and the long-term landlords, who build most of the rest. The speculator’s model is the short-term profit-driven one described above, which inevitably results in a paring-down of build cost. The top 10 housebuilders (who build 50 per cent of supply) have got this cost efficiency down to a fine art – and they need to in order to compete in a very hot land market. If you read too many journals, it can appear that high-density housing in cities is the predominant supply mode.
But in fact houses in suburban or rural locations dominate housing supply, a typology which lends itself to the standardisation of design components. The top 10 have had to engage more with architects in recent years to secure trickier urban planning consents, but this remains the exception. In this environment, it’s no surprise that architects are seen as ‘turbulent priests’, who appear only to add cost and risk without adding to value. Architects are simply not seen as business people by a lot of these clients. Their roles can, therefore, be reduced to creating the highest-value consent (often via bulging densities) for the lowest cost (boxy massing, impoverished materials, minimised modelling). Consent gained, ‘executive’ architects then step in to make it builder-friendly (even cheaper). Estate agents are sometimes asked to design the interior layouts ‘to maximise value’ – the ultimate humiliation!
Many architects, understandably, contest that their designs add value, which covers any extra cost. Under this short-term business model, and in a desperate housing market where the consumer will buy almost anything, that is, sadly, unlikely to be true. Without any ongoing interest in the built assets, the housebuilder will only consider longer-term value in the margins (usually as a reputational issue). And is the purchaser really going to remember who to chase when their cheap gutter breaks after two years?
The average customer is not demanding and paying a premium for good design. So it makes no business sense for speculators to provide it
In the end, architects either participate in that game or they don’t. Some have nurtured their housebuilder clients over many years, working on them through gradual attrition and taking them on the quality journey. I see their schemes on the front covers of developers’ brochures. But I see far fewer being repeated, except, possibly, in central London (where the customer is more than likely to be an investor anyway). The simple truth is that the average sale home customer is not, as with other consumer goods like phones, cars or trainers, demanding and paying a premium for ‘good design’. So it makes no business sense for speculators to provide it.
So what about the longer-term clients – the housing associations, local authorities and private rented sector developers – who, surely, value a more robust and thoughtful product which must let well for a hundred years? The housing association mindset is driven partly by that long-term view, but is also constrained by a regulatory and grant regime which incentivises lowest initial cost, certainty over completion dates, and a low-risk culture in general.
This translates to the use of Design and Build contracts, which appear to transfer risk to a single entity: you can almost hear the sigh of relief when the contractor is on the hook for everything. What you can’t hear is the terrible ripping sound when all the nice bits (which the architect tried to secure in the planning consent) are quickly amputated. Risk aversion also translates to the use of public-private joint ventures, where the skills and efficiencies of each party are allegedly harnessed to the good of the scheme. If anyone can name me a memorable and high-quality scheme delivered this way, I’m all ears.
So, again, architects struggle within this model to exert influence. They are useful for getting a planning consent, but thereafter seem to want ‘large’ fees, inflate build cost without adding enough value, and design details which are hard both to build and maintain, all of which present risk of delay to the all-important programme. Many architects are also not nowadays schooled in long-term maintenance, facilities management, and the costs incurred in use. To a degree this comes through experience, but long-term housing clients could do more to walk their architects through these issues via site visits and mandatory post-occupancy reviews.
In short, some clients will never bother to discover the value architects can bring, because they are only focused on the bottom line. The others will need persuading of an architect’s value, especially beyond planning. To counter this view, architects must demonstrate to their clients that they are fully engaged and skilled in:
- Understanding their client’s pressures, risks and financial drivers
- Undertaking meaningful dialogue with existing communities
- Understanding long-term management and maintenance requirements
- Being highly competent in construction detail, including smart compromise
There are three conversations I have with contractors during a tender period. The first goes: ‘We’re not using your architect, Claire. End of story. The last time we used a “design-focused” architect, it was a disaster.’
The second runs along these lines: ‘Claire, I can save you £100k if you use our architect. I don’t know why you want your architect to come to site all the time or draw all those details – we can deal with all that behind the scenes.’
And, finally, there are the contractors who agree to use the planning stage architects, albeit a little reluctantly, knowing that this is the route into the job.
The first two conversations are very hard to ignore if you are a public sector client who is looking for speed, certainty and short-term value for money. The final one is a bit of a gamble – but it mostly pays off. Sometimes the contractors even admit to enjoying working with the ‘design’ architect, building the scheme, and feeling proud of the result. Design and Build contracts can work under circumstances where the client, employer’s agent, architect and contractor are collectively clear about which are the important details in the building. In my experience, this means drawings and a specification that go beyond planning drawings. It also means only choosing architects who can demonstrate total construction competence (we used to ask candidate architects for two contractor references). And, finally, it means an employer’s agent who really wants the contractor/novated architect relationship to work successfully from the outset.
It is interesting to observe that some housing associations and local authority clients are reverting to traditional build contracts, having experienced the poverty of quality and the consequential time and cost burden which Design and Build can create. But both clients and architects take on more risk this way.
So how can respect between architects and contractors improve? I have long thought that there needs to be a forum where both parties can constructively air their grievances and try to rebuild confidence in both directions. Perhaps, as a first step, the RIBA needs to invite contractors into Portland Place for a good old moan, and uncover the origins and depth of their feelings about its members. My view is that the enmity originates during the education of both parties – could that cultural barrier be addressed better at that stage?
The 1950-1970s concrete high-rise housing output and Prince Charles’ subsequent killer-blow of vilification in the 1980s (when I started my architecture degree) consigned architects to the public doghouse for more years than they care to admit. What does the public think about, want and expect from architects now?
The public, as experienced by architects, comes in three basic categories: the consumer (buying a new build home, say); existing communities (experiencing local change to their environment); and the public as ‘society’.
The individual house-purchaser still does not seem to value design enough to pay a premium for it, although more noise is now being made about shoddy construction and specification quality – and about time too. The sad thing is that architects have probably been nowhere near many of the worst examples and are unlikely therefore to be agents in improving this situation. Clearly individual consumers commissioning their own homes or extensions have varied relationships with architects – an awkward dance which keeps Kevin McCloud busy.
Existing communities where built change is proposed are understandably confused about what architects do. The multiplicity of actors in any scheme is complex, and architects are often seen, however unfairly, as just another consultant reaping fees from a ‘regeneration’ initiative whose efficacy may be questionable.
We as a society must rediscover the value of more than just short-term financial return
The Farrell Review made a number of recommendations which saw architects as far more active participants in outreach and education work in ‘ordinary places’, rather than the ivory towers of academia. It also recommended ‘urban rooms’ as a way of bringing the sometimes arcane practices of planning and architecture closer to where people really are. I haven’t seen concerted action on these fronts, but agree with the recommendations.
As for society, the RIBA’s Royal Charter means it has to operate ‘in the public interest’, but that test is a knotty one: who is the public? What is their interest? At a basic level, the public needs to expect architects who are decently educated, well-behaved, technically competent and deliver quality. But, beyond that, we enter less clear territory. The excellent Edge Commission report from 2015 calls on the various built environment institutions to make much clearer their offer to society, explaining in plain language how they serve the public interest. Let’s do that. It might include:
- A summary of what architects do and know (to show architects understand the technical issues surrounding Grenfell, for example)
- A distilled version of the basic code of conduct rules, including sanctions (to show clear accountability)
- A valuable body of accessible research/case studies, including specific post-occupancy findings (to show architects are listening to users and learning).
In what circumstances would the government pick up the phone to architects to seek their wise counsel? It’s an interesting question, and one which I don’t think most architects could answer, though their indignation about being sidelined on an issue such as Grenfell is understandable.
In housing, government requires growth at speed to ‘solve’ the housing affordability crisis. It seems highly doubtful that architects can help the government in developing the solution to that catastrophe without first effecting fundamental devolution, tax and land reforms. In earlier times, architects were very much agents of change in housing, setting up housing associations and thereby expanding the pool of actors who were creating more much-needed homes. This is all but impossible in today’s lock-out monopoly of developers, and I take my hat off to those few architects who are pioneering new forms of custom and self-build housing in the face of enormous challenges. So what can most architects realistically do to help the government with ‘the housing problem’? Nimbyism is alive and well (and understandable, given the quality of most housing output) and is one of the causes of the slow rate of development in the UK. My view is that architects need to demonstrate positively how attractive and sensitive new higher-density neighbourhoods can be. That might be through case studies, research or popular exhibition.
Grenfell has brought the whole issue of ‘who does what and who is accountable’ in building and refurbishing housing to the public and state’s consciousness. Who among us, even within the built environment sector, has not struggled to explain to a friend what might have happened and who or what is to blame?
This confusion in itself is unacceptable. I believe that architects can and should provide very valuable evidence to bear on this shocking failure, whether that failure is one of specification, design, regulation, contract, or asset management. It raises the question of whether the government should have a chief architect, or at least a chief ‘something’ representing the ‘built environment’ (not a term the public engages with at all). The answer is, of course, yes – and perhaps that post should rotate between the leading built environment professional bodies, if they feel able to agree on such a thing.
Could architects and their professional body have stemmed the tide of new consultants who appeal to low cost-obsessed, risk-averse clients? Could they have retained their fee scales and sold an associated message of quality and high morals to their paymasters and the public? I doubt it. Someone has to want what architects offer, whether that’s the government, the client or the consumer, in order to care about the protection of their role or the authority of their voice. That means we as a society must rediscover the value of more than just short-term financial return. And it also means architects reaching out with far more conviction and clarity to their various stakeholders to tell them what they can offer.
Claire Bennie is founding director of housing development consultancy Municipal and former development director of Peabody