Outgoing RIBA president Jane Duncan, who was succeeded by Ben Derbyshire last Friday (1 September), reflects on a busy term in the institute’s top job
How are you feeling now your term as RIBA president has come to an end?
I have, as expected, really had the best time of my life and am leaving with great friends all over the world, huge joy at the number of young architects getting involved in the institute, and praise and respect for a great and rather unsung staff team at Portland Place and elsewhere.
Was it what you expected?
I was lucky enough to have had a lot of experience of the RIBA prior to taking office, and so there were few surprises. What I had not expected was how completely the job takes over your life, and penetrates your every waking second (and some dreams).
My presidency had more than its fair share of events – Brexit, various election results, Grenfell Tower – but we still achieved a lot and changes have happened which I am very proud of.
Have you achieved everything you wanted, such as making the governance structure more effective?
I don’t think that any president ever starts their term thinking that they will achieve everything they hope to – but perhaps I have.
I wanted to facilitate great change, and I think that has happened. In particular we now have an institute with far more emphasis on member support and care, a great relationship with senior government officers and ministers, far more business advice available, a super website emerging, a near perfect strategic vision to deliver underpinned by core values of inclusivity and ethics, and more action to create an international and diverse institute and profession.
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Has the institute has become more diverse during your presidency?
Creating a truly inclusive and diverse institute takes more than two years, and I was pleased to have had two years as the equality, diversity and inclusion champion to set up the importance of this work before I became RIBA president. I have seen a lot of changes in attitude, a much more diverse workforce, celebration of events like Pride and Freehold, some amazing active role models, and a much more business-focused impact from HQ to assist practices to become more diverse.
There is still a way to go but I think the changes are ongoing.
Are you worried about the future finances of the institute?
No more than for any other business. We have a really astute new executive team who are open about the financial decisions which we need to make, and have a clear plan to drive business efficiency and increase income. We are on a cautious path to profit with steady hands on the tiller.
We’re on a cautious path to profit with steady hands on the tiller
What has Alan Vallance, who was appointed during your tenure, managed to achieve that other chief executives haven’t?
Alan is very open and approachable; he is prepared to go the extra mile to help members, and he understands the importance of expanding the outlook of the institute to enable members to become global operators. With his accountancy background he is also a safe pair of hands for the back of house operation. He has been so supportive and really delightful to work with.
How have you personally and professionally reacted to the Grenfell disaster?
I was awoken at 5am on 14 June by Sam Webb, one of the most experienced experts on this area of work, who asked me to turn on the TV. I don’t think I have ever witnessed such an awful event – it was and continues to be traumatic. I decided then and there that the RIBA must stand up, and seek to understand what made the awful event occur, and to completely change the whole industry if necessary to ensure it never happens again.
My own practice only undertakes low-rise work, but this was a wake-up call to every architect. I have asked for my practice team to remodel our own checking procedures on every piece of work that we carry out. I hope everyone else is doing the same.
What can the profession learn from this?
There are many lessons to be learned, from thoroughly checking what we design and specify, to demanding better quality building work, to advocating on behalf of those who cannot speak up for themselves. We are great natural campaigners, and have social responsibility built into our charter. We must now earn respect for the work we do, the decisions we make and the stance that we take.
Do you think architects’ position and authority in the construction industry is waning? And if so, how can that be changed?
One of the outcomes of the Grenfell disaster should be that the architect – with society, community and client interests being paramount in our work – is called upon to deliver projects and be part of the team who is accountable for the quality of the project that is delivered. Now is not the time to moan about others taking our jobs, but the time to step up. I think the industry wants this.
Now is not the time to moan about others taking our jobs, but the time to step up
What has been your favourite moment as president?
Placing the Royal Gold Medal around Zaha’s neck. I have almost never seen anyone so delighted – her smile reached to the moon.
Zaha Hadid with her Royal Gold Medal
What has been the moment you’d like to forget?
The phone call from my press team only six weeks later to tell me that Zaha had died.
Would you do it all again? And is there anything you’d do differently if you had the chance?
Well… first I need to catch up on two years’ lost sleep. I don’t think I could do anything differently – I have tried to be myself and to have as much fun as I could, while doing a huge job.
What will you miss about not being president?
Being given the opportunities to make new friends around the world, and being in a unique position to help facilitate great changes.
What advice do you have for the next president, Ben Derbyshire?
Work with the consensus. Listen. Get some sleep, and enjoy it – it’s all over so quickly.