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Jane Duncan: 'The RIBA is doing fantastic things – but we can do better'

20160621 jane duncan 0013 crop
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Halfway through her tenure as RIBA president, Jane Duncan talks to Will Hurst about her plans for the institute

Almost a year into her two-year term, RIBA president Jane Duncan is finding the job keeps her more than a little busy. Meeting the AJ at her office at 66 Portland Place, she explains she has just jetted back from a visit to Canada for an architecture festival and is about to unveil the institute’s next five-year plan following exhaustive consultations with members about what they want to see.

‘I’m full time here and full time in practice so I end up working at the weekends and doing lots of late night sketches and emails,’ she explains. ‘I knew I’d be living on adrenaline for two years but I know I’m going to miss it.’

The way 2016 is working out, we could be seeing a lot more women in charge on the global stage, and the quietly effective Duncan does seem a bit like architecture’s very own Angela Merkel or Theresa May. Without any of the flamboyance of a George Ferguson or a Marco Goldschmied, it’s fair to say that Duncan – a small practice champion who runs her own firm in Amersham in Buckinghamshire – has impressed in the first 10 months of her tenure at the RIBA.

Most notably this self-proclaimed ‘facilitator’ has overseen a major changing of the guard among senior RIBA staff, including the departure in January of chief executive Harry Rich, a divisive figure who two predecessors – Ruth Reed and Angela Brady – had tried, and failed, to replace.

After the overly diplomatic leadership of immediate predecessor Stephen Hodder, Duncan has also won admirers thanks to her bold stance on issues ranging from the Garden Bridge procurement to supporting LGBT causes and diversity generally. So what does she have planned for the RIBA over the next five years and how exactly is she going to achieve the radical change the organisation so clearly needs? Our conversation takes place before the EU referendum – a debate Duncan insists the RIBA was right to stay out of – but making the institute more international, as well as more focused on ethics, is a key aim, she explains.

It’s very important the institute helps members work successfully overseas

‘This is of huge relevance to our members’ future,’ she says. ‘More and more practices are now, as a matter of course, working internationally. If they’re not setting up practices in other areas of the world, they’re taking on projects around the world. And it’s going to grow. The opportunities are enormous so it’s very important the institute helps the membership work successfully overseas.’

Duncan believes local teamwork, working with students and research should all be part of this. And despite the protracted and damaging row over Israeli settlement building, in which the RIBA found itself embroiled two years ago, she argues it is vital the institute champions British architects’ ethical values abroad.

‘It’s also about taking the ethical and professional values … taking those out around the world. It’s a really substantial part of our five-year strategy. We need to raise the level of intellectual discourse on these matters so our members are clear about their responsibilities.’

Some may detect a neo-Imperialist vibe here, but Duncan is unapologetic about the idea of British architects exporting their values as well as their designs in a ‘turbulent world’. She also says RIBA members themselves supported such a proposition in the consultation around the five-year strategy. The other thing they said loud and clear, she reveals, is that they wanted better value membership.

She says: ‘There’s no doubt that the drive in the strategy is to support and encourage our members to do well … the next few years is all about helping our membership.’ This will certainly be welcomed – the AJ’s own survey on the RIBA in March found that 56 per cent of those polled believed the institute was poor value for money – but how exactly can it be achieved? Duncan talks of a new ‘digital interface’ that she says will be able to provide members with ‘personalised pages’ brimming with information relevant to their specialisms and regional location. Such technology, she adds, will also facilitate proper conversations between members; between members and non-members in other parts of the industry, such as engineers; and between members and the general public. I venture this all sounds very ambitious; Duncan readily agrees. ‘It’s going to be a substantial cost and the institute will have to take time to produce all this,’ she says.

Jane Duncan

Jane Duncan

Source: David Butler

Jane Duncan speaking to the AJ’s Will Hurst

The problem is it also sounds vague and it’s not exactly difficult to think of big and expensive IT projects coming a cropper thanks to poor planning.

The lack of detail on how these RIBA aims will be achieved turns out to be a theme of the interview – and the five year Advancing Architecture plan when I get my hands on it a week or so later. Despite being labelled a strategic plan, it reads like neither a strategy nor a plan, but rather a bucket list. Its three strands of ‘a strong profession’, ‘a strong voice’ and ‘a strong organisation’ are broken down into a series of further aims, almost all of which leave questions hanging in the air. As an example, under ‘a strong voice,’ it says the RIBA will increase its reach ‘into new and diverse audiences’ by ensuring it has ‘an effective global voice by using digital channels’ and also boasts that it will (as if by magic?) ‘develop strong relationships with key political and public influencers’. Similarly, under ‘a strong organisation’ there is talk of creating a talented pool of staff by (somehow) ‘building a high-performance environment where talented people are valued’.

It’s true the publication marks the start of a five-year process and that individual RIBA departments are now expected to respond with more detailed proposals. But given the fact that the organisation was described as being in a ‘strategic vacuum’ only five months ago and is still to appoint a permanent chief executive, the combination of huge ambition and haziness on execution does not bode well.

Jane duncan manifesto1

Jane duncan manifesto1

Jane Duncan’s manifesto for her 2014 RIBA presidential election campaign

On the plus side, Duncan is said to have formed a good partnership with interim chief executive Alan Vallance and has assembled a team of RIBA ‘ambassadors’ to drive better engagement with the institute. These include Albena Atanassova and Vinesh Pomal, ambassadors for young architects, and Hodder as ambassador for clients. Duncan is also convinced the RIBA, like any other problem to which she sets her mind, can be fixed. Her apparently unbreakable enthusiasm is surely one of her greatest strengths as president, and comes to the fore when I ask her about her experiences of being in post.

‘Absolutely amazing,’ she says without missing a beat. ‘I wasn’t going to take the job on unless I was going to enjoy it hugely, which I have. One of the delights of following the new strategy through is that … as an institute and a profession, we are already doing fantastic things. But we can do better. We can do more.’

It’s hard to doubt Duncan’s good intentions or her determination, and it’s surely too early to judge her against the three planks of her 2014 manifesto. But shaking up a lethargic institution such as the RIBA cannot be the work of one person; it requires the creation of an effective and dynamic team of leaders able to respond to tricky questions about how success can be achieved. Almost halfway through her first term at the helm, Duncan seems to have got many of the questions right. We now need some answers.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Nigel Ostime

    Your piece on Jane Duncan’s presidency looks for detail behind the RIBA’s strategic vision but in fact there are already programmes delivering benefits to practitioners. One such programme is the work of the RIBA Client Liaison Group.

    The group was set up to provide a conduit for feedback from construction industry clients and has been delivering essential information to architects for the last 18 months. We were clear from the outset that we didn’t want it to be just a taking shop but to deliver valuable advice to the profession and facilitate a programme of continuous improvement, predicated on the basis that “if you don’t measure you can’t get better”.

    We have been listening to clients to understand their needs and feeding that back to our peers, initially through a series of 12 sector-based roundtable discussions and subsequent publications and filmed interviews. The objective has been to provide architects with researched insights into the changing needs of major categories of clients so that we can shape our services to better support their outcomes.

    The interviews provide some no-holds-barred advice that is valuable for any architects wanting to understand and deliver value in their projects.

    We are now working on phase two of the programme which includes a client questionnaire looking for feedback from a broader range of clients and in greater numbers. Launched at Grand Designs Live in May this is the first time such a survey has been conducted. It is open to all clients of architects regardless of their experience or the size or value of their project, provided they have been completed in the last two years.

    To participate ask your clients to visit the working with architects survey page:


    or search ‘RIBA client questionnaire’. It takes just five minutes to complete.

    Whether private homeowners, contractors, or commercial clients in charge of multi-million pound projects, we want to hear from them. Projects can be completely new buildings, or extensions or renovations to existing buildings. Results from the survey will be announced at Grand Designs Live, UK Construction Week and MIPIM UK in October. They will benchmark client attitudes, inform future RIBA policy, and for the first time gather a body of evidence which will demonstrate the value of working with architects. They will also give valuable insights into what clients want, information that architects can use to improve how they win and deliver work. There are two versions of the survey, one for private domestic consumer clients, and another for commercial clients.

    We have had over 900 responses so far but hope to break the thousand mark before the questionnaire closes tomorrow on 29 July. The bigger the sample, the more we can rely on the results.

    Nigel Ostime, Hawkins\Brown
    Chair of RIBA Client Liaison Group

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