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New RIBA boss Derbyshire pledges fightback against profession’s marginalisation

Ben derbyshire wide shot ac

The incoming RIBA president believes a stronger institute is the key to reviving architects’ waning influence. Will Hurst spoke to Ben Derbyshire about his plans.  Photography by Anthony Coleman

Ben Derbyshire campaigned for the RIBA presidency on a platform of change. As he takes the reins this month from Jane Duncan, the question now is how much of that change will be brought by him and how much by events beyond his control.

The chair of AJ100 practice HTA Design finds himself heading an institute in flux, given various ongoing reforms and a governance review. More widely in the profession there is soul-searching and a feeling that ‘something must be done’ in response to the shocking Grenfell Tower tragedy of 14 June, and a separate but possibly related sense that the marginalisation of architects has reached crisis point. 

Derbyshire, an avuncular figure with the air of a smartly turned out college professor, comes well-equipped for the role. He’d had little to do with the institute prior to his election to RIBA Council in 2014, but had recognised that, for all its faults, the RIBA was what he calls ‘the only show in town’. His campaign for the presidency last year was astute in its recognition that reversing the waning influence of architects involved reversing the fortunes of Portland Place and reconnecting the RIBA with its members. Derbyshire also boasts a far deeper understanding of the big issue of the moment – housing – than any of his recent predecessors, having joined HTA in 1976 and played key roles in organisations such as the Housing Forum and the London Society.

Meeting the AJ at HTA Design’s new stripped-down office north of Tower Bridge in Aldgate, Derbyshire is clear that the Grenfell fire has exposed something rotten.

‘On that Wednesday morning when we all woke up to scenes that most of us had not envisaged in our worst nightmares, we all realised that something was fundamentally wrong,’ he says.

But, given the sources of HTA’s income in the housing industry, not to mention the fact that Camden Council evacuated five HTA-refurbished tower blocks in the wake of the fire, can he really speak objectively about these vital matters of safety?

‘I’m completely clear about the roles,’ he says. ‘You are talking to me now and I am representing the RIBA, not HTA.’

Derbyshire points out, with considerable justification, that almost everyone else involved in examining the causes of Grenfell is involved with the industry, with the ‘context, the industrial complex and the policy framework that’s given rise to this’ as he puts it.

‘I do have a thorough understanding [of housing challenges] and, with the RIBA, we’ve been pointing out problems with the complexity of the regulatory framework, difficulties in the lack of quality inspection control on sites. We’ve also been pointing out the problems with piecemeal procurement and the problems of housing management.’

Over decades, our influence as a profession and the amount that we’re valued has been seriously undermined

In the area of procurement, and building on work instigated by former RIBA president Stephen Hodder, Derbyshire is planning a joint initiative with the Chartered Institute of Building (CIoB) to improve the quality of schemes built under Design and Build, many of them in housing.

‘I want to initiate a collaboration with the builders in order to establish a protocol for what can be an effective way of delivering in the D&B context,’ he says. ‘It’s really important to remember that a great many highly prestigious buildings are delivered this way, particularly in the commercial sector.’

But couldn’t he be bolder here with contractors and the government, and call out a system that does not naturally seem to lead to good architecture? Isn’t quality delivered despite D&B, rather than because of it?

‘It’s much better to come up with a shared response to a problem which is perceived as having difficulties on both sides,’ he counters. ‘Sometimes D&B works and sometimes it doesn’t.’

Another of Derbyshire’s initiatives, which he has worked on with New London Architecture chairman Peter Murray, is the idea of a major housing expo in the capital, primarily aimed at the general public and modelled on the Bauausstellung concept from Germany.

This, he believes, would demonstrate the expertise of the best housing consultants in the country and help sell the idea to the public and to key decision-makers of a denser London able to intelligently accommodate rapid growth. Derbyshire is obviously excited about the plan and hopes it might be possible to hold the Expo in Brexit year, 2019, on publicly owned land. He adds that he has held positive early discussions about the event with the mayor of London’s team.

‘In a city that needs to provide what you might call desirable density, we have to demonstrate what that looks like and what it feels like to be in,’ he says.

Derbyshire’s plan – to promote architects’ abilities in crucial sectors and better connect them to the builders, the public and the government through collaboration – is surely right, but again there are potential pitfalls. Urban densification, for example, currently involves council estate regeneration, another subject waiting in the new RIBA president’s in-tray that in many people’s eyes has become toxic.

Such schemes are usually demolition and rebuild jobs propped up by the financial proceeds of new private housing. The major criticism they face is that existing residents on low incomes are displaced or ‘decanted’ from their inner-city neighbourhoods, often because they can’t find comparable properties in their price range once the work has taken place.

Academics and London mayor Sadiq Khan himself have expressed deep concern over this, and HTA itself has faced protests from groups such as Architects for Social Housing (ASH), prompted by its work on the Aylesbury Estate in south London, which was subject to such allegations. So where does Derbyshire stand on this issue?

He certainly acknowledges that rocketing house prices have made it near-impossible for anyone other than the most wealthy to afford housing in London and points to the #CantPayWontStay campaign he ran about this at the London Society.

‘The only way of addressing it is by increasing housing supply,’ he adds.

The only way of addressing rocketing house prices is by increasing housing supply

But he’s reluctant to accept that estate regeneration schemes designed by his firm or its peers have had these specific negative consequences in terms of the displacement of the poor and the city’s overall social fabric.

‘Housing is political and I represent an organisation whose members span the entire political spectrum,’ he says. ‘People are entitled to different points of view and I think we should engage with those points of view and debate them.’

Indeed, when Patrik Schumacher sparked a media storm last year by advocating the sweeping away of social housing in London, Derbyshire immediately tweeted that the RIBA should host a debate involving the Zaha Hadid Architects’ boss and ASH.

Nevertheless, he’s on uncomfortable ground here and it remains difficult to gauge how much of Derbyshire’s reticence to air his own views is down to his desire to be apolitical as president and how much is due to sensitivities regarding HTA’s position.

What’s clearer is that Derbyshire has some solid ideas and a profile that should give the RIBA greater punch with Whitehall and industry bodies than it has enjoyed for some time. He’s obviously itching to get stuck into issues ranging from how architects can make the best of Brexit to addressing the profession’s chronic lack of diversity to that overarching question of marginalisation.

‘That’s the reason I’m sitting here,’ he says passionately.  ‘Over decades, what’s been happening is that our influence as a profession and the amount that we’re valued as a profession… has been seriously undermined.

‘Coming towards the end of my career and wondering how I might put my shoulder to the wheel, I wanted to reverse that trend. That’s why I’m at the RIBA. I’m determined to help the organisation do something effective in that regard.’

Fact file: Ben Derbyshire 

Ben derbyshire anthony coleman

  • Chair of HTA Design
  • Elected RIBA president last year with 54 per cent of the votes on a turnout of 15 per cent against rivals Andrew Salter and Alan Jones
  • Major priorities as RIBA president are ‘driving quality and performance in the built environment’, engaging with the membership and promoting a global role for British architects
  • Trained first at Birmingham then at Cambridge School of Architecture, from where he joined HTA in 1976 as its fifth member
  • Son of the late Andrew Derbyshire, the prominent architect and former RMJM boss
  • Has been on a tour of the country canvassing the opinions of RIBA members through a series of FutuRIBA seminars
  • Married with two grown-up children and three stepchildren
  • Active on Twitter as @Ben_Derbyshire

You can read this feature and more in this edition of the AJ.
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Readers' comments (8)

  • Gordon  Gibb

    I welcome any initiative that will reconnect architects with the procurement process, rather than to the design process alone, as has occurred in most public procurement in the last decades. The result of this change in procurement is that design and specification hoped for by architects can be changed by others who have no knowledge of the ramifications of those changes, or who have a direct conflict of interest against the provision of quality and assurance of addressing the needs of those who use the built environment. Also I would suggest that there is an innate corruption in the process where every party is working for the same paymaster, and where independent analysis of design development and construction processes are reduced and necessarily conflicted. I believe that architects are well placed to provide the services needed to remove this conflict, if roles are correctly defined.

    However, whilst I agree with the idea presented by Mr Derbyshire, he has to accept that the RIBA must take a large part of the blame for much of the marginalisation. Whilst other professions saw the writing on the wall and moved into the void created by the change in procurement processes, the RIBA has allowed the diversion away from the historic central role of the architect, by concentrating upon the promotion of the design alone, rather than the needs of the process and the need for the architect to be at the heart of it. This also extends to their obligations to engage in architectural education, in respect of which the professional context is constantly marginalised and subjugated to the needs of the picture rather than the process.

    I would suggest that for this initiative to work, the RIBA need not be strengthened on its present course. It needs to change, to change how it does business with the profession and its stakeholders, how it prioritises what it promotes and how it sees what the relevance is of how it is delivered.

    Right now I would suggest that the RIBA marginalises our profession, by concentrating upon what pleases architects and makes some famous, rather than upon the more mundane aspects of what professional architects operating in the construction industry need to do.

    If the profession wants to be brought to the table (where it should be) to review the cause and lessons to be learned from the terrible and clearly avoidable Grenfell Tower disaster, it first needs to come down from its own, ivory, tower.

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  • Chris Roche

    Today's profile of the new president in the Guardian gives the perception that he is too closely aligned with the "Design and Build" procurement process to be truly objective in his criticism. Moreover there appear to be conflicting perceptions about his statements on "economic cleansing" of social housing, and his views on Building Regulation compliance with regard to Grenfell Tower, given his practice's involvement in controversial housing schemes in North and South London. The profession is arguably in crisis and requires critical leadership now, more than perhaps at any point in the RIBA's recent history. Ben Derbyshire faces enormous challenges during his term as president, and whilst his experience and knowledge of social housing design and procurement will prove invaluable, it comes with conflicting baggage. I believe the UK's housing shortage is a bigger political issue than Brexit, and is a crisis leading to an inexorable rise in homeless people sleeping on the streets of our towns and cities. To suggest the only way to address this crisis is by "increasing supply" is politically and economically naive, overly simplistic, and could be perceived as opportunistic.

    Chris Roche Founder 11.04 Architects.

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  • Hey ho.....here we go
    The profession is not blameless and our supine response to contractor demands and ever tighter fee margins is woeful.

    "Arguably, architectural power and influence started to dissipate in the 1980’s when the profession relinquished the role of the architect as leader and head of the design team to the project manager. The influence of the architect as strategist, designer and artist working for and on behalf of the client has decreased inexorably since then.

    The responsibility for interpreting the client’s needs directly and the delivery of architectural quality has been lost, and poor design solution coupled with cost over-runs on major public and infrastructure projects, like the Scottish Parliament, has seen public criticism directed not always unfairly at the architect. This provoked a backlash among politicians and other media pundits questioning the contribution of the architect and our role in civic society.

    The utility of the architect as thought leader and promoter of aesthetics and beauty has been squeezed by protocols such as value engineering and cost control. Architects are no longer trusted to be innovative and to deliver inspiring buildings. The work itself has been challenged on all sides and those charged with defending and promoting the profession such as the RIBA and RIAS have done little in response.

    It is schools of architecture, not architectural firms, that are addressing the power balance for they are the only places where architecture as art is still practised and where critical engagement, enquiry and placemaking, the real role of the architect, is encouraged seriously.

    The profession is not blameless and our supine response to contractor demands and ever tighter fee margins is woeful. There is a move also to lower the bar further by making architectural schools focus more on professional practise, BIM and preparing students to be ‘office ready’. This should be resisted as it impacts the time that students have to acquire essential design and draft skills which are fundamental. The acquisition of administration and project process skills is the responsibility of the profession and not the role of the universities."

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  • Gordon  Gibb

    I have to say, Alan, that I couldn't disagree more. It is the schools and the profession which both promote architectural education as possessing none of the elements that those who procure buildings actually need. That is why architects are ignored as being irrelevant when all of the important decisions, generally connected with money, the future and the needs of bodies of clients and users, are made. The schools need to stop the rot of self-serving, inward-looking education, and actually look at what architecture as it is delivered has become and work out how to serve it or change it. You can produce all the skilled designers you want, but they are now ten a penny, and expendable when finished with, in the eyes of the people we need to influence, if we want to change the processes rather than moan about them. Leaving professional practice to practice itself is an abdication of what schools don't want to do, into the hands of those who can't do it, or who will do it badly. It is the very essence of bad management. Just like design and build.

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  • I'm not moaning Gordon and I've no idea where or what you teach but I find your assertion that "schools need to stop the rot of self-serving, inward-looking education, and actually look at what architecture as it is"

    That is absolutely not my experience and discredits the faculty, students and other talented professionals I work with in various universities, all of whom are committed and many are experienced, highly respected professionals, who can certainly "do it". Nothing to do with producing only skilled designers, that I only wish were ten a penny.

    It is the profession generally that needs to raise the bar higher not lower it further, take a stand, say no to rediculous fee bids, derisory procurement routes, absurd contractor demands and be more vocal..... that's why the profession is being marginalised and architects ignored.

    Bugger all really to do with what is being taught in schools.

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  • Good designers are not ten a penny, but the conditions to allow them to flourish do not exist in any case. The profession does need to be more vocal and much more rigorous in its own defence. But sometimes all we can do is play a long game and at least two pigeons, one poor planning & the second lax regulation are now coming home to roost!

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  • Gordon Gibb , you may be interested in this, or may not. It has nothing whatsoever to do with self serving inward looking education or creating only skilled designers, although that is part of it but instead addressing contemporary social, community and political issues and "what architecture as it is delivered has become and work out how to serve it or change it"

    I have set up new two year Masters project " Home " for my unit 2 at Scott Sutherland.Over two years we will undertake global research work into the design of Mass Housing - public, social, and developer led housing. This unit is a typologically based unit. To begin with we will gather information and conduct a comparative study of the following in a range of countries identified by students:
    - Housing Policy (Approach and Methods)
    - Procurement System (current and proposed, if any)
    - Programme (House Types, Densities, Shared Facilities)
    - Construction Methods

    Further, we will study the best public, social, and developer led housing projects from across the globe produced since 1918, and a study trip will look at mass housing from the 1950s, 1970s, and the past two decades.

    By the end of studies, students will detail and create an innovative housing project of their own, however the typological and international focus of the unit will be to position the students as extremely knowledgeable in the field of mass housing.

    I think you'll find that there are a number of great schools with highly talented students and very capable and committed faculty doing the same. I respectfully suggest you get out more.

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  • One development that Ben Derbyshire might usefully address is the habit of some architects to stick 'ARB' after their names, with the encouragement of the Architects Registration Board.
    The implication is that calling yourself an architect is mot enough, when in fact the remit of the Board is simply to be the government appointed registrar of architects.
    The purpose of the Board is to ensure that only properly qualified people can practice as architects, but it seems to think that it'a a professional body - that architects should in effect display their membership, when in fact they're not Board members at all and the existence of the Board should ensure that people should be able to have confidence in someone entitled to call themselves an architect.
    The tail is wagging the dog - muddying the professional waters - but some architects obviously feel the need to stick this label after their name , to the detriment of the meaning of the term 'architect', which becomes devalued..

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