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A new survey reveals what really matters to architects

Paul Finch
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Research by the World Architecture Festival marks out an agenda for the future of the profession, says Paul Finch

Here is a list, in order, of what architects think are the most important issues that will affect them over the next 10 years:

  1. Climate/energy/carbon
  2. Designing for social equity
  3. Building and materials re-use
  4. Ageing and health
  5. Maintaining ethics and values

These findings are based on a survey, by research consultancy Fusion, of more than 1,000 architects worldwide (75 per cent qualified, 25 per cent graduates); although there was a disproportionate number of UK respondents, the findings show little variation, whatever the geography.

The exercise was commissioned by the World Architecture Festival (WAF) as part of initiatives to mark our 10th anniversary (WAFX) this year, and accompanies a series of awards we will be presenting at the festival in Berlin this November. The awards are being made to future project proposals, which address the subjects mentioned above, plus some other areas we think are significant: water; smart city technology; building technology; cultural identity; and power/justice.

It was gratifying to see a coincidence between our own views and those of the profession at large. While it was predictable that climate, energy and carbon challenges would be regarded as the most significant area facing designers (78 per cent in the survey), I’m not sure I would have predicted that design for social equity would be next in line (57 per cent). It suggests, at least in terms of aspiration, that the social conscience of the profession is alive and well.

Similarly, maintaining ethics and values (49 per cent) suggests that the assumption that the idea of a profession is a dead duck is far from being the case. (This percentage figure relates to the placing of issues in order of importance – it doesn’t mean that 51 per cent of the profession think the subject doesn’t matter.)

As with all surveys, one has to make qualifications. For example, we didn’t include business questions, such as about the importance of being profitable/winning work/growing office size. Nor did we ask about the significance of housing, invariably a challenge.

The new problem associated with housing is longevity. This has its effect on housing supply because the amount of existing housing stock is occupied longer by people who would have been long gone two generations ago. But there are more serious implications for the sort of accommodation now required, and a series of medical, sociological and political dilemmas associated with how we design for the elderly, whatever state of health they may be in.

As with many architectural challenges, it will not be possible simply to design away the problem. Research of many different kinds will be required to generate successful prototypes; it will be the synthesis of programme, knowledge and proposition that will be the requirement for those architects willing to engage with this difficult area.

There are huge savings to be made by intelligent strategic design

By contrast, architects may be able to have a more direct effect on two big challenges they have identified, in relation to climate/energy/carbon and re-use/materials. That is partly because this is territory which has been explored in depth over the past 20 years, but more importantly because there are huge savings to be made by intelligent strategic design, in both public and private sectors.

While ‘long life, loose fit, low energy’ may be regarded by some as a 1970s cliché, it remains a rallying cry for a profession which, if it wants to demonstrate its ethical concerns to society at large, could do worse than promote this mantra over the next decade and beyond.

A final thought: schools of architecture might look at the list of five, and indeed the full WAFX list, and review teaching programmes in the light of what the profession thinks is important.

Paul Finch is director of the World Architecture Festival, which takes place in Berlin on 15-17 November

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