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Weekend roundup: Cease and desist

Simon Aldous’s take on the big architectural stories of the week: RIBA attempts to gag Owusu • Fosters launches apprenticeships • Combustible cladding delays HOK hospital • Protests over Forest of Dean contest

So imagine you’re running a professional institute in the process of electing a new president, and one of the candidates has based her campaign around the notion that – loosely speaking – the institute is a complacent cabal with a penchant for secrecy and a tendency to make people sign non-disclosure orders. 

Do you: 
a) Maintain a dignified silence 
b) Give a calm but thorough rebuttal of her points 
c) Issue her with a gagging order 

Astonishingly the RIBA went for the third option, possibly doing Elsie Owusu’s campaign a huge favour in the process in appearing to justify her claims. 

The ‘cease and desist’ letter followed an election hustings in Leeds where Owusu bemoaned chief executive Alan Vallance’s salary, saying he earned six times more than the average architect. The RIBA called her remarks a ‘flagrant breach of confidentiality’ and ‘damaging to RIBA’. 

It’s a strange reaction since Valance’s salary was already known to be somewhere between £180,000 and £200,000. And since it’s paid for by the RIBA members, it hardly seems unreasonable for it to be raised by a candidate. 

The institute could have responded, instead, by defending the salary; perhaps suggesting it was fairer to compare it with what top practice directors earn – or extolling the qualities Vallance brought to the job. 

The RIBA’s letter said Owusu’s comments were far from being a one-off, citing other incidents where it felt her ‘serious and repeated’ criticism had affected the RIBA’s ‘reputation and standing’, including her claim that the RIBA is institutionally racist. 

It does make you wonder whether the RIBA understands what this whole election lark is about. Owusu believes the RIBA has some major problems with the way it is run. Rather than just complain from the sidelines, she has put her money where her mouth and is running for president. Outlining what she sees as its problems is surely integral to her campaign. 

Past presidents pile in

It’s noteworthy that RIBA past president Jack Pringle said he deplored the institute’s ‘gagging measures’ adding that the current candidates ‘might consider whether the RIBA’s past officers and elected members have questions to answer about their financial stewardship of the institute’. 

His views were backed by another former president, Owen Luder, who criticised the institute’s ‘continued secrecy, lack of transparency and accountability, and blanket use of confidentiality agreements’. 

The RIBA has defended its actions, pointing out that Owusu is an RIBA trustee and as such has a duty to act in the best interests of the organisation.

Will Owusu get elected? Not according to last weekend’s newsletter poll. Interestingly, she was comfortably leading the votes during the poll’s first day, only for Alan Jones to soar past her, ending up with twice as many votes. Phil Allsopp came a distant third. The results of ‘the only poll that counts’ will be announced by the RIBA on 9 August.

It’s coming home

Apprentices wv

Apprentices wv

When Fosters started talking about moving its headquarters out of the UK if Brexit stopped it hiring from overseas, a newsletter poll suggested a better course of action might be to hire more British architects. Which it may end up doing as a result of a new apprenticeship scheme it is leading, backed by 19 other practices including Feilden Clegg Bradley, Grimshaw and AHMM.  

The scheme will combine workplace experience with university tuition, but instead of participants paying fees, they will receive a salary. The scheme has the explicit intention of attracting a more socially diverse group into the architecture profession. – an admission that student fees and, perhaps more pertinently, the scrapping of maintenance grants for those from low-income families is skewing the student intake to those from wealthier backgrounds.  

RIBA student representatives have also bemoaned the ‘excessive’ financial burden of studying architecture, with students forced to pay for compulsory ‘high-cost modules’ such as field trips and large-scale models.  

The apprenticeship scheme comprises two separate four-year programmes backed by the RIBA and the ARB: the first for becoming an architectural assistant comes with a Part 1 qualification; the second for becoming an architect will award Parts 2 and 3 to successful participants. 

Both have been approved by the Institute for Apprenticeships, which lists 560 different courses, the architecture programmes listed between abattoir workers and asbestos analysts.  

All practices interested in offering apprenticeships will be able to access funding for training costs from the government’s apprenticeship levy.

Alarming diagnosis

Skanska new papworth hospital 9

Skanska new papworth hospital 9

We don’t know the details of what exactly went wrong at HOK’s New Papworth Hospital in Cambridge; only that the £165 million facility has had to delay its opening by several months after fears arose over combustible insulation in its cladding. 

‘Our original requirements for this building made it clear that combustible products should not be used,’ said a hospital spokesperson. HOK itself has declined to comment. 

PRP has painted a picture of what the profession’s marginalisation means in practice, where it appears scant attention is paid to architects’ instructions. In an opinion piece, PRP partner Andrew Mellor said that, following the Grenfell Tower fire, his practice had reviewed more than 20 London buildings on behalf of their owners to check whether their construction corresponded to the architectural record drawings. 

‘We have ceased to be shocked by the discrepancies and defects, often dangerous, that we are uncovering and we have yet to inspect a building that is fully (or even close to being) compliant,’ he writes. 

He argues that architects need to take contractual responsibility for projects throughout the build programme and right up until handover to the client. 

Bitter fruits of the forest

Meanwhile there was outcry this week over a competition held by Forest of Dean District Council which will assess entries on a 70:30 evaluation criteria, with 70 being the cost and the 30 the practice’s experience. 

Twenty-three leading practitioners have said they are refusing to tender for the Cinderford Northern Quarter development and have sent an open letter calling for the weighting to be reversed. Signatories include Piers Taylor of Invisible Studio, Carl Turner and Russell Curtis of RCKa. 

‘Cutting back on resources in order to reduce cost will result in either an inexperienced design consultant or under-resourced design team winning the project,’ they say. 

Poll: Which of these is phrase of the week?
• Architect first
• Cease and desist
• It’s coming home
Vote here

Also this week:

  • David Chipperfield has added his voice to those calling for Glasgow’s Mackintosh building to be fully restored, saying ‘it should be declared as a monument of exceptional importance’. Glasgow architect Graeme Nicholls, who favours allowing the building to evolve and change, meanwhile brought up the philosophical thought experiment of the Ship of Theseus, where over time every component of a ship is replaced. Is this still the same ship? 
  • Aukett Swanke has blamed ‘continuing stagnation’ in the UK construction market for a pre-tax loss of £1.22 million in the six months to the end of March. The practice dropped from 23rd place in this year’s AJ100 rankings down to 52nd. Stride Treglown also reported a fall in fortunes, with its pre-tax profits dropping by half in 2017. It put the results partly down to a ‘tailing-off in confidence’ since the Brexit referendum. 
  • The ARB has released its annual figures for 2017, which show that a record 39,987 architects were registered at the end of the year, with the proportion of women continuing to grow, up to 27 per cent from 26 per cent in 2016. The number of architects joining from other parts of the EU fell by nearly a quarter. It also investigated 431 claims of fake architects, though only two of these resulted in prosecution. 
  • Southwark Council has approved – by one vote – Allies and Morrison’s plans to replace Elephant and Castle shopping centre with homes, shops and offices. The council voted against the scheme in January with this newsletter speculating that impending council elections could have helped concentrate councillors’ minds. The scheme has since been revised to increase the number of social rented homes and to help oversee relocation of local businesses. The council election has also been and gone.

Simon Aldous’ Weekend Roundup is emailed exclusively to AJ subscribers every Saturday morning. Click here to find out more about our subscription packages

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