This week’s top stories reviewed by the AJ’s Simon Aldous: Alan Jones steps down as RIBA president • BDP and HTA step up to the pandemic challenge • Architecture firms still at risk of going under • Asia work gives ZHA record turnover
It is, unquestionably, a time of profound crisis for architecture. The coronavirus pandemic is halting construction work, new commissions are inevitably becoming thinner on the ground and many practices are facing severe questions over their future. If there was ever a time for the RIBA to step up and show leadership, this is surely it.
Unfortunate, then, that its president, Alan Jones, has instead done the very opposite and stepped down from his duties amid a Charity Commission investigation into matters to which we are not yet privy.
Cast your mind back to the summer of 2018 when Jones was fighting a hotly contested presidential election contest, with Elsie Owusu his closest rival.
Owusu was seen as something of a wild card, with her outspoken utterances leading to the RIBA issuing her with a gagging order. Institute big-wigs must have breathed a sigh of relief when Jones topped the poll.
In recent weeks, however, there have been subtle indications that all was not quite well. As the coronavirus outbreak developed, Jones seemed to be taking a lead from Boris Johnson by being mysteriously absent. Media requests for comments were answered by RIBA chief executive Alan Vallance, a man responsible for running the institute but not its public face.
Then on Wednesday came the news that Jones was ‘temporarily’ stepping down from his role for four to six weeks. In an email to RIBA Council members, he said ‘a matter had arisen’ in his personal life, adding that he was ‘grateful for the strong support I have from my wife and family’. With Covid-19 affecting ever more people, there was concern that perhaps a member of his family had fallen ill.
But by Thursday, the matter was sounding as if it might not be entirely personal. The Charity Commission revealed that it had received a ‘serious incident report’ in connection with Jones stepping down.
The RIBA declined to provide any elaboration, however the criteria for submitting such a report sound like ones that would concern the membership.
A serious incident involves significant harm to people working for the charity or otherwise coming into contact with it; loss of the charity’s money or assets; damage to its property; or harm to its work or reputation.
It must be stressed, however, that a report must be submitted whether the harm is actual or just alleged. Nevertheless, both Jones and the RIBA have declined to provide even a hint of what may have gone on.
When Jones began his two-year presidential term, a mere seven months ago, he bemused many with his gnomic analogy about how the building industry was like a giant plate of spaghetti and if you pulled one strand, the meatball moved to the other side. The profession remains equally bemused now.
Poll: Should the RIBA explain the reasons for Alan Jones stepping down as president?
• Not if it’s purely personal
• No, whatever the reason
Last week’s poll asked whether work should stop at all construction sites. Yes it should, said 53% of you, while a further 31% favoured deciding on a case-by-case basis. A further 7% only wanted larger sites to close down and 9% simply answered no.
Nhs nightingale cubicle beds copy
Considering the above question of whether building sites should stay operational, several people made the point that some sites were supporting the NHS’s efforts to tackle coronavirus.
The most notable example is NHS Nightingale, the vast temporary hospital constructed at ExCel London, the 115,000m² exhibition and convention centre in Docklands.
Britain’s second-biggest architectural practice, BDP, has been helping design the hospital which opened yesterday, having been built in nine days with 500 beds now fully equipped. It will eventually have capacity for 4,000 patients.
The short time it has taken to put the hospital together is quite astonishing. BDP revealed that it was first contacted to work on the project less than two weeks ago on Sunday 22 March, going on site the next day with a team of specialist healthcare architects, engineers and designers. It described the process as ‘intense and exhausting’.
The practice said that while this type of conversion was unprecedented, it had been able to draw on previous experience of designing large-scale healthcare facilities, including a large intensive-care unit at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham.
BDP architect director Paul Johnson added that the bed-heads and service corridors had been constructed from a component system usually used to construct exhibition stands.
The practice has also drawn up an instruction manual detailing the fit-out processes so they can be adopted at other sites – it has already been contacted by people in Australia and Canada looking to use the techniques. Further NHS Nightingale field hospitals are planned in Bristol, Harrogate, Birmingham and Manchester.
Meanwhile, HTA Design is doing its bit by producing face masks for NHS workers using its 3D printers.
The practice, headed by Ben Derbyshire – a former RIBA president who managed to serve his full two-year term uninterrupted – has moved four 3D printers to employees’ homes, where it hopes they can make between 50 and 60 headpieces a day.
These are then sent to a central hub in Manchester, where plastic visors are fitted before the masks are sterilised and packaged.
The practice has shared details of its work with Fosters, HOK, PLP Architecture and Perkins & Will with a view to expanding the operation.
Hta 3d view (1)
While chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced a huge programme of state aid to help pay employees’ wages as well as income for the self-employed, there is concern that this leaves a significant number of architects unprotected.
As yet there has been no help for company directors if they are paid via dividends. Directors don’t immediately sound like the sort of people who need help. But, as architect Mark Hatter points out, the title ‘director’ is no guarantee of a high income. The RIBA’s benchmarking survey put the average salary for the director of a two-person practice at £26,938.
Similarly, many self-employed architects will have been advised by their accountants to set up limited companies, paying themselves a minimal PAYE salary but the rest through dividends. This has a financial advantage because National Insurance is not charged on dividends, though Hatter said he’d been advised to set up as a limited company to provide better protection in the event of a claim against the practice.
He warns that the omission could result in ‘permanent damage’ to the profession.
Meanwhile, the AJ is producing a series of useful guides with information for surviving financially during the crisis. Part one on sick-pay and employment rights and part two on financial help for practices are both available now.
Mixed news for Zaha Hadid Architects, which has reported a record turnover of £57 million for the year ending 30 April 2019. But the increase in workloads appears to be all in Asia. In other regions, its income has plummeted.
Last year the practice completed its £8.8 billion Beijing Daxing International Airport and it is working on a number of other major schemes in China and Taiwan. Turnover in Asia was up a massive 225 per cent to over £37 million.
In Europe, on the other hand, turnover fell by 24 per cent, while just in the UK it collapsed, dropping 75 per cent on the previous year.
Overall pre-tax profit is down from £4.3 million to £1.9 million, though this is partly attributed to a ‘one-off’ £2.2 million sum paid for unspecified legal and consulting fees.
Last year ZHA principal Patrik Schumacher was involved in a High Court bid to oust and replace the executors of the late Zaha Hadid’s £67.2 million estate – her friends Peter Palumbo and Brian Clarke and her niece Rana Hadid. The matter is understood to remain unresolved.