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When one collective voice is not always the right voice

Paul Finch

Do professions really have to pretend they are all the same? asks Paul Finch

Judging by the healthy appearance of this year’s AJ120, it may seem perverse to worry about the future of the profession, but even as the AJ celebrates its own 120th anniversary, it may be timely to take stock.

The recent report from The Edge, the collective of interested individuals and built environment organisations, is titled ‘Collaboration for Change’. It might as well be ‘Collaborate or Die’, since it suggests that the failure of the professions to establish a united front (however worthy the Construction Industry Council) means they have little future unless they reform.

A host of recommendations in the document, which is oddly subtitled as a report on the ‘future of professionalism’ –  rather than professional institutions – cover all the usual bugbears: educational silos, ethical dilemmas surrounding climate change, how professional conduct committees should work and so on.

The different disciplines involved in creating or retrofitting the built world should stick to what they know 

Much as I would like to be able to endorse the idea of a new United Nations approach to professional bodies, nothing in this report persuades me that it is likely to happen, or that it is desirable. My overall conclusion is that the different disciplines involved in creating or retrofitting the built world should stick to what they know about and try to do it better. In the end the public admires knowledge, expertise and delivery, not mutual declarations on professional ethics, even assuming the public could define what they are, which the report has difficulty in doing.

There are several references to climate change, but no evidence that it is the consequence of a failure of architects, engineers and others to mount a united front in favour of ‘ethical’ construction. A contrast is drawn between structural stability and health and safety – why is climate change not dealt with by regulation? In fact it is, in the form of Building Regulations, however and wherever they apply, plus the Climate Change Act.

Attempting to criminalise designers who dare to include air conditioning in an office block in Doha is futile, as would be an attempt to declare it unethical by an amalgam of institutions, almost all of whom would be members of the Construction Industry Council.

The name CIC has always been a problem because, despite a quote from former RIBA president Sunand Prasad in the report claiming architects ‘make’ things, and are therefore unlike lawyers or accountants, the reality is that designers design things. Other people make or build them. This is one of the several oddities in the report, including the aperçu from professor Jeremy Till that professional ethics are not the same as the conduct he expects from his hairdresser.

As far as architecture is concerned, no distinction is made between the Architects’ Registration Board and the RIBA, even though any definition of professions would include not being controlled by the state, and being independent upholders of educational standards (in respect of admission to the profession), and repositories of knowledge.

No doubt there is more that the CIC could be doing, though its continued existence as a liaison body might have been given more credit in the report. However, that will not change the condition which  The Edge seems reluctant to acknowledge: the benefits of diversity, of different scales of activity, and the fact that in reality the whole of the construction industry collaborates all the time.

If government gets different messages from different institutions, so be it. Better to acknowledge this than to pretend that there will ever be one quasi-family with exactly the same ideas about knowledge, education, ethics, clients, conduct, and that indefinable concept, the public interest. Next week I will suggest how the RIBA could more robustly address these matters.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Ben Derbyshire

    I'm sorry Paul Finch chooses to mount an attack on the merits of collaboration. I realise iconoclasm comes with the territory for a columnist, but Paul Morrell has a lifetime's experience of getting things built. Of course we should deepen our expertise in the effort to become beacons of excellence but no individual discipline can achieve anything worthwhile without the collaboration of others, no matter how good.

    Fortunately RIBA's Harry Rich does not agree. He's on the record as saying:

    "Collaboration for Change identifies a number of key areas for the construction institutions to together consider. A shared understanding of ethics and the public interest is an issue of increasing complexity in a rapidly globalising construction industry and of great importance to the credibility of 21stcentury professionalism and we look forward to working with others on this. Building upon the existing work of the construction institutions on sustainability, the RIBA supports the proposal to work to set environmental matters high on the professional portfolio and also to develop a better shared definition of standards of building performance along with a joint commitment to promoting a whole life approach to project delivery."

    I believe RIBA should indeed welcome the Edge Commission Report, acknowledging that inter-professional collaboration is essential to secure the future of professionalism in the built environment. The RIBA should commit to working with The Edge and the key leading professional institutions to identify appropriate joint action in the key areas identified by the report that can be woven into the RIBA strategy 2016 – 2020, currently under preparation.

    Ben Derbyshire, Managing Partner, HTA Design LLP.
    Chair, The Housing Forum.

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  • The Editor and Paul Finch:
    first of all, thanks for alerting us to this timely document, despite its possible shortcomings, important for all in built environment production industry and the consumers of buildings to be aware of the opinions of the concerned institutions? As to the importance of learning and practicing collaboration for Architects, (also the Landscape sort) for the good of the industry and the planet, the English language literature has been providing research about exactly that subject for many years, and can be traced atleast back to CP Snow's 'Two Cultures' essay. How far has the entire built environment industry worldwide come since Taylor & Hosker's Quality assurance for building design? Spence, Macmillan and and Kirby wrote the excellent Interdiscipiplinary design in practice in 2001; the book is still relevant today. Your sincerely, David Benjamin Architect MNAL (Norway)

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