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.