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Why the RIBA Plan of work could undermine the profession

Picture from riba client survey 2016
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The 2013 plan lacks clarity, other consultants don’t like it, and we’re not careful another profession will usurp it, argues Design Engine director John Ridgett

Last week the AJ reported a recent survey on the RIBA Plan of Work 2013 by the Association of Consultant Architects where more than half of respondents found the 2013 plan ‘unhelpful’. It is a view that mirrors our own experiences in practice. 

We have increasingly come to the view that the 2013 plan lacks clarity with regards to the submission of planning applications and potentially undermines the importance of technical design. As such we believe the 2013 plan, as is, may not set out the process in the design team’s interest nor, most importantly, our client’s. Until reading the AJ article we had to a certain extent felt that maybe this was just us; that somehow we ‘just didn’t get it’.

The delivery of buildings is a complex process involving multiple stakeholders, an expanding array of specialist consultants and contractor involvement increasingly early in the process. In this challenging environment a clear legible plan that describes how everyone gets from A to B is vital. The RIBA – and by extension the architect – has traditionally been central to this plan. The RIBA Plan of Work is the document that people reference and that projects are structured around. Project programmes are developed and the wider consultant team submit their fees on the basis of the RIBA works stages.

Planning takes place any time from start of Stage 2 to end of Stage 4. Gone is the clarity and consistency

It could be argued that the RIBA Plan of Work is the road map for the delivery of projects because it is a remnant of an earlier age where the architect was a more central figure than today. What is less debatable is that the document was the A to B of delivering projects because it was clear and concise and appropriate and described a set of stages that everyone recognised, understood and saw value in.

Since the introduction of the current RIBA Plan of Work 2013, we have increasingly found it is no longer the support it once was. On a simple level other members of the team have continued to reference the ‘old’ plan of work, meaning that fees and deliverables across the project become uncoordinated, with the structural engineer (for example) quoting on the basis of works to RIBA Stage D, while we are quoting to RIBA Stage 3. Another point of confusion centres around planning. In the old RIBA stages it was clear that you submitted planning at the end of stage D. Everyone understood what was involved and, critically, clients were given clear and consistent advice from the whole team they had engaged. The 2013 Plan of Work shows planning taking place any time from start of Stage 2 to end of Stage 4. Gone is the clarity and consistency.

Splitting technical design across two stages has meant that, too often, this hugely important stage has been lost

BREEAM, a key benchmark for clients and planning authorities, has had to change its requirements in line with the 2013 Plan. The lack of clarity in the plan has led to BREEAM requiring outputs at the end of Stage 2, which are often unrealistic. And this isn’t just the view of us as architects but also that of the cost consultants and engineers we work with.

Critical for us as architects, however, is what has happened to ‘old’ RIBA Stage E (technical design). In comparison diagrams this is shown now split across Stages 3 and 4. This splitting of technical design across two stages has in reality meant that, too often, this hugely important stage of design has been lost. Therefore the project goes from planning to production information without the time allowed to develop the coordinated design to an appropriate level first. This of course also has the effect of reducing the overall design programme. Ultimately this loss of old RIBA Stage E can have the effect of undermining the careful crafting of all elements of the building, fundamental to good architecture. In our own studio the team works hard to ensure that this isn’t the case, but it puts huge pressure on them and the consultant teams we work with.

We feel that the lack of clarity on planning and technical design is a problem for us. Hence we are currently developing our own plan of work. As we develop this, we are consulting with some of our fellow professional design team colleagues to get their feedback and input.

We feel there is a bigger picture issue here too. If, as architects, we are not careful and the wider industry does not feel the plan of work is the helpful, clear, concise and appropriate document it once was, others will understandably see an opportunity to propose their own.

The RICS or others are open to put forward an alternative. If this is better, it could become the new ‘road map’ for project delivery, in the process further undermining the important role architects should play at the centre of projects – not just defining how the building should look but how it should be made and delivered.

John Ridgett is a director at Design Engine Architects 

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • John Kellett

    I have found a simple solution. The Planning Permission Applivation is ALWAYS made in Stage 3 whether or not there are 'reserved matters' to be considered later. The Building Regulations Submission is ALWAYS Stage 4A and the the Tender/Construction Set is ALWAYS Stage 4B. That way everyone knows what's what, as it is a straight remap with the old with the addition on of the newish ones Stages 0, 1, and 7. The additional benefit with BIM is that I have found the work more evenly split across Stages 3 to 5(plus 6) making bids more straightforward. The benefit of using Stages 4A and 4B is that it emphasises the stupidity and danger of the 'divide and conquer' procurement rules of 'bean-counters'. The Contractor is the Builder but Design has to be done first by the design team working on behalf of the client. May be a bit 'old school' but it works. A contractor's design team are working for the contractor not the the business or person procuring the building. The difference? The difference is that between 'product' and 'service'. I will get a lot of flack for promoting the 'traditional' 'Design THEN build' route, but I've not seen that procurement route not work in 35 years. BIM workflows make 'design THEN build' even more cost effective long term.

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