The architect’s role is in a state of flux. Post-Grenfell the construction industry desperately needs greater clarity on leadership and accountability, but can architecture rise to the challenge? With major changes to architectural education under way, Ben Flatman speaks to professionals from across property, architecture and education about the potential for a reinvigorated profession
Architecture feels like a profession that is going through a protracted crisis. Once the undisputed lead consultant on most major building projects, often acting as lead designer, contract administrator and effective project manager, it is increasingly rare today to see an architect anywhere near contract administration, or even on a building site.
In many respects these once dominant members of the construction industry’s hierarchy have been reduced to bit-part players, now best known for producing feasibility studies, planning applications and tender packages.
Grenfell must necessarily loom large over any current discussion around construction. The final findings of the inquiry are still pending. Blame for the horrific loss of life is likely to be broadly distributed among politicians, clients, consultants, contractors, forms of procurement and product manufacturers.
But what many already perceive as one of the underlying causes of Grenfell – fragmentation and an almost complete lack of responsibility within the construction team – also goes to the heart of the crisis facing architects. The 2018 Hackitt Report identified a string of issues that needed urgent attention but lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities was high up the list.
For this and other reasons, the architects’ regulator, ARB, is proposing the first radical changes to architectural education since the 1950s, as well as introducing compulsory CPD for the first time. Can the profession reform itself in the wake of Grenfell, to re-establish its reputation for technical expertise, and professional leadership?
Shasore believes that Britain’s perennial preoccupation with status and class is one factor in architects’ need to position themselves as the “intellectual” professionals
Where the architect was once seen as a competent professional with overall responsibility for the design, project administration and quality assurance of a building, now there is an ever-increasing number of consultants and subconsultants on most large projects. Architects are very often simply a service provider among many, and may not even be directly appointed by the client.
To many in construction this is not news – and some may even have welcomed seeing architects taken down a peg or two. Sometimes seen as arrogant and less technically qualified than they should be, architects have also often been perceived to regard themselves as separate from – and even superior to – the rest of the industry.
According to Neal Shasore, head of the London School of Architecture and a Building the Future Commissioner, architects have long felt the need to “distinguish themselves from others in industry”. The debate about what architects’ role is, and their place within the wider industry, reaches back well into the 19th century.
Shasore believes that Britain’s perennial preoccupation with status and class is one factor in architects’ need to position themselves as the “intellectual” professionals, in contrast to the artisans and tradespeople who actually make buildings.
Although architects had historically mostly been trained on the job, as apprentices in architectural practices, over time the desire to achieve academic and social parity with doctors and lawyers led to almost all architects being taught in universities.
A disconnect consequently developed between the schools of architecture, architecture firms, and the wider construction industry. Architects and architectural education arguably became ever further detached from construction.
Being an architecture student increasingly became an end in itself – an introspective and solitary endeavour, centred on presentational pyrotechnics and individual attainment. Meanwhile, architectural practices found that fewer and fewer graduates had the technical knowledge or skills required in the workplace.
Rightly or wrongly, a growing perception developed that architects were pursuing their own agenda, separate to – or even in open conflict with – the needs of clients and end users.
Why does this matter? In one word: quality.
In an attempt to seize back control over programme and costs, public and private sector clients increasingly utilised non-traditional forms of procurement, such as design and build. Architects were first marginalised, and then increasingly replaced in the leadership role by other consultants such as quantity surveyors and project managers – perhaps because they were seen as more amenable and aligned to clients’ priorities.
This summary doubtless includes many gross generalisations. A huge number of architects excel in their service delivery, and technical knowledge. British architecture firms have flourished internationally, although the service they offer is often focused on the early stage design, with implementation overseen by others.
There have also been advantages for clients. Architects’ fees are almost certainly lower than they were historically (although this has presented challenges in terms of maintaining the service they deliver). Clients can more easily determine the way in which a consultant team is assembled to best suit their procurement methods and commercial imperatives. And perhaps the overbearing authority of a single consultant was never a good thing in the first place.
But in the wake of such change has also come a lack of clarity and – most worryingly of all – uncertainty regarding who has overall responsibility on a construction project.
Why does this matter? In one word: quality.
Without clear accountability for quality assurance, responsibility for not just fire safety but all areas of a building’s compliance, become progressively less clear.
One of the big questions now facing architecture, and the wider industry, is whether there is any desire for architects to step into a broader leadership role within construction. Are architects in a position to embrace the new principal designer role, as set out in the 2022 Building Safety Act? And, if not, could ARB’s proposed reforms help change that?
ARB’s proposed reforms
Architecture is the only profession in construction to be independently regulated. The Architects Registration Board (ARB) was created (at the profession’s own request) in 1997.
Architects felt that having their own regulator – like doctors and lawyers – would help cement their professional status. But with only protection of title, and few barriers to entry in the building design sector, architecture has often struggled to maintain its position in the industry, as well as its fee levels.
RIBA, the architects’ professional body, and ARB have often had a tetchy relationship. For the last decade RIBA had been trying to progress its own educational reforms agenda, and had partly blamed lack of progress on resistance to change from within ARB.
Now, under a different senior leadership team, ARB is proposing changes that go far beyond RIBA’s previous, more modest proposals, and is facing some resistance from RIBA president, Simon Allford.
Under the current system, students can theoretically qualify in seven years, but most architects take an average of nine and a half years. Since the introduction of student fees, student debt levels have soared. Both RIBA and ARB are agreed that this is too long, but there is less agreement on how best to deliver a streamlined, shorter route to registration.
ARB is proposing to replace the current RIBA Parts 1, 2 and 3. Part 1, which equates to a Level 6 undergraduate degree, will no longer be accredited by ARB, with aspiring architects now to be assessed at only two points – at Level 7 (master’s degree level) and through a separate assessment of professional competence.
The stated aim is to replace the emphasis on inputs and time spent at university with outputs, and a focus on competencies. In theory, education and training providers will be able to create new courses that deliver the required competencies within a shorter timeframe.
The changes are also aimed at increasing diversity within the profession. With the recent introduction of apprenticeships and apprenticeship degrees as routes into architecture, the hope is that those previously put off by the length and cost of an architectural education will see it as a more attractive route. “Earn while you learn” apprenticeship routes are already changing the educational landscape.
By removing the requirement for an undergraduate degree in architecture, ARB will potentially open up shorter routes to registration for mid-career professionals and students with non-cognate degrees, or even no degree, to “convert” to architecture more easily. This is similar to the US, where approximately half of all registered architects did not study architecture at undergraduate level.
This raises the possibility of architecture being able to draw on a broader range of expertise and talent by attracting more people with industry experience, such as engineers, contractors and surveyors. Diversity matters, many believe, if we want the built environment to reflect the needs and aspirations of the whole of society.
ARB is also introducing compulsory CPD for all UK architects for the first time. As well as recommending eight CPD activities per year, ARB is also likely to specifically mandate certain areas of CPD, such as fire safety.
The 2022 Professional Qualifications Bill followed the UK’s departure from the EU and gave ARB the power to negotiate mutual recognition agreements (MRAs) with countries outside the EU. ARB became the first UK professional regulator to take advantage of these post-Brexit opportunities when it negotiated MRAs with the US, Australia and New Zealand. UK architectural qualifications are now recognised in these countries, potentially making it easier for individuals and architectural practices to work overseas.
Hugh Simpson is chief executive and registrar of the Architects Registration Board (ARB), the profession’s regulator
“A whole number of things have come together,” says Simpson of the recent move towards radical reform of architectural education. He highlights “a sense of urgency around the climate crisis and Grenfell”.
ARB’s reforms have emerged following discussions with the RIBA, as well as other professional bodies, such as RTPI and the RICS. Simpson says ARB is keen “to collaborate across related professions”, although RIBA has recently expressed significant concerns about the proposals.
Quality is too variable and access dependant on social networks
Simpson sees the move to reform architectural education as resulting from a desire to strengthen the profession and improve collaboration. He believes positive change will only come through equipping students with the “necessary skills, knowledge, experience and behaviours” to succeed.
One of the things he recognises that the reforms have not resolved is the issue around professional practical experience. “Quality is too variable and access dependant on social networks,” he says.
“Regulators get into trouble when they prescribe a particular route,” he says of the way in which the proposed reforms open up the sector to new models of architectural education. ARB is “keen not to mandate particular approaches” and wants “to encourage innovation”.
This will involve moving away from an education system that is currently still very much focused on the time that students spend in education, to more of an emphasis on “outcomes”. Simpson says ARB wants to move away from “mandating routes” towards “facilitating routes… Our overall message is: ‘are you competent to practise as an architect?’ ”
Jenny Russell is director of education and learning at the RIBA
Russell says the RIBA has long held the ambition to increase the number of routes into the profession, but expresses concern that ARB’s changes could damage government funding for architectural education by undermining the current tripartite structure.
She believes the profession will “have to push to ensure architecture is funded properly”, pointing out that it is a “teaching-heavy” course, that in the US and Europe has a standard requirement for 600 credits, normally over a five-year period.
The profession will have to push to ensure architecture is funded properly
Accepting the challenges that face any attempt at education reform, she recognises that there is an unhealthy attitude within the profession that “you need to be everything and do everything”. She believes any system will struggle if it sets out to “create students who know everything for the here and now”.
Russell believes a priority for the education system is to give students the “ability to learn and be adaptable” in the workplace. Guarding against an attempt to create oven-ready professionals, she says “there has to come a point where there’s a line drawn [under education] when students can enter the register”.
Of ARB she says: “With all the new powers they’ve been given, they’re feeling pressure to add more and more competences.” She believes this will lead to “more and more learning outcomes on schools of architecture”. Russell is concerned that the proposed outcomes-based approach “doesn’t put any expectations or responsibility on practice..”
Highlighting the fact that a significant proportion of women under the current system leave around the Part 3 stage, she argues that ARB’s reforms won’t address this. “What’s making it not a good environment for women?” she asks.
“Will it do what they are saying they want it to do?” she asks of ARB’s reforms, before adding that she is “not sure the issues are about Part 1 and Part 2”.
Russell argues that an on-going problem for all students exists around “getting the [workplace] experience to demonstrate competencies”. She would like to see a practical experience tool-kit, with “a code of practice on how students are dealt with in practice”.
She welcomes the move to increase the diversity of routes and sees the potential for students coming to the UK from overseas, with degrees that are not accredited in the UK.
Like RIBA president Simon Allford, Russell questions the way in which the reforms potentially undermine the traditional undergraduate degree in architecture, which she sees as having “real value” in the way that it teaches students to “think through three-dimensional problems”.
Dav Bansal is an architect and director at Howells
Bansal welcomes the way in which the reforms seek to open up entry to the profession “from various backgrounds”, including through apprenticeships and non-cognate degrees or professional experience. The changes should increase opportunity for “many more, hopefully improving access into our profession”, he says.
“I would like to see a more lean, pragmatic and engaging approach to architectural education, he adds. He believes ARB’s reforms need to combine academic and practice experience “simultaneously”.
Those who choose to undertake part-time education generally do better in the long-term due to their ongoing experience in practice
“We see many talented graduates who struggle with working in practice”, Bansal says, and argues that apprenticeships could go a long way to addressing this.
“At Howells, we sometimes find that those who choose to undertake part-time education generally do better in the long term due to their ongoing experience in practice. Their skills in working with colleagues and consultants as a team, appreciating real-life challenges and solving problems efficiently are just a few of the benefits in combining early experience in practice with education.
“I truly believe schools of architecture will struggle to train students for life in practice as this is not their area of expertise,” he says, arguing that engaging local practices to provide in-studio workshops or talks “will only go so far”.
“What is really needed is to develop a programme where working in practice to build core skills and competency while exploring your imagination and theoretical knowledge at university goes hand in hand,” says Bansal.
“Let the practitioners and professors do what they are best at and work together to train the architects of tomorrow. We are already seeing this approach work effectively in other creative industries including automotive – so let’s learn from this.”
Kevin Singh is head of the Manchester School of Architecture and a director of TKA Space Studio
Singh welcomes the way in which the reforms seek to open up access and increase diversity. He observes that “unless you decide you want to be an architect at 14”, it is incredibly difficult to make the transition at a later stage.
But he is concerned that students coming into architecture with non-cognate degrees and experience will lack lots of the required presentational and spatial skills and instinctively feels that it will be very difficult for them to progress from a standing start. However, he does acknowledge that a similar system works well in the US, albeit typically with a three-year masters programme.
He believes that the RIBA itself has no plans to stop validating Part 1 courses and notes that many schools of architecture will continue to require an undergraduate degree as a prerequisite for entry to masters level.
He is sceptical about how much demand there will be from students with non-cognate degrees and experience, and points out that only two universities – Portsmouth and South Bank – have so far offered the Level 6 apprenticeship degree. He believes that “market forces” will dictate the future landscape in architectural education.
I think schools [of architecture] are a lot more responsible than people think
Of criticisms that architectural education is not equipping students with experience of interdisciplinary working, sustainable design or fire safety, he says that the RIBA has been pushing this agenda for some time, and that “most schools I know are addressing these issues”.
“I think schools [of architecture] are a lot more responsible than people think,” Singh says, noting that many critics of the current system are “not necessarily up to speed with what schools do”.
He also highlights the increasing use of live projects in architecture schools to develop collaborative working and exposure to the real-life challenges of construction. Each year Manchester School of Architecture’s graduate students engage with a range of groups, through MSA Live, to deliver small-scale structures such as “community kitchens and eco sheds” that have social impact and teach skills around client engagement and project management.
He points to moves within a number of architectural schools towards multidisciplinary working, in order to help students think outside of their architecture silo and treat other professions with respect. “There’s a bit of a culture shift happening with the younger generation,” he says.
Speaking of his own generation, Singh states that “we were taught to dislike the QS and the planner. But the world has moved on. It’s a trajectory we’ve been on for some time.
“There is only so much you can teach at university. Some of it you have to learn in practice. It’s education, it’s not training.”
Even so, Singh believes that Manchester is doing as much as it can to equip its students for the workplace. “Students do cost plans and carbon capture – they do a lot more stuff than some practices.”
The school also works closely with industry to ensure its graduates are highly employable. “It’s not just about architecture,” he says, but also about equipping the students with “skills for their working life… for life beyond graduation”.
Martyn Evans is creative director at LandsecU+I
Evans perceives a “conundrum” at the heart of the debate about the role of architects relating to how architects perceive themselves, and in turn how they are perceived by the wider industry. He believes the future shape of architectural education will play an important part in how architects choose to define their role.
Referencing the trail of unaccountability that led to the Grenfell tragedy, he ponders: “Where’s the responsibility? Nobody was clear whose responsibility it was.”
He notes that “people did die because of that” and believes the problem lines in “the system”, which “has to be put right”.
For Evans, architects face a simple choice. Do they want to accept their reduced status and role within construction, or is there a desire to address the crisis in industry and step up to fill the current accountability void.
Some are very savvy and can have a conversation about commercial viability. I’d like to see more architects understand development
He ponders why architects have lost responsibility within the industry. “Is it because they don’t want it? Or because industry doesn’t want to give it to them?”
He recognises that there is a significant mountain for architects to climb. “There’s a great lack of respect for architects from the developer community,” he says.
Evans perceives a “profound divergence between architects and developers as they get older”. He says that “when it’s bad, developers treat architects as just another line in the service providers”.
With a career that started as a creative in retail, working alongside Anita Roddick, Evans prides himself on “understanding” architects, but acknowledges that they are often perceived as “pie in the sky” thinkers by the rest of the industry.
By the same token, he believes that many architects “think developers are philistines”. He says he often found himself having to act as interpreter between the two groups, which led to growing frustration. “That lack of sympathy starts young,” he says.
He has made bridging the gap one of his key priorities. “I’d like to see people in my industry have more respect for architects and what they do.” In 2016, he established the Young Architects and Developers Alliance (YADA) to facilitate greater mutual understanding.
Evans teaches part-time at Manchester and the Bartlett, where he describes himself as providing “a real-world voice” for the architecture students. “I behave like a client. Some say it’s really useful. Some say I shouldn’t be doing it – it’s ‘stifling creativity’.”
He notes that qualifying as an architect takes a long time and is highly demanding. But he is also not the first to question what architects are actually learning. “What’s the seven years for? Is the quality of teaching delivering? It produces a lot of people who don’t seem to live in the real world.”
At the same time, he is very complimentary about what a good architect brings to the table. He thinks they are often undervalued and believes, at their best, they offer technical and regulatory responsibility and environmental expertise.
“Some are very savvy and can have a conversation about commercial viability. I’d like to see more architects understand development.”
For Evans there is also clearly a quid pro quo between what service architects are able to offer and the status and fees they can command. “Maybe it should be less onerous to qualify,” he says. “But, if it’s less onerous, you cannot expect [architects] to hold the same responsibility.”
He asks” “If you reduce the technical teaching, don’t you reduce the likelihood [that architects] will bear the responsibility for the technical work?”
He believes architects have the potential to redefine their role and status. “It’s about architects working harder in a trying economic environment to be better service providers and value creators.”
At the same time, he points out that, if the industry wants architects to take on a greater level of responsibility, then industry needs to treat them differently. “If architects are to be held to account as highly qualified technically, they need to be treated that way. We need to hand them responsibility.
“If you treat them as just one on a list of suppliers, they will not respond.”