Stephen Drew on why he believes Chris Williamson is best placed to help the RIBA keep pace with a rapidly changing professional landscape

Stephen Drew - crop

Stephen Drew

I’ll be honest, I am not the best writer. Back when I was a Part II student at Manchester School of Architecture, my dissertation was my lowest mark in the final year. If I remember correctly, the feedback was that I wrote passionately but meandered around the point. Well, there is no time for time for the scenic route here, so I’ll get straight to the point with my clunky words: the world around the architecture profession has changed rapidly, yet the RIBA is not moving fast enough to keep up.

And before you say, “Hey Steve! Why should I listen to you?” You don’t have to, of course. But I speak to professionals and students on a daily basis at the Architecture Social and also joined the RIBA Council to try and make a difference – and in my experience, it was really hard to get any cogs turning at all.

The RIBA is often held in high regard by the public as leading the charge in our industry, as the pinnacle of British architecture. Yet so many within the industry have become frustrated, bitter or apathetic with the RIBA – and for good reason. Most people I’ve spoken to don’t feel that it represents them anymore.

As far as I see it, the three main demographics that are overlooked and feel disenfranchised with the institution are: students, architects who work in industry as employees, as well as entrepreneurs who are setting up an architecture practice and are in the first few years of getting it going.

Let’s start with the first group, the students of architecture. Back when I was studying, I remember news spread around the campus as the RIBA president at the time was visiting. When they arrived, the president came galloping in and opened their speech by asking, “How many languages do you speak?” before looking around the room for people to raise their hand or shout out a response. “Two!” someone said, to which the president quipped, “Two…? An architect should speak at least THREE languages!”

Really? I’m Welsh, and can barely speak English correctly. We have got to stop putting piles and piles of barriers and requirements in front of enthusiastic undergraduates about to enter the profession, or else they will find another industry. Talent should be nurtured, as Chris says.

Nowadays, on top of the arduous course and expectations, let’s take a minute to talk about the costs. We all know it takes close to seven years to qualify as an architect. No longer is it £1.5k a year to study architecture – today, a typical year costs between £9k and £18k for tuition, depending on whether you’re born in the UK or are an international student. And that’s without the cost of a roof over your head, food and laptops etc. (You can forget that rotring board - too expensive!)

He’s been the student, the employee and a practice owner, who has seen that journey at all scales

Now that you’ve qualified and have somewhere between £70-90k of debt, most architects understandably turn their focus to their salaries. In London, a typical newly qualified architect may be on somewhere between £36k to £40k. If they’re at the higher end, they’re one of the lucky ones. So, it’s not surprising that after spending time out for a dinner maybe (if you can afford it), learning how much one of your friends in sales earns, that’s quite frustrating.

How do we increase the salaries? It always goes back to fees. How do we increase fees? Our best bet is to have someone at the helm who has won and lost many projects, and understands procurement and how we can begin to turn it around from the top down.

And finally, the last group – those entrepreneurial architects who are trying to get their new practice off the ground. There is so much to tackle. As well as making sure you are designing awesome projects and making them compliant, you have to be your own marketeer, business developer, HR department, recruiter, and more, in your own business.

When I was on RIBA council, there was talk of “Practice in a Box.” However, when I look at the idea now, it seems that you get a bunch of HR software demos, introductions to accountants and discount codes. Chris has been candid that the RIBA’s inclusion of him in their 40 under 40’s list put his name on the map and helped grow Weston Williamson into the practice it is today.

This is the kind of help that the RIBA need to be getting back to – not offering a 35% discount to post a job on the already overpriced and debatably redundant RIBA Jobs directory at £375 a pop, even though you can do it for free here, here, and here.

In the last election, I supported Muyiwa Oki in his election campaign. I am thrilled he made it to office. Chris and Muyiwa are two very different people. Yes, Chris runs his own practice, which is a commercial success. Yes, Chris graduated in 1980 and qualified in a different time within architecture. However, that’s the point. He’s been the student, the employee and a practice owner, who has seen that journey at all scales.

Chris isn’t pretending to be a worker, or that things haven’t changed. However, he is empathetic to young graduates, architects and those that are brave enough to set up new businesses and is already listening. He is someone that we can hold accountable – and I am confident he will hold the RIBA accountable too.