Sweeping changes are on the way but there are some fundamental questions about how, and indeed whether, the new competence regime will work, writes Eleanor Jolliffe

Eleanor Jolliffe

Re-accreditation. It’s the sort of thing you wish wasn’t necessary, that shouldn’t need to be necessary – but apparently is.

Competence is a virtue my Dad holds in high esteem. It’s what he would always ask us to aim for when we were children, a general competence in life being “all” he asks my sister and me to achieve. It doesn’t sound glamorous; to be called competent should surely be a minimum requirement. Being called competent feels about exciting as being called nice, or sensible or reliable – barely one half step from dull.

Future of the Profession

And yet.

Actually being competent seems to take quite a lot of diligence, perseverance, patience, and all those nouns that are almost as glamorous and exciting as those adjectives in the previous paragraph. Competent is worthy, slightly dull and yet entirely vital.

The Hackitt report, the Grenfell fire, the Edinburgh PFI schools inquiry – they all call the basic competence of the construction industry and its associated professions into doubt. Could it be that we as a profession are barely competent? Surely not? We can all look around us and see spectacular, diligent, competent people.

And yet.

We all know of friends asked to work while being put on furlough; of immoral employment practices propping up essentially failing firms; of architects doing the bare minimum. In the last six months alone I have read a pre-publication text on construction by an “expert” displaying so little understanding of basic legislation that it recommended illegal action; groaned inwardly at the reports of part II students in the FAF (Future Architects Front) letter; and heard from a part III examiner that in far too many cases they are having to be very careful not to fail individuals on the basis of the poor practice they are exposed to by their offices, rather than on the poor judgement of the candidate themselves.

It’s almost as if we don’t believe we are crafting the very housing of people’s lives, as if the residents and users of the buildings we are drawing are simply statistics or human outlines in a bay study. I would hope this is not the majority of architects or practices – but too many of us know of them.

The Arb is likely to be given powers under the new Building Safety Bill to monitor the competence of those on the register of architects, and to remove those who fail to display it. Like every other architect on that register I received an email towards the end of last month inviting me to read the new safety and sustainability guidelines. I must admit they sat unread for a while but I have now gone through them. I applaud the intent, but they are so broad as to be almost meaningless and there is, as yet, no indication of how the Arb will police them.

I suppose if it is basic competence we are aiming for, such statements as, “You should be able to design buildings with appropriately safe means of escape” are as aspirational as is necessary; but I do find it profoundly depressing that the Arb feels such a statement might be in question or need policing.

Other statements such as, “You should understand the qualities of products you specify in respect of fire performance, and record how they will perform as part of a construction system” send a chill through me. I, like most, rely on the data given by manufacturers and the reporting of the Grenfell inquiry suggests this may not always be as trustworthy and straightforward as one would imagine. Does this statement reach further than asking us to trust a manufacturer when they say a partition gives a 60-minute fire performance? Does it ask us to fully understand the properties of all component parts and materials, the intricacies and slights of test reports, and understand the (usually untested) interfaces with other products? Sadly there are no further elaborations given, so for now this remains unanswered.

If the Arb cannot clearly define the essential elements of the competence it outlines, how can it be policed?

The Arb also clearly states that it “does not recommend any particular learning route or resource” which is a daunting dead-end for any architect worried about their level of competence and looking to up-skill. It does provide a list of links to some non-recommended sources on its website, but no curricula as such. If it cannot clearly define the essential elements of the competence it outlines, how can it be policed?

If the Arb’s guidelines are broad and a little vague at times the RIBA’s are timelined and frameworked into a pleasing graphic that announces “a new model for career-long learning”. I am a chartered RIBA member and I now know that I will be tested on health and safety knowledge (relative to my level of expertise and specialism) next year. The day before filing this piece I was emailed a pilot health and safety test and the outlines of a curriculum in three almost dauntingly broad ‘knowledge schedules’, though I have yet to take this test or purchase the RIBA’s revision guides. I would like to believe I am a competent professional and should not struggle with the “minimum” standard the RIBA expects, but I may have to come back to you on this one.

I know it is early days yet for both bodies and that content is still emerging, but if this really is what the RIBA terms the “biggest shake-up since 1958” architects need more clarity and purpose of leadership than the Arb has yet shown. The RIBA’s efforts, at a first glance seem comprehensive, assuming they are well policed, but this is a voluntary membership rather than a statutory one and accounts for just short of 70% of architects; and it is the Arb who ultimately police the use of the title ‘architect’.

As for those coming through the education system – the structure of which the Arb has said is under review – will they find themselves essentially under-skilled (as defined by the Arb) at the end of their ruinously expensive seven years of study?

We are in uncharted territory. I am generally in favour of higher expectations of competence and lifelong learning, though I am no keener on exams than the next person. If regular re-accreditation lifts us to the level of minimum competence then perhaps we should embrace it as the quality indicator it aims to be. If we are all as good at our jobs as we tell people we are, we shouldn’t need to worry about the tests, should we?

For now I am cautiously welcoming (in a resigned, yet-another-box-to-tick sense) of the policing of minimum standards. However, I am reserving judgement.

The point at which this becomes worthwhile is when the curriculum is robust, reasonable, regularly updated and properly policed by a body without a vested or existential interest in the outcomes. And that might be one step further than either the Arb or the RIBA are willing to take it.