This is going to hurt but without radical reform architecture is doomed, writes Ben Flatman

Ben Flatman

Architects are underpaid and marginalised. Here are my suggestions on how to turn the profession around and make it fit for the future.

1. Reform education – and don’t stop

After centuries of evolution as a skilled trade, the 1958 Oxford Conference decided that architectural education would henceforth be an intellectual pursuit carried out within a university environment. But architecture is not an academic discipline. To give it credibility within the universities, the professional academics who came to dominate teaching had to detach architecture from its origins within construction. The results have been catastrophic, contributing to reduced access for the less well-off; the ceding of expertise and leadership to others, and setting architects on their path towards marginalisation.

Future of the Profession

Decades of complacency have left most of the schools of architecture hopelessly adrift from the needs of students and the profession. We may not need to break the links with universities entirely, but we do need to rethink them, radically. Change is occurring, albeit slowly. New institutions like the London School of Architecture have challenged the old model and sought to take education back into the workplace. And David Gloster at the RIBA has been valiantly pushing the reform agenda for years, although constantly battling against the prevailing inertia and vested interests of the schools of architecture.

Construction technology, regulation, BIM and business skills must all be embedded in education. But reform shouldn’t just be something we attempt once or twice in a century. It must be on-going, embracing change, and constantly seeking to ensure that education remains relevant to new economic, environmental and social realities. Moreover, it needs to empower students to pursue a multiplicity of routes into the profession.

2. New routes to registration

To remain relevant, the profession must open itself up to the best and most diverse talent available, not least those from the working-class backgrounds and left-behind places that architecture rarely reaches. The profession needs to work harder to broaden its appeal and urgently address the increasing unaffordability of an architectural education. We could start by enthusiastically embracing alternative pathways to registration, such as apprenticeships and part-time courses.

A particular bugbear of mine is the way that the UK profession doesn’t provide a route for graduates from other disciplines to “convert” to architecture. The legal profession covets the knowledge and expertise of those who’ve worked in other sectors and welcomes them with open arms. Even medicine has created fast-tracked courses for those making a mid-career switch. But architecture slams the door in the face of such talent.

Reform shouldn’t just be something we attempt once or twice in a century

We should follow the United States, where any student can convert to architecture at postgraduate level, through a 3-year MArch course. This also makes it much easier for mid-career professionals to transition into architecture. By closing down these routes, the UK profession cuts itself off from a wealth of talent and experience.

3. Training contracts

Most young doctors and lawyers would never accept the haphazard and unstructured introduction to the world of work that many architects encounter. While a lucky few will chance upon a helpful mentor, or have the self-knowledge and the force of will to demand the experience they need, too many young architects are left to flounder.

Graduates need structured exposure to different aspects of the job as they build their careers. Properly resourced graduate trainee contracts, with clear obligations on employer and employee, would set expectations high and help avoid the disillusionment that afflicts many young architects as youthful enthusiasm fades into “what have I done with my life” despair.

4. Specialisation

Another area where we’ve failed to learn the lessons of other professions is in the need for greater specialisation. Construction is becoming ever more complex and the current “jack of all trades” model is no longer tenable. We should embrace specialisation and offer distinct paths for general practitioners and specialist consultants. Our failure to recognise the need for distinct and formalised specialisms, with divergent training and perhaps even professional accreditation, has hindered our ability to compete and win the confidence of clients.

The inevitable consequence has been that chartered surveyors, planners, and project managers, have happily laid claim to areas of responsibility that were once ours. A generalist track should remain, but architects should be able to specialise in areas such as environmental design, creative re-use or conservation from a much earlier stage.

5. Scrap RIBA and embrace Arb

Despite the hard work of some its staff, RIBA isn’t really working for anyone. It’s not a trade union standing up for its salaried members and it’s not an effective trade body representing the interests of architectural practices. In fact, it’s increasingly hard to say what it’s for. The forcing out of Sir Nigel Carrington as chair of the Board of Trustees last year typified RIBA’s insularity and increasing irrelevance. The profession needs a new representative body that will lobby hard for its commercial interests within industry and government, not a hamstrung charity-cum-learned institute. RIBA should be left to focus on its archives, exhibitions, and internal disfunction.

Arb meanwhile is arguably often unfairly maligned. While it has its faults (such as foot dragging on new routes to registration), its basic role and function should be embraced. We should stop whingeing and recognise that having an independent regulator is seen by most as a sign of a mature and respected profession. Our inability to come to terms with Arb, even though it was we architects who requested its creation in the first place, shows how far we still have to travel. Just accept it and move on.

6. Trade unions

Architects running their own practices complain about low fees and salaried architects complain about low pay. It all boils down to architects selling themselves short. Nobody’s best interests are served by a profession in which we regularly undercharge for our services and undercut each other in a race to the bottom. Having a properly paid, unionised workforce would require practices to charge for the true value of their work, rather than squeezing out meagre profits by underpaying their staff. It might sound like going back to the future but ultimately the entire profession would benefit. So take those wasted RIBA subscriptions and join a trade union instead.