Ben Derbyshire Interview by Elizabeth Hopkirk, Building Picture 1 Ben Derbyshire Interview by Elizabeth Hopkirk, Building Picture 2

‘Change is necessary’

RIBA president-elect Ben Derbyshire is sure of one thing: the 182-year-old institute can’t go on the way it has done. So he’s embarking on a UK tour to try to stir up non-engaged members and convince them that turning the RIBA on its head is the best plan for its survival.

The architect, chairman of housing specialist HTA Design, has been outlining ambitious plans for his two-year presidency and for the 12 months when he is officially “in waiting” while current president Jane Duncan (who also went round the country as president-elect) completes her term.

Derbyshire wants to be invited to visit practices across the country so he can recruit them to his Big Idea, of which more later. This is no low-key tour, though. The meetings will be filmed and documented and posted on his relaunched campaign website,, he says, so it becomes a tool for engagement.

Engagement is a real challenge for the RIBA. Only 15% of members bothered to vote in this election, one of the lowest turnouts yet.

So, how can Derbyshire increase participation among the organisation’s silent majority of members? And will he be able to build the political alliances and relationships he will need to influence government policy, reform the RIBA and help the architectural profession weather the challenges of Brexit and a shrinking construction economy?

Preaching to the unconverted

“I have to acknowledge the 85% [of RIBA members] who didn’t vote,” says Derbyshire, sitting relaxed and yet earnestly engaged in HTA’s Camden office in North London. “Ironically, I regard them as my constituency. They are the reason I am doing this. Absolutely. It sums up everything that is required to be done, that the small exercise of opening an email and clicking is regarded by the electorate as being not worth the time and energy because – presumably – they don’t think it will make any difference to the RIBA or to them.”

Derbyshire, 63, shared this feeling until about five years ago. He traces his awakening interest in the institute to a debate held by the Architecture Club when he was roped in with no notice to support the motion: “This house believes architecture has lost its way”. That started him thinking about the RIBA – “that it hadn’t for many years really represented what I do and why I want to do it” – an exercise he then developed through a series of pieces for Building.

The RIBA’s deficiencies were one problem. The other was the difficulty of doing a good job as a professional in a rapidly changing world “with adequate remuneration and recognition”. So he ran for RIBA council on a ticket of change and two years after that he ran for president on the same platform.

It’s a position his late father, the architect Sir Andrew Derbyshire, a former chairman of RMJM, stood for. Is Derbyshire junior fulfilling unfinished family business? He sighs. “This is something that has been a thing for me from the start,” he says. “People asking, ‘Are you Andrew Derbyshire’s son?’ I have assiduously ploughed my own furrow and completely kept separation throughout. It was always important to him and me.” He is not doing this for his father, who died in March aged 92, but for the profession, he says, adding: “He did know I was running and he was pleased.” Did he give his son any advice? “Make friends.”

This is not a problem for Derbyshire, a consummate networker who is “constantly tweeting” housing minister Gavin Barwell. He is an effective presence on the boards of countless trusts and societies – he is proud that he doubled membership of the Housing Forum during his three years there – and is a familiar face at construction industry events.

Robin Nicholson, a senior partner at Cullinan Studio who has known him for years, and his father before him, says: “Ben has always been confident, competent, energetic. The RIBA is jolly lucky to have him.

“The big challenge is, can he make the right alliances with other institutions in order to affect government policy. That means not just affecting policy from an architect’s, or a surveyor’s, point of view but helping government find solutions to very varied problems. Ben is in a good position to do that. He knows his way round the housing industry extremely well. I am very optimistic.”

Building collaboration

Derbyshire is big on collaboration, starting with his own practice which frequently works with other architects. “A lot of people are fearful of my approach to collaboration but it isn’t about abdicating our position,” he says. “It requires leadership, authority, real competence and a willingness to engage. All of the real talents I have worked with demonstrated the ability to modify their approach and design until the answer was right.”

A lot of architects are not in right relationship with constructors or clients and I hear a lot of distressing stuff about architects adding cost

Surrounded by project models in the HTA boardroom, he says he particularly relishes the prospect of collaborating with the CIOB. “I hugely respect builders and hugely enjoy the process of building,” he says, “and one of the things we need to do together is to present the career of building so people understand what a terrific thing it is to be able to do.”

This is particularly important in the light of Brexit and the likely need to train up more home-grown workers rather than relying on EU labour.

He also intends to continue the work begun by Duncan’s predecessor, Stephen Hodder, on engaging with clients. A key aim for his presidency is for the RIBA to become a repository of post-occupancy evaluation so architects can present clients with evidence of what works – and encourage them to fund more of this research for the good of the industry.

“This way we’ll claw our way back up the value chain,” he says. “The thing we have to work on is where architecture and design have slid down the supply chain in influence, authority and remuneration.

“When architects get themselves into right relationships, they deservedly enjoy great respect but a lot of architects are not in right relationship with constructors or clients and I hear a lot of distressing stuff about architects adding cost. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what design means. That’s where we need to work.”

The way he intends to do this is by enlisting that disgruntled RIBA membership, and here we are back to his Big Idea. “The best way to achieve the RIBA’s purpose of advancing architecture is through the activities of architects themselves because they are ingenious, innovative, clever and produce beautiful outcomes, and they do it all over the place very successfully,” he says.

Ringing the changes

He wants to turn the centralised institute on its head so that instead of expecting its members to support initiatives emanating from Portland Place, the energy flows the other way.

Architects are already heavily involved in their communities, curating exhibitions, running consultations, charrettes, awards. That activity is what the RIBA should be promoting, he says, rather than trying to “capture the single essence of what architecture does for society” from some ivory tower.

This is the point of his UK tour. “I want to meet architects wherever and however they practice and talk to them about the ways in which they want to contribute to advancing architecture in their marketplace,” he says.

This tour – which he expects to be a barnstormer compared with the regional hustings which attracted barely 30 people each – will enable him to start his presidency in September 2017 with a “much richer exposure” to what he calls the architectural diaspora.

He believes this engagement will also help build membership.

The other constituency he will need to get onside are the RIBA’s own staff. Hodder, who describes Derbyshire as a plain speaker who invites plain speaking in response, says some in Portland Place are “alarmed” by the scale of change he is proposing and suggests “what is needed is a period of stability and continuity”.

Derbyshire says he understands their anxiety but is confident he can reassure staff while spearheading the reforms he was elected to implement. His job will be made much easier by the imminent appointment of a new chief executive, a process he will be involved in – initially reviewing the shortlist while on holiday at the family cottage in Suffolk – and which he describes as a “brilliant opportunity”.

“Change is necessary because of external factors,” he says. “Brexit, possible recession, architects needing to restructure – the external environment is signalling change. I want to match that with an internal energy.”

Brexit has dramatically altered the landscape since the presidential race began. Hodder thinks it could be the defining issue for Derbyshire’s presidency. “It’s something that wouldn’t have been on his agenda but he will have to think long and hard about it and how we’re going to support our members if it causes problems,” he says.

That Derbyshire has weathered a few recessions will help. He also thinks the federal network he is planning for the RIBA will be a useful model.

“We can do that globally as well as nationally,” he says, “with the UK as a global hub for excellence in the built environment.” It would be a two-way exchange of talent and creativity that could turbo-charge the economy, he believes.

He says the global hub idea, which is of course already happening and over which Brexit now looms, needs to be sold to ministers as akin to the way the Big Bang turned London into a global financial centre in the 1980s. “We need to bend policy towards it and encourage the UKTI to embrace it,” he says.

Derbyshire is sensible enough to realise that what he’s talking about can’t be achieved in one presidency and sees himself as part of a continuum. Nonetheless, some major restructuring is on the horizon.

A Life in Brief

Childhood ambition: Architect. He briefly toyed with the certainty of engineering before the social purpose of architecture won out.

Personal life: Married for the second time five years ago to Dr Jane McNeill, an NHS psychologist. They have five children between them. In his spare time – “what spare time?” – he relaxes with his family at their cottage in Suffolk.

Professional life: Chairman of HTA Design, a practice he joined in 1976. Has oversight of its regeneration, masterplanning, housing and mixed-use work, including the redevelopment of the Aylesbury Estate in south-east London where Tony Blair made his first speech as prime minister. RIBA council member since 2014. Appointed non-executive director of RIBA Enterprises this year. Board member of Design for Homes. Trustee of the London Society. Chairman of the Housing Forum until March this year.

Brexit – how is it for you? “Our order book has never been fuller. We are extremely busy. However, we do detect a softening of the market. We don’t expect to lose staff – in fact we are recruiting. It may sound arrogant but we don’t need to mitigate the effects because it’s a question of what we turn down.” He predicts foreign-funded build-to-rent schemes and intermediate housing will be growth areas in housing.

Favourite book: “You won’t ask me about my favourite book or film, will you? I can’t bear questions like that because life’s not like that.”

This article first appeared in Building on 9th September 2016. 

Photo credit: Tom Campbell