Collaboration and Research are Key to the Survival of the Profession Picture 1

Ben Derbyshire's latest blog for Building Design

Architects must offer clients meaningful evidence - and the RIBA should be drawing it together, says Ben Derbyshire

This is the second of two pieces summarising the way I see the future for the architectural profession at the mid-point of my three-year term as an RIBA Councillor. I stood on a ticket promising to do what I could to support reform in the profession and the institute. The first concerned itself with the covenant between society and the profession.

Now I’ll look at the parallel requirement to establish a body of knowledge that the public and our clients might consider worth listening to – and paying for. I’ll consider the research and development, much of it collaborative in nature, that is going on in the profession and how the RIBA might make use of this substantive contribution from practitioners to advance the cause of architecture and architects as opposed to the often-flawed public relations that it derives from non-professional sources. I invoke the findings of thinkers such as Daniel Susskind, Paul Morrell and Frank Duffy to make the case that the institute should be encouraging and harnessing practice-based collaborative research instead.

Creating a body of knowledge

According to some commentators, such as Daniel and Richard Susskind in The Future of the Professions, for today’s practitioners to thrive they need to learn new skills, to gain a mastery of the data in their disciplines, to establish new working relationships with their machines, and to diversify. In an era of increasingly capable systems, the professions should survive and prosper because they bring value and benefits that no system or tool can.

So the challenge is to invest in IT, recognise that much of what we do will be made available by others for free and concentrate on combinations of collaboration at a high level that require human interaction and judgement based on experience.

But even this will not be enough, so it will also be necessary to build a body of knowledge based on sound evidence as a solid foundation for a new basis of trust between the professions and the public.

We must begin this now and, since we are confronting possibly 10 years of a government that believes in diminishing influence and is withdrawing from regulation, there are opportunities for us to offer a meaningful alternative to those sectors of society and commerce that demand these to deliver a fairer, more sustainable environment.

The conventional wisdom is that practitioners are too hard pressed to undertake R&D. It may be that the investment is low, but that does not mean there is none. My own experience is one of engagement with other organisations on research and innovation with a modest innovations budget of our own, maybe doubled with research commissions that come from our clients. I do not believe the RIBA could contribute to the research we are undertaking per se but I do think it has an important potential role helping to combine the impact of our work with others and that the agglomeration of such collaborative research could become significant.

Promoting a curious, creative, collaborative profession

I think most enlightened practices agree that pre-competitive collaboration is the key to learning and benchmarking. Much research is carried out among groups of practices, large and small. This entrepreneurial activity is a resource that could be beneficial and the RIBA could usefully engage with it.

Indeed it’s at the heart of the arguments I have been making about the institute’s strategy that it should channel co-ordinate, broker, celebrate and publish the research going on in the profession. The result would be an outward-facing and impressive edifice of innovative thinking by architects. While the government is in retreat from effective environmental policy, the professions should be on the front foot. I find this is an exciting idea which we should seize.

It is heartening that Jane Duncan has appointed Flora Samuel ambassador for research. This should be followed by an organisational response through the restructure following the departure of Harry Rich and the re-ordering of strategic priorities in the soon-to-be-published Leading Architecture 2, 2016-20.

Research should be at the heart of what the institute does and deserves a vice president and a budget of its own. It has cross-cutting implications so that the institute’s resources on development and fundraising, the libraries and collection, galleries and communications, membership and support would all be enriched. The key to this is collaboration: among practitioners, with other professional institutes and with academia.

There are two obvious priorities for research. Firstly, the prediction of performance of the built environment using parameters that are meaningful to our clients and the consumers of their buildings. And secondly, post-occupancy evaluation such that we have an opportunity of closing the notorious performance gap through feedback. Neither of these is straightforward and both require a consistency of approach across professions and among practitioners.

In my own field of housing design I have been promoting concepts such as “home performance labelling” and Building for Life as tools that designers can use in order to engage customers and the regulatory environment in choices that lead to improved quality and value.  The reaction of government has been to back away from legislating and to suggest it’s up to industry to come up with its own mechanisms. And so we should: collaborating with housebuilders rather than attacking them publicly for their perceived shortcomings.

The use, re-use and creation of knowledge

It could be argued that this approach – by contrast with the RIBA’s recent history of promoting propositions emanating from its policy and communications executive – would give rise to differences of opinion, to schools of thought with different consequences, to open dissent and argument, even. In my book, this would enrich the standing of the profession and the debate should be had openly so that when there is overwhelming consensus, for example on climate change, this clearly stands out.

As the Susskinds argue: “For today’s practitioners to thrive they will need to learn to take on new skills and competencies, to gain a mastery of the data in their disciplines, to establish new working relationships with their machines, and to diversify. We know… that knowledge can be used and re-used, and that new knowledge might be created in doing so. The professions ought to take advantage of this.”

These authors also agree with Paul Morrell in his book, Collaboration for Change, when they say: “Professions have much to learn from one another. Many have become increasingly introspective, driven into ever greater specialisation, so that practitioners within a given profession often have a limited view of the work and achievements of their own colleagues, still less of the activities and progress in other disciplines. The future of the professions is too important to be left in the hands of its members. Others, not least the recipients of professional service, have a stake and should be entitled to discussions of the future.”


In their recent Lorch paper, The Relevance of Professionalism for Architecture in the 21st Century, Frank Duffy and Andrew Rabeneck postulate three alternative futures:

“Plan A: Architects should embrace the role of the glamorous shape-makers, dress the part and live the life…

Plan B: Architects have no choice but to surrender to the continuing domination of our field by free-market forces…

Plan C: Architects, working together with our professional collaborators, could develop and take further the precedent of the best and most idealistic aspects of… model of professional action for the public good. We would use science to improve the quality of designs through the measurement of results, good and not so good. We could win work…. by demonstrably designing better buildings.”

I have quoted Duffy and Rabaneck’s Plan C more fully because that’s where I believe the future lies. I am inspired by this vision and I believe it is the one we should pursue. And I would only add – while wholeheartedly endorsing that architects need to work with other disciplines to build a shared body of knowledge about how to create and maintain better buildings – that they should do so in relation to both buildings and the spaces between buildings.

And it’s not just about the performance of inanimate structures, it is about how these are animated by human existence.

HTA’s founding partner, Bernard Hunt, is quoted in Wikipedia: “We have theories, specialisms, regulations, exhortations, demonstration projects. We have planners. We have highway engineers. We have mixed-use, mixed-tenure, architecture, community architecture, urban design, neighbourhood strategy. But what seems to have happened is that we have simply lost the art of placemaking; or, put another way, we have lost the simple art of placemaking. We are good at putting up buildings but we are bad at making places.”


Thanks to Robin Nicholson and Flora Samuel for their comments and contributions.