As the RIBA begins its hunt for a new chief executive, Ben Derbyshir...">

Ethical Professionalism. Picture 1

The opportunity of diminishing state intervention.

As the RIBA begins its hunt for a new chief executive, Ben Derbyshire assesses the future of the profession at a critical point in its history

This is the first of two pieces on how I see the future for the architectural profession at the mid-point of my three-year term as an RIBA Councillor. I stood as a national candidate with a personal statement predicated on doing what I could to support reform in the profession and the institute.

The first piece concerns itself with the cornerstone of the bargain between society and the profession; an ethical code enabling the public and our clients to trust us and our judgements and entitling us to be heard above others who do not claim to profess such standards. The second concerns the parallel requirement to establish a body of knowledge that the public and our clients might consider worth listening to and, just as significant, paying for.

I will acknowledge the declining fortunes of our profession and warn of the risks to the institute if its raison d’être is eroded and its market share of subscribers drops below a critical level. I place this in the context of the existential threat to all professions from advances in information technology and artificial intelligence. I postulate a new covenant between architects, our clients and society and suggest that the code of behaviour to be adopted by architects claiming the protection of the Royal Charter needs to be of a much higher standard than is presently understood. I set out some ideas as to what this standard might be, acknowledging that it will not be easy for practising architects to achieve the transition – a challenge for the institute and an opportunity for RIBA Enterprises to offer support for smaller firms in particular.

Waning influence

Over the last few decades the architect’s influence on the construction process has waned.  There was a time when the civil service had a chief architect and most cities had their own architects’ departments – no more. Meanwhile our financial standing has collapsed by comparison with other professions – the average salary for mid-ranking architects is £40,000 in 2015. Jane Duncan, our current president, says she agrees with a barrister who asked her how the profession expects to be taken seriously by the business world when we charge “such ridiculously low fees”.

According to Richard and Daniel Susskind in their The Future of the Professions: “Our main claim is that we are on the brink of a period of fundamental change in the way that the expertise of … (professional)… specialists is made available to society. Technology will be the main driver of this change. And, in the long run, we will neither need nor want professionals to work in the way that they did in the 20th century and before.”

Re-defining the covenant

So it’s encouraging to see that the RIBA’s own research, commissioned by immediate past president Stephen Hodder, concludes that clients actually want the architect to take on a leadership role, a finding that offers the opportunity to demonstrate the profession’s contribution to delivering quality outcomes for the client, for society and for the profession.

Others argue that the industry’s over-emphasis on meeting the, very often monetary, interest of clients, enshrined in the fundamentally neo-liberal Egan report has meant that we have lost touch with the needs of broader society. The traditional status of the professions, based on anachronistic values of trust and respect as part of a class system, has broken down. The democratisation of knowledge through the internet and other sources means that our profession, more than ever, has to justify its claims to high-level knowledge and judgement. But while our arguably undeserved status has evaporated we have failed to replace it with anything of adequate value that works in the information age, when reputations travel, are made and destroyed in the digital media. We live in an era where value can be found by using knowledge and information to meet the huge challenges that confront us in the creation, maintenance and recycling of the built environment.

So, if the pillars of professionalism going forward are problem-solving skills, subject-specific knowledge and ethics, it’s going to be vitally important to work with those who are thinking about and shaping the future, facilitating new ways of working, researching, innovating and exchanging knowledge; generating intelligence on trends, client needs and business effectiveness and supporting relevant architectural education. And where to turn for support in this effort? Surely the RIBA, with a membership of 27,000 architects, a turnover of £20 million a year, a great international brand and some amazingly high-profile PR such as the Stirling Prize, must be the obvious choice.

The Royal Charter

The RIBA’s Royal Charter sets out the purpose for which it was established in 1834 and describes the benefits that architecture brings. It establishes:

“…an institution for the general advancement of civil architecture, and for promoting and facilitating the acquirement of the knowledge of the various arts and sciences connected therewith; it being an art esteemed and encouraged in all enlightened nations, as tending greatly to promote the domestic convenience of citizens, and the public improvement and embellishment of towns and cities; … [the founders] have formed a collection of books and works of art; and have established a correspondence with learned and scientific men in foreign countries, for the purpose of inquiry and information …”

The institute has recently restated these objectives in contemporary terms, in the headlines of its strategy for the next five years:

“The RIBA’s vision is for a global professional membership body driving excellence in architecture and its purpose is to serve members and society in order to deliver better buildings, stronger communities and a sustainable environment.”

Clarity is needed

It’s therefore imperative that the RIBA should review, clarify and reinforce the covenant between architects and society and do whatever possible to remove the present confusion that exists in this area. Such confusion was evident, for example, when the inadequately briefed journalist Sarah Montague levelled accusations in a BBC interview (for which she subsequently apologised) with Zaha Hadid who had just been awarded the Royal Gold Medal that she was allegedly responsible for deaths of migrant workers and that she was “scary” to work with.  It’s obviously not a good sign that the default position of the nation’s flagship news programme is an assumption that the recipient of the RIBA’s premium award is actually corrupt!

It might be argued that the profession’s obsession with “starchitecture” is an ethical problem in itself. While Zaha Hadid’s work may have extraordinary cultural significance, its value at a social and environmental level is debated by some who question whether it is right to build high-profile cultural buildings in countries where so many live in poverty and deprivation. It is suggested that such high-profile cases reaffirm the perception that architects do not take the ethics of their role seriously enough.

My own belief is that the RIBA’s purpose is to advance a diverse architecture and profession of all kinds and callings – provided practice follows an overarching code concerning which much greater clarity and more compelling promotion is needed. Undoubtedly, architects need to offer more than simply professional propriety masquerading as an ethical position, which, to quote professor Jeremy Till, “even my hairdresser could meet”.

Of course, there are inevitable questions of definition and clarification that precede any useful discussion.

How do you define the public interest? Is it even possible, or would this simply lead to inevitable unintended consequences? To what extent can different political viewpoints be accommodated within the same ethical code? Is it relevant or right to attempt to impose behaviours based on an ethical position in circumstances that are beyond the political or practical reach of the institutions concerned? What do you do when your principles point one way and a client’s needs or wants point another? Has any member of a professional institution ever been sanctioned for failing to put the public interest above their own needs or those of their client? What does it mean when so many new chartered members come from countries where corruption in the construction industry is well known and rife? Should the RIBA be validating schools of architecture in countries where high levels of ethical conduct are not a priority?

Re-stating ethical professionalism

It seems to me that the particular issues requiring clarification are our duty to the environment, to act with probity (especially in foreign markets) and not to infringe human rights in the way we design and deliver services. And one would have thought that our proficiency in Construction Design Management (CDM) here in the UK can show the world the way in construction workers’ health and safety. The Edge Commission recommendations on ethics and the public interest should be followed, namely to:

• Develop a national code of conduct/ethics across the built environment professions, building on shared experience in the UK and internationally.

• Make clear the procedures for complaint and the institution’s sanctioning process, details of members who have been sanctioned, and the grounds for doing so.

Future requirements might include:

• Engagement with the public in their work – both on project and to communicate benefits and value in lay terms.

• Integration with the means of production – design that starts with an understanding of construction process.

• Commitment to measurable building performance – both prediction and post-occupancy evaluation.

• Involvement in education – recognising life-long learning and the dearth of “learn as you earn” opportunities.

• Sustainability – an obligation to point out the relative costs and benefits of appropriate measures to clients.

• Collaborative research – working with others and communicating new ways of practice and means of production.

• A declaration of high-level principles – recognising the diversity of roles, forms of practice and political affiliations that legitimately co-exist within any ethical framework.

The consequences

The RIBA’s code of conduct calls for honesty, integrity and competency, as well as concern for others and for the environment. However, the code of the Royal Town Planning Institute calls for members to “fearlessly and impartially exercise their independent professional judgement” and the code adopted by the Institute for Civil Engineers, calls on its members to “always be aware of their overriding responsibility to the public good”.  If the institutions were to follow Paul Morrell’s suggestion and align these disparate definitions, it would surely strengthen the relationship between society and the professions. At present the ICE Civil Engineering Ethics toolkit “Say No!” stands apart as a beacon of clarity.

I would have thought that the question of what constitutes “public good” does require more careful thought. The professional institutes, including the RIBA, would do well to avoid the mistake of attempting to stretch beyond their political legitimacy and reach. While the institute delivers its outreach message it should not forget that, as a membership organisation, it must also fulfil its purpose of serving its members and society, both of which, naturally enough, include the full range of political perspectives.

We must remember that the RIBA Council chamber is neither the House of Commons, nor the United Nations Assembly. Our purpose there is to act as trustees to deliver our charter.  I wrote recently to a past president of the RIBA with a reminder that, while many (me included) criticise the current Housing & Planning Bill for its apparent lack of concern for the urban poor, not everyone believes that public money should be used to subsidise families to live in areas they could not otherwise afford to.

And professional institutes have only so much clout. I am reminded of the contradiction of London boroughs who would put up signs around their boundaries welcoming visitors to a “nuclear-free zone”, even as flasks of radioactive waste trundled daily across their borders.  Instead and so as best to avoid such hubris, I believe our response should be well researched, expert, technical in nature, referenced and generally supportive of the provisions of the charter to advance the profession of architecture in using our body of knowledge in supplying policy makers, the public and our clients with feedback on the implications of decisions affecting the built environment.

In my next blog, I will turn to the research that is needed for the professions to build up such a convincing body of knowledge and to the role of both the institute, and its subsidiary, RIBA Enterprises, in stimulating its creation and dissemination.

Ben Derbyshire is Managing Partner at HTA Design LLP and an RIBA Councillor. He also chairs The Housing Forum.

This article first appeared on Building Design on 16.02.16.


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