23 July 2011

‘Tough Times’ Student Forum

The RIBA’s ‘Tough Times’ student forum (21st June 2011), held at its Portland Place Headquarters in London, was an attempt to gather the opinion of students about the issues they are currently facing. 26 students attended the event, representing architecture schools from across the country, and although not every school was represented 6 main themes (highlighted by the post-even report prepared by Laura Broderick, Special Projects Co-ordinator, RIBA) were common concerns: finding a job, the cost of course related materials, relationship between practice and academia, low salaries, high tuition fees, and employability skills. Also present were the 6 external speakers, the RIBA President Ruth Reed, President Elect Angela Brady, RIBA student reps, the chair of Archaos and journalists from both The Architect’s Journal and Building Design.

Niall McLaughlin, Principal of Niall McLaughlin Architects and a visiting professor at UCL, chaired the forum and began with his own personal story – his father, a chartered accountant, discouraged him form a career in architecture as he believed that as a profession it was low-paid, ‘weak’ and struggled to define what it does and they value it adds. Now running his own successful practice Niall sees architects as “synthesisers” and that this is their unique selling point.  He also drew on his experience in academia, referring to the acronym ‘PTT’ (Portfolio That Thick!) with students under pressure to produce copious amounts of work and that there was a gap in expectations between graduates – who want experience on site – and practices – who want ‘CAD monkeys’ or read-made technicians.

Following the introduction Laura Broderick and Joanna Parry, RIBA Professional Education Manager, gave a presentation on recent RIBA initiatives designed to further understand and improve students professional experience: RIBA Student Destinations Survey, ‘Part of the Picture’ case study project, and changes to practical experience rules. Of particular interest is the new RIBA Appointments project called 'Part of the Picture' that attempts to demonstrate graduate value. The case studies show a sample of architectural assistants working in practice today. They highlight the contribution young professionals make to the successful delivery of architectural projects, small and large.

A panel discussion about the culture of architectural practice brought together Dale Sinclair, Dr Rachel Smart and Chris Hildrey. After an opportunity for each panellist to share his/her perspective on the culture of architectural practice discussions moved onto the importance of BIM. Instigated by Dale Sinclair, an architect with the global architectural firm Dyer and chair of RIBA Large Practice Group, he told students that “We know you can design but how are you going to deliver?” He said that students need to understand processes more and that BIM begins to question the status of the architect. Dr Rachel Smart, a management consultant educated as a designer, said that students “need to show imitative” and to “open [their] minds to what it means to be a professional architect”. Agreeing with Dale Sinclair she stressed the importance of understanding the architectural process and that students shouldn't “wait until your Part 3” to start doing this. She added that “Architects are problem solvers” and students should “use [their] design skills to tackle business and processes”. Students should also show an awareness of contract administration and management because architecture is a “synergy” of design and excellence in business. Chris Hildrey, a post Part 2 Architectural Assistant at Jestico + Whiles who is currently undertaking a piece of post-grad research at the Bartlett tracing the causes of unpaid overtime within architecture, spoke about the deficit of the cost of producing architecture and its value to/on the market. He said that as technology and systems advance different services are split apart, shrinking the remit of architects. In the past fees covered these ‘other things’ (an architect would ‘make back’ lost fee from the value-added process at the beginning of projects through drawing production information), but now architects are “just left with design”. In Chris’s opinion we now have ‘architects of systems’, with a focus on the construction side of the process and how can we design these systems. He closed by saying that the education system currently allows you to leave and become a ‘designer’ or become an ‘architect’.

The next session was focused on policy, pay and conditions, with Ruth Reed giving a presentation that aimed to provide attendees with a better understanding of the national policy context; hear what is happening at a government level with internships and student fees, and what the RIBA is saying to decision-makers. Ruth Reed explained that it now costs more to become an architect than any other profession and that the profession needs to try and remove the ‘self-imposed’ costs of the education system (models, presentation, ‘free work’, etc), this would require change within the profession, especially with regards to internships. She felt that for the profession and designers “creative thinking is our big export” but that “architects [in the UK] have consistently undersold themselves … forever”. She also spoke about a need to “rethink our obsession with vocational education”. Advocating BIM she said that it “leads to an integrated team working together much earlier on in the design process” and that this is a ‘complete game-changer’ for projects/architectural practice. It was during this presentation that she also voiced that apparently there is an opinion in the UK government (through conversations with civil servants) that ‘there are too many architects’. Ruth Reed explained that this was a very short sighted view as whilst there may be a surplus at present, as the economy recovers demand for their services increases. These comments were reported the following day in The Architect’s Journal the following day by Merlin Fulcher, at the expense of other discussions that had been taking place at the forum.

ZAP have been carrying out a survey into the cost of
architectural education in the UK

Led by Joanna Scott, RIBA Education Projects Co-ordinator, and Zohra Chiheb and Pol Gallagher, ZAP Architecture, students then took part in table discussions about ways to reduce costs in architecture education, topics included: model-making, printing, study trips, part-time work, portfolios and presentations. Students fed back ideas to the rest of the forum. ZAP, architectural design partnership led by Chiheb and Pol, are currently working on the ‘Pavilion of Protest’ project to uncover and share how architecture students feel about the cost of their studies.

Professor David Gloster gave the last presentation, emphasising the importance and benefits of an architectural education, speaking about initiatives, such as Polyark, that are designed to bring various schools of architecture together to work collaboratively. He also spoke about how design isn't just spatial and formal but it is everything needed to go from a hole in the ground to a building (doors, specifications, contracts, etc). Students, in his opinion, need to be “thinking politically and acting architecturally” and there is a need for a forum for “a call to ideas to empower ideas”. At this point the discussion was opened up to the floor and there was some debate amongst the audience about possible ways forward to ‘empower students’. Caine Crawford, Chair of Archaos, spoke of Archaos’ successes but also the difficulties it had faced in recent years. The two RIBA student reps felt that they were in the best position to directly interact with the RIBA although there was concern about why this wasn’t happening at present and whether just two students could be representative of such a large student body. The Architecture Students Assembly that had taken place in Manchester the day before (20th June 2011) was also raised (see previous post here).

The forum was closed with a brief statement form the chair and some closing comments from others who had attended the event. Their was a sense that the architectural community needs to work more closely together to support students during these ‘tough times’ but also, as James Benedict Brown put it in his piece in Building Design about the forum, “that students want a national student body with a wider membership; perhaps somewhere between the alluring summer school of the EASA in Europe and the well-funded political campaigning of the AIAS in America”. The RIBA Education team, following the event, has said that they will support any future initiatives and will look into the scope for the RIBA to establish an e-platform for students to communicate/debate issues with each other and the institute. Following the event in Manchester and the RIBA instigated forum there is perhaps the beginnings of new framework that will provide students with a platform to raise concerns, voice their opinions and take action.