Ben Derbyshire 2

RIBA president: Architects aren’t valued highly enough

Jessica Middleton-Pugh

“There seems to be an inability among architects to demand adequate payment for their services,” according to RIBA president Ben Derbyshire. However, rather than blaming clients, “we need to ask what society needs from us.” 

Derbyshire is outgoing president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, a position which is held by a practicing architect elected to the role by members every two years. Derbyshire is also head of HTA Design, a firm with 150 staff across the UK, including 10 people in Manchester where it has operated for five years.  

Place North West met with Derbyshire at the launch of HTA’s new office, in Clayton House on the edge of Piccadilly Gardens, to discuss the practice’s plans for the future and his take on issues affecting many architects; the uncertainty of Brexit, charging the right fees, speculative working and procurement processes.    

Race to the bottom

Faced with the challenge of winning work on projects judged largely on price, according to Derbyshire there are increasingly “unacceptable appointment terms” brought about by “bidding processes and the unreasonable demands of frameworks, which RIBA vehemently opposes”.  

“Criteria is often not fit for purpose, and doesn’t deliver good outcomes. I would encourage architects not to accept those terms; it’s a race to the bottom for our whole profession.”  

In attempts to woo clients, many architects will deliver designs for free in the early stages of projects or pitches, in the hope of winning future work.

“It’s unrealistic to ever forbid a practice to work speculatively,” said Derbyshire. “In a good relationship with a client, when you know you will benefit from working speculatively, there is a time and a place. I also wouldn’t want to prohibit working pro bono and architects using their skills in local communities. 

“It comes down to a value challenge; the profession isn’t valued highly by society or clients. 

“That’s our fault, we have failed to market our position adequately. There seems to be an inability for architects to demand adequate payment for their services. 

“This is why the industry has issues with long hours, work-life balance, and fair pay. It’s impossible if we don’t secure adequate value for our services.” 

Return to risk

While many architects blame clients’ budget constraints and lack of appreciation for their work, Derbyshire puts the responsibility on the shoulders of the profession.  

“We purport it’s a problem with clients and society, but we need to ask what is it society needs from us. 

“The profession has stepped away from risk; programme risk, cost. We used to manage the risk of the client and now we’re not on that front line.” 

Is the issue that architects are now often working directly for contractors, who seek to make money by cutting costs, rather than working directly for developers? 

While Derbyshire acknowledged “the design & build calamity is the fag end of this issue” he maintained that “the central problem is we’re not valued. We’re no longer in a place where developers see that architects have a role in managing risk, and now it’s a challenge to haul back from that position.”  

In the public interest

While the Manchester office has mainly serviced clients outside the North West as “each location doesn’t build its own fiefdom, we work inter-regionally”, particularly with the residential boom going on in Manchester and Liverpool, it seems like an obvious target area.

However according to Derbyshire: “We’re staying steady at the moment, as in the current climate no one knows. While we have the best pipeline we’ve ever had, and nationally figures are still proving buoyant, all you can do is watch the dashboard and move quickly if something changes.  

“That said, the nation needs to invest to build much more housing. We’re not here to steal bread from any other practice, overall the whole market needs to grow to solve the affordability crisis.  

“RIBA supports the recent Shelter report which said much more social housing is needed [3 million more homes]. It’s not about delivering aspirational homes, there should be no such thing as un-aspirational homes. It’s about making places that everyone is proud to live in.” 

While Derbyshire’s ambition of re-establishing the role of the architect within the development team may take some time, he insists it’s essential: “The whole industry, the whole project team, has to think through quality all the way through the build process, not ditch it after the planning stage.  

“We have to put public interest first. After Grenfell, why would we do anything else?”

Your Comments

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Just using Manchester as an example: With the exception of No.1 Angel Square and The Beetham Tower; there are no buildings of architectural merit from the last 15 years. All but the aforementioned could be demolished without protest. They are cost engineered and largely of poor quality whilst described by buzzwords such as ‘iconic’ or ‘landmark.’ They are none of these. If architects want to restore some dignity to the profession; perhaps design something of interest!

By Acelius

Unfortunately, this trend is across the entire property sector. The term ‘race to the bottom’ is apt as large numbers of companies providing average (at best) services are squeeze genuinely hard working and competent firms into an unsustainable battle.

Business advice of ‘add more value for clients’ and ‘be more personable’ are not practical for a smaller business when a few slow months can pose the end of the company and redundancies.

By Adam

It’s true Architects need to take responsibility for the position they are in. They will not take responsibility on projects and the majority do not have the requisite skills. Architects generally don’t want to understand anything outside of doing a feasibility and getting a few construction drawings issued to the contractor. Basically the bear minimum to match their low fees. The problem is they currently don’t add any greater value than their low fees command.

Whatever happened to the approach of previous eras where the architects led a project and made every decision.

The procurement process doesn’t help but again this has evolved due to incompetent architects not taking the lead role on a project.

By ArchiLover

Fascinating use of language “ demand adequate payment” – not sure how that sits with collaboration, integration and recognised best practice ?
The thrust of the wider article is meritable, as is the recognition of the need for Professionals to articulate and represent their value to others.
Still a bit taken aback at the choose of language to open with…

By Andrew

Andrew I think the opening gambit is spot one. Majority of clients are terrible payers and want to pay the absolute minimum and then try and chip the fees on top. I’ve been on both sides of the fence and this unfortunately is the reality.

The design team effectively cashflow the developers business. The developer takes no risk as they line up the exit first and use the old pay when paid appreciated a huge was was bannned under the 98 construction act.

The industry has only itself to blame.

By Sausage.

No buildings of architectural merit?!
How about:
– The Whitworth extension (Stirling prize nominated)
– Manchester School of Art (Stirling prize nominated)
– The Imperial war museum (Stirling prize nominated)
…to name but a few

Yes without a doubt there’s always room for more interesting architecture in Manchester (as anywhere), but lets not hide from the fact that interesting architecture doesn’t just happen, it requires a client and funders willing to take a leap of faith and put their money where their mouth is, and take risks in sponsoring an alternative to the ‘stack ’em high, build ’em cheap’ approach of most Manchester developers.

By Really?

I think the courts building on Bridge street is worthy of adding to the list from Really. Is that older than fifteen perhaps though? I think the new co-op HQ is a great building but sadly the area around it has been left as a dump since it was completed. Again if a park had been lanscaped around it that would have made a huge difference. Parks though are a dirty word in Central Manchester as we all know.

By Elephant

Elephant the co-op building literally overlooks a park. It’s right there, why would they build another park.

By York Street

It overlooks Angel Meadows.It has been surrounded by empty land practically since it was built which could have been landscaped.

By Elephant

The profession seems to adopt the position that all its members are highly professional individuals without shortcomings, churning out masterpiece after masterpiece. Yes, to use the term ‘Architect’ you have to pass a reasonably rigorous (and long) academic course and satisfy a robust Professional Practice interview and exam. But, when it comes down to it, like any other profession, there are good ones and not so good ones. Some with first class honours and distinctions – others with lowly second class degrees.

The good architects are respected and valued by their clients. They bring added value and have their client’s interests at heart – whilst also balancing the wider issues of the built environment and caring about the people who will engage with their buildings. They may be asked to keep fees ‘competitive’ but that is the reality of the business world. Clients who value their architects do not wish to see them starve. Most good architects will attract work by advocacy.

The not so good architects have to get work in other ways. Being cheap or doing bucket loads of speculative work is a way in for them. Being appointed just on the basis of cost is not great and I guess clients who pursue this route get what they deserve.

By Dave McCall

I would agree with much of what Acelius says and of many other comments; but you might as well include Liverpool and all other large towns and cities within the comments. The property and construction fields have changed greatly in the last 40 years; but by enlarge (in my view) architects have lost their way and status. Most clients and developers are only interested in the here and now, unless they are a pension fund who might be into a project for 15+ years (and even they want cost maintenance engineered into design). So there are few clients and few projects that think beyond 3-5 years. (EFC at Bramley-Moore do have an opportunity; as does the Cruise terminal—-but will they???). One could argue that public works and large institutions should have a ‘design’ levy (there is nothing wrong with thinking like the planners and designers of Paris); but this is the 2020s not the 1820s when the northwest was awash with money and producing your next iconic building meant something for your city or town.

Architects were once ‘kings’ of a project; but I spent the early part of my career as a Building Surveyor correcting their BASIC construction mistakes. Who would put poor quality square edge softwood planted stops externally on a window-which itself had square edge untreated softwood cills and jambs? Technically; architects since the 60s have been very poor and certainly not interested in the final outcome. Maybe that’s partly why architects are not valued. Some will recoil in anger at the comment, but that (and lots more) is what I have seen in this time, and got lots of work from it; (Chartered Surveyors are not that much better at what they do either).

Lutyens said architects where ‘artists in buildings’, but will we ever see a ‘Cloud’ (Alsop’s proposal for the fourth grace in Liverpool) ever planned again for Liverpool or Manchester? Many said The Cloud was simply wrong for that part of Liverpool, but that’s exactly what was said about the Liver Buildings in 1908.

Do I feel sorry for architects,…yes. They have little opportunity. They are in part guilty for their own downfall. Would I employ one?….YES! They can be creative and make a difference, not just to a project but a city.
Somewhere in a lonely garret, in Liverpool or Manchester, listening to La Boheme, is an artistic genius doodling with pencil and paper (remember them?); that will be bound to be stolen by Barcelona or Shanghai to design their next iconic building.

By Billy

The architectural profession lost the trust of the public through its obsession with megalomaniac brutalist ideology during the nineteen-sixties and seventies, and is struggling to win it back. Unless and until there is recognition that buildings must appeal to the people who actually live and work in them, architects will continue to be treated with suspicion.

By Moomo

Err yes architects at the moment are legally licenced by the ARB and the government to be vain and superficial they have a protected designer vanity label. If architects want to gain more credibility they should dump the Architects title and take up the Principle Designer title instead.
The qualification for being a principle designer is not a certificate but the action and intention of taking on the responsibility for a project which gives the position Firmness and Utility. A bit like Spider Man with great responsibility come great power. Do not take on the great responsibility if you have not been given great power in the first place but nominate the person who is the lead designer to be the principle designer, you can only do that if you have taken on the title in the first place.