On Wednesday the new, first woman president of the Royal Institute of British Architects continued her tour of the East of England with a stop off in Chelmsford to see the new Salvation Army Citadel and to meet local architects and architecture students from Anglia Ruskin University.
Working for a Chelmsford architect myself I was pleased to attend what was a positive, friendly and busy meeting, and get a good look round the new Citadel by the architect Anthony Hudson, who told me it was the first place of worship his London practice had designed. This was somewhat surprising as it is clear the building is working extremely well and the client is very happy with it.
Ruth Reed was on strong form, much more engaging than our last meeting in London and clearly enjoying getting out and meeting her members across the region. Yesterday morning I had asked my network on Twitter what they would like to ask her and interest seemed to focus on the planning system and how it prevents contemporary design.
I wasn’t able to ask all the questions which came out of this (notably @scarpadog’s question about how small practices can get involved in school design – because they should) but she did spend much of the session talking about improving the planning system, an issue raised by artist @Linda_Sgoluppi:
@SuButcher Will RIBA campaign for local planning departments to be more enlightened to contemporary design in domestic housing? #ruthreed
One of Ruth’s four policy areas on her personal agenda is planning (you can see the detail of her manifesto here )Ruth was a planning inspector in a previous guise, and would encourage all architects to enter local politics – not least to get involved in the planning process.
Ruth said the RIBA is working to bring in local Design Review Panels (representing a range of professionals) to give Local Planning Committees more confidence in planning decisions.
One way that she thinks that planning can be simplified is for other issues such as building performance, nature conservation and so on, to be removed from the planning process and leave planning for land use and spatial design – important matters for which the process was intended.
Issues of building performance could then be addressed through Building Regulations where they can be enforced. Ruth said that it would be a brave planning authority who would demolish a house because it didn’t conform to a required level of the Code for Sustainable Homes!
The audience, though somewhat reluctant to engage at first, took up these issues and a discussion developed. Should there be architects as patrons of local planning authorities to help LPAs? Could the government extend permitted development rights to schemes submitted by a Chartered Architect – perhaps there could be self-certification?
Were Design Review Panels really going to be able to help with the huge workload when there isn’t enough support for them? There is a huge problem getting financial support for Design Review Panels – though there is a legislative requirement for LPA’s to consider design in the planning process. We will have to see what the general election brings.
Ruth was optimistic about the future of design quality in the planning process. Where there is competition between developers, and pressure from the public to get good contemporary design, she feels that the bar will be raised. A recent RIBA discussion paper on housing pointed out that only 30% of homebuyers would consider a new home, the remaining 70% of the developers market don’t want a new home and prefer the older (larger and perhaps better quality?) housing stock. There’s a marketing opportunity.
Other issues discussed included employment – Ruth campaigned for election during a boom time and now the RIBA has to deal with high levels of unemployment not just amongst architects but also graduates. There has been some talk of enabling architecture graduates to train as planners, but unfortunately with high unemployment amongst planners as well this seems unlikely.
Old chestnuts surfaced – including protection of title (“The RIBA has a quality brand which it can promote to the consumer”) and students not being ready for practice (“Graduates shouldn’t be expected to have the wisdom of our years”) Students of architecture come out as great problem solvers, lateral thinkers, and keen to hoover up new skills and knowledge. This is an opportunity, not a disadvantage.
I was particularly glad to hear Ruth Reed’s comments on Value. The RIBA has tried to help architects articulate the value provided by design. There are simple metrics, such as the financial benefit of BREEAM, but there are also complex metrics like the value of landmark buildings to a town, the value of hospitals and schools to human recovery and performance. It was great to hear that the RIBA is planning a Guide for practices on Value-based Fees. Ruth said that people realize over time that good design adds value, once they experience it. You can’t force people to accept that you add value, you have to prove it.
You can see my tweets about the visit and the questions and answers by following the hashtag #ruthreed.
The Guardian published an interview with her in September; Leading Questions
image: BD Online
Ruth also has her own website at www.ruthreed.co.uk It would be great to see her engaging with architects on twitter – don’t you think?