Professionalism 2.0

Published in Retropioneers: Architecture Redefined, RIBA Publishing, June 2017

On the 29th of May 1823 Thomas Burgess, the then Bishop of St David’s, went to see King George IV carrying the final draft of the constitution for one of his many pet projects; the Royal Society of Literature, of which he was founding President. It was a moment when philhellenism was at its height in England; the Elgin marbles had only recently been put on display at the British Museum and Lord Byron, in a blaze of publicity, was in Genoa fitting out his ship, the Hercules, for the fight for Greek independence. True to the spirit of the times, and as a longstanding and enthusiastic advocate of ancient Greek culture and of Aristotle in particular, Burgess broke with the normal practice of establishing a charitable organisation and drafted a constitution for the RSL based on classical civic models, which prioritised the public interest and detailed the responsibilities of the society’s members.


Four years later, the early members of the Institution of Civil Engineers, casting around for a model for their own constitution, chose the RSL’s as a template and, in 1837, when the RIBA produced its first Charter it followed the ICE’s example and gave both the fledgling Institution and its chartered members a strong public interest purpose.

In the place of doing good works it was anticipated that members of these new organisations would actively contribute to their profession and, beyond that, to their profession’s obligation to act for the greater good of society. In the case of the RIBA this mission was initially interpreted as developing the working knowledge of both the Institute and the profession as a whole. Donations were encouraged to the library, a journal was published and members were expected to read and contribute papers to meetings. Even then such expectations could lead to friction, as with Norman Shaw, who huffily resigned from the RIBA in 1869 when a leading institutional figure called on him to ask him to prepare a paper to read at a Council meeting.

In practice, however, this part of the deal between architects, their Institute and society has largely been honoured in the breach. For although large numbers of members have devoted considerable time, effort and resources to the RIBA over the decades, trying to persuade it to act in pursuit of one cause or another, for the great majority of members the relationship with the RIBA has been largely transactional. A fee is exchanged for a raft of services and there has been no real attempt to develop a more significant exchange. This is the norm with most professional bodies, where typically there is an active core of only 7 or 8% of membership. Yet, as professional bodies look to update their models and innovate to ensure they stay relevant, it may be that the early expectations of professional reciprocity need to be revisited, as ways are found for architects and other disciplines to retrieve some of their status and position in the face of widespread scepticism about the role of ‘experts’.

Innovations in architectural professionalism have always taken place at times of close community and heightened levels of communication between clients, architects and their industry. Guilds representing architects sprung up in Renaissance Florence and Enlightenment Edinburgh. Restoration London married architecture with science and engineering and Victorian Britain with its reliable postal service and rapid railway links developed the first recognisable national professional organisations. The power of global communications and social media suggests that this could be, if the initiative is taken, another such moment. For, while some see developments in digital technology as being a potential threat to the professional ethos and way of life, it can equally be embraced as an opportunity with new ways of working, possibly demanding a reboot of professionalism and requiring a more interactive set of responsibilities for the architect.

In recent decades society and business have found many new ways of getting the services they want and require, often entirely without the professional baggage. The procurement of buildings and environments has been reinvented, resulting in the profession losing much of its status and its position in the pecking order of which it was once so proud. In spite of this (and all the related discussion within the profession and the industry media) little has fundamentally changed. At the same time, the challenges of serving both society and the environment have grown ever more complex and significant. The architects’ profession may have reluctantly accepted current realities, but it has not reworked either its identity or the professional deal made with society and the market. It urgently needs to do so.

A reciprocal, interactive professionalism is undoubtedly challenging, not least to those who are happy with the ways things are, but if change doesn’t come from within then the profession may find that others will change it for them in new and less acceptable ways. This may mean that architects need to face up to their fears, including those involving sharing specialist and hard-won knowledge or being made entirely irrelevant by latest developments in technology and complex algorithms. It may not be too clear how such new thinking will work in the marketplace, but it’s also clear that the market isn’t going to suffer the status quo for much longer.

Here are six possible steps, starting with need to share project data, which architects could take to reinvent professionalism to provide a better service for clients, society and the planet.

The general lack of interest in the way designs perform in practice has long been discussed and study after study has recommended that urgent action must be taken to create a feedback loop from experience back to design. Frank Duffy in ‘Architectural Knowledge: The Idea of a Profession’ (1998) argued that the RIBA should develop into a “body, capable of conducting a continuous discourse between architects themselves and their public, committed to building up and sharing knowledge, about what has been and what ought to be done, dedicated to developing the highest possible standards of architectural performance”, while Paul Morrell in the recent Edge report, ‘Collaboration for Change’, wrote that the “gap between how buildings are meant (and probably promised) to perform, and how they actually perform in service … in any other industry would be regarded as a scandal”, before going on to urge the institutions to “take responsibility for the whole-life of projects, by … remaining involved through project delivery to monitor performance through post-occupancy evaluation” and to develop “an integrated system for publishing this information, against which members should be obliged to report annually”.”
Initiatives like Carbon Buzz have trialled the anonymous collection of data from architects and other members of the design team on the energy/carbon performance of buildings. This now needs to become the new normal with a far greater range of data and information being routinely collected on both building design and performance, whether functional, social, economic or environmental. The knowledge gained from analysing this mass of information would allow the professional bodies to rebuild their knowledge base and make it available to everyone and anyone able to make effective use of it. Professionals would be under a duty to share the data and knowledge they collected in exchange for the feedback and insights generated.

Building on the newly available evidence, architects and other members of the design and construction team would develop the confidence to accurately predict how their projects will perform in practice and be prepared to stand by the results. Designing on the basis of research into and evidence of real world outcomes would rapidly become the professional norm and set a de-facto standard of professional behaviour. As a result, a stronger and more innovative architectural community would emerge. Architects would embrace R&D as a means of positively distinguishing their practices and become less dependent on narrative tricks to hook clients.
In response, architectural educators would need to engage with research-led practice, producing students well versed in current and multi-disciplinary research techniques and how they could inform the design process. Professional bodies, in partnership with research organisations, would become gateways to emerging knowledge and be able to offer tried and tested guidance and solutions to decision-makers on effective ways to deliver public policy.
The wider world has already been shaken by the arrival of automated user-feedback, whether through aggregator websites such as TripAdvisor or businesses such as Amazon and Uber. There is no reason why professional services will be treated any differently; indeed in some areas, such as medicine, the move is already well underway. Architects and other building professionals need to welcome the detailed feedback from those who know both their services and products best, it is essential information to help designers both improve their work and to inform future clients, users and the public. The only question is how and by whom the information will be handled and, ultimately, owned.
The RIBA and the other professional bodies are ideally placed to take on the task of mediating such, possibly sensitive, information; giving it authority; ensuring transparency and fairness and making it generally available in a way that is engaging and helpful to the public. If they don’t take on this responsibility, others with more commercial motivations and less concern for reputations will.
Once architects become actively engaged with building performance, are prepared to stand by their designs and are ready to face user feedback, they may become interested in taking on long-term responsibility for the whole-life of their buildings. This would be the major leap forward in the provision of professional services focused on the built environment and would encompass building design, management, maintenance and dis-assembly. Such a move is not that revolutionary or unusual in other sectors of the economy, it is just that architecture hasn’t caught up yet. It might even achieve the joined up approach that PFI was intended to provide, but somehow failed to.
Accepting long-term stewardship and responsibility will necessarily be a multi-disciplinary activity involving extended partnerships with others, but close involvement with buildings, users, owners, funders and others will provide a rich source of learning opportunities, as well as new project work as a roster of buildings and estates evolved and developed.
Architects rarely have all the answers, or even a small quota of them. They need to collaborate, usually with teams of other professionals. But as they get better at sharing collaboration can take place with a much wider cast of players, with an ability to facilitate and focus the design process becoming the important professional skill rather than the capacity to make individual decisions? There are many names for such collaborative processes, including co-design, co-production and, once upon a time, community architecture, but the ability to work simultaneously on design problems has in recent years been greatly enhanced by the easy availability of web-based tools and with them the number of participants can grow to almost any number.
As open-source and crowd-sourced design becomes a recognised design method and shows that it can reliably produce successful and responsive solutions, will it also become a necessary design tool for architects, and will there be a greater expectation on professionals to contribute widely (and generously) to others’ design challenges?
Collaboration at any scale challenges the single discipline nature of the institutions. Individual practitioners will naturally want to cross boundaries, gain new capabilities and shape their skill-sets to emerging circumstances and opportunities. Young professionals are already champing at the bit at the restraints of the current system as the multi-disciplinary companies many of them work for offer far more interesting opportunities for spreading their wings.
On the other side professional institutions urgently need to engage with a wide range of expert workers who have strayed into their area from adjoining sectors of expertise. The world of professional services, in the building and property industries and well beyond, has become far more porous and accommodating. The institutions must find ways to respond.
One possibility is for the institutions to act as curators in an area of knowledge, operating an inclusive and open model, keen to engage with anyone with an interest in their sector, whether as buyers, sellers or simply interested parties. They would accredit those who were able, for a period, to satisfy certain criteria, but not necessarily expect them to stay for their full working life. It would be far more challenging to operate but would be a far better fit for the emerging professional world that the current rigidly-siloed version.
Professionalism is changing and needs to change further and faster, but it also needs to recognise the strength it takes from its roots. Joint purpose and the public interest are at the core of the original professional model developed in the 1820s for the design and construction sector and are essential for a more collaborative future. This may run counter to the current trend for an increasingly privatised and monetised knowledge base, but the professions have successfully swum against the flow before and will need to do so again.

Simon Foxell, 2017