No, Ben, you’ve got it all wrong!

By Dan Heyworth, Director | New Projects | Box™.


I was interested to read Ben Derbyshire, president of RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects), claim that architects must “take back power”. The article, published in The Guardian, came in the wake of the tragic Grenfell Tower debacle.
“…overlapping bureaucracies of compliance make the regulations incredibly difficult to follow and interpret”. Tick.
“This is not a precious issue about aesthetic quality…” Tick.
“…the reason is the business model.” Tick. Smiley face.
“…architects to be given back power all the way to the last lick of paint.” No tick. Unhappy face. Mild nausea.

I wasn’t entirely sure why this elicited such a reaction but after some reflection, it occurred to me that this has always been one of the things I believed was wrong with the traditional design-and-build business model. Despite the fact that I have respect for Derbyshire and agree with pretty much everything he says in the article, giving architects the power to the last lick of paint cost him my vote.

Architect pin-up boy and WikiHouse founder Alastair Parvin summed it up nicely in his 2013 TED talk when he referred to architects only designing for the richest 1% of the world’s population. This is a failure of the profession and the business model of architecture. It’s a different scenario when we talk about large commercial or public buildings – architects are involved in most of these projects. But Derbyshire assumes that architects know best. It is this attitude that prevents the profession from evolving and becoming more useful to society.

The overwhelming majority of architects I know are not detail-oriented people and some of them simply abhor it, preferring their status as aloof creatives. Bracing design, thermal performance, material sustainability – yawn. I wouldn’t be looking to them to engineer my multi-storey façade. Yet Derbyshire is correct when he talks about the complexity of the industry and overlapping bureaucracies; we need to be looking for solutions in a different place instead of reverting to a flawed 20th-century business model.

I have always been an advocate of the industralised (factory) method of construction as a means to improve productivity, reduce cost, increase quality, and expand workforce diversity. The Swedes in particular have shown how to do it successfully. This method of construction challenges architects because it questions their role in the process. If most of the parts, components, materials and details are standardised, some architects struggle to see where they add value and don’t like the idea of being on a creative leash.

Perhaps the future for architects is to come up with these innovative building systems. Architects could work with engineers, technologists, planners, material scientists and builders in order to commercialise and then continuously improve them. They’d become experts in the process of design-and-build systems that reduce the cost of construction while increasing its quality. And they’d offer a valuable service to the other 99% per cent of the global populace along the way.

In the case of the Grenfell Tower, if the cladding had been part of a standardised system, knowing that this system needed to be robust, effective, used over and over again and thus subject to more stringent performance requirements, would likely have made it impossible to go for the lowest-cost product.

Box™ is a team of designers and builders in Auckland. If you’d like to chat about your next project, email us or give us a call on 09 520 5030.