Education and reality

Igloo’s Chris Brown considers the value of architecture and education in this extract from Radical Pedagogies

Chris Brown of Igloo
Chris Brown of Igloo

Igloo is a UK company that is widely respected for its intelligent and creative approach to development. Locating much of its work in regeneration areas, the company regularly experiments with new models and approaches, and is at the vanguard of the implementation of ‘custom-build’ housing in the UK. If you were to ask the average small-to-medium design-led UK architecture practice to name the top three developers they would like to work with, Igloo would almost certainly be among them.  

Chris Brown, chief executive of Igloo, therefore seemed a good person to talk to about the ways in which the architectural education system does and doesn’t prepare young professionals not only for today’s development context, but also for the directions in which development and procurement models are heading. 

What does Igloo look for in its architects?

We tend to choose younger architects and more design-led firms, in the pursuit of design quality.

This is encouraging news! But how do you understand ‘design quality’ in real terms?

Good design comes from finding the right project-to-architect fit. We spend a lot of time looking at what architects are doing. We do have a blacklist of architects we wouldn’t ever work with. The ‘Carbuncle Cup’ shortlist, for example, would tend to indicate the type of architects we’re not interested in! When it comes to style, we’re not wedded to any particular one, although our preference is towards a contemporary vernacular.  We’d only specify a style in the brief if there was a good reason for it.  

What you say busts a few myths about clients not really understanding design and therefore not being able to make informed design decisions.

Good design drives value outcomes. We believe we get financial value out of good design. We choose firms that value good design for that reason, but we are aware that we occupy a ‘niche’ in the development industry.  Our approach also often involves hiring firms that are local to the project, because in effect they are stakeholders in the community along with the users. 

The ‘Carbuncle Cup’ shortlist, for example, would tend to indicate the type of architects we’re not interested in!

It sounds like you see good architects as fundamental to your business model. Why don’t all developers think that way?

There seem to be two main directions in current development: standardisation and mass customisation. Most developers’ focus on design is primarily about maximising floor space and minimising cost. This is being compounded by huge pressure towards standardisation – in schools, housing, hotels, retail and offices – which really marginalises the architect. We’ve witnessed how key London schemes have issued architects’ briefs that limit them to simply wrapping buildings, for not much money either. However, new design and build models – such as custom-build – are proving that you can actually have both an element of standardisation and considered design. This niche is innovating faster than others. 

Could you tell us a little more about how architects add value to the process within current development models?

One interesting development is that firms that are designer-maker led, as opposed to simply design-led, or even purely profit-led, are experimenting with different ways of financing projects that are innovative from a development point of view. Assemble, for example, is a very interesting practice. Or indeed, in Igloo’s own custom-build process, the architect works with the builder to create a ‘base design’ – a process that proves to be cost effective and results in a product that is easy to manufacture and construct. The architect is then the interface with the end customer, and customises the base design to meet their needs. It’s a direct relationship. 

Should architects perhaps focus on acquiring skills to operate more like developers?

Architecture and development make use of very different parts of the brain, or require different types of brain. Few people are able to do both really well. Architecture is an incredibly complicated skillset to learn. It would be hard to be both architect and developer, with the exception of small projects. What architects tend to lack that developers possess is a greater understanding of– and interest in – the marketplace, of the factors that shape this and the way these interact. 

Does this mean that what we teach in schools of architecture, with their design focus, is indeed fit for purpose? Or are there some skills we are failing to impart?

Not all architects seem to have the ability to understand how a building is used. As clients, we assume architects have that knowledge. But they don’t.  They don’t seem to have any real evidence base. You do need someone in the development process who can get into the mind of the user and find out what they want. In terms of the architect-developer territory battle, developers can’t do it either.  It’s a big concern. 

Understanding, but also communicating, how buildings are used covers everything from how a user feels in a room to how the architecture influences their well-being. Architects also tend to be really bad at urban design, but they all think they are really good at it! This leads me to reflect: if they’d been educated effectively, they would know what they do and don’t know.

If they’d been educated effectively, they would know what they do and don’t know

What would you say is the most important skill that architects lack?

Ability to listen to the customer. Whether we breed it, or whether it’s always been there, there’s a generalised arrogance among architects that they know best. Maybe it’s true of all professions but it’s particularly true of architecture. When you are designing for customers who have different needs from the same building, they need design professionals to help draw their ideas out.

You mentioned innovation in development. Are architects sufficiently schooled in innovation?

Hmm. Entrepreneurship is lacking, I think. Architecture students need this.  But can you really teach entrepreneurship?  I question whether you can teach someone to have a spark of an idea, and then the dedication to see it through.

Schools are increasingly committed to civic engagement. Is this becoming evident in practice?

As a trend, community-led development has a long way to go. This could be a new role for the architect – the skills to recruit and manage a volunteer community workforce. A Rod Hackney ‘community architecture’ type approach. 

How should the education system encourage students to think about their role in this changing development context?

What architects are asked to do these days is incredibly complicated. No one person can know everything there is to know about architecture any more. The core of the architect’s role has become the ability to assimilate and comply with a huge amount of regulation, everything from Building Regs to planning, particularly in the UK. The next level of skill up from that is to be able to steer your way through it all, bending the rules to make them work for you. The level above that is having the creativity to produce a building that is beyond compliant: delivering the best outcomes for the client and for wider society. Architects have a professional obligation to wider society, even if it’s not in the brief, which is often a selfish document. 

Theoretically, when you are making all the design decisions on the screen, you have to have all this information in your head. This is complex. For that reason the best architects are working in interdisciplinary teams, so that is something that we need to be shaping young professionals to be able to do. Some of our most successful architects have become really good at doing that.

Do you have any suggestions as to what would be a radical alternative to the way schools operate now? 

I think some kind of ‘framework’ education – three years basic, five years in practice, then a final course leading to professional accreditation – might work. I know that schools are trying to give students more community or practice experience within the standard education. However, although I think that’s a good idea, you do need to have formed some kind of framework about how the world works before you can really benefit from those experiences. Touch-points to place your experiences against. 

My other suggestion is about WHAT is taught. Speaking from my development perspective, it’s interesting that, when it comes to economics, all UK universities teach neo-classical economics, as if it were the only way of understanding the world. But there are different models and ways of framing economic problems and these too should be taught. There’s a parallel here with architecture schools. They all seem to teach from the point of modernism, even if there are variations on that. But architecture should be contextual. It should respond to its immediate environment. This seems not to be the view of most architects, who think their buildings should be distinctive, photographable from every angle. It would be great to see a different mindset encouraged.

Great. Thank you very much!

Oh yes, and since this is going to be published, could you just make it clear that the Stirling prize should be given to the client as well as the architect. Because the client relationship is key to the success of a project!  


This is an abridged extract from ‘Radical Pedagogies: Architectural Education and the British Tradition’ edited by Daisy Froud and Harriet Harriss, published by RIBA Publishing. See review here