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Reclaim your leading role

Helen Castle

Leadership is the key that makes the most of all your business’s skills

Is the relegation of architects in the design and construction industry leading to a crisis? Rory Hyde thinks it is, as argued in his book, Future Practice: ‘We seem to be having our own crisis: a crisis of relevance. We complain of marginalisation from the process of real decision-making; of being treated like real cake decorators only interested in styling; of being undervalued financially; of being over regulated; of being overexposed to the instability of the market, and more.’

In 2012, when Hyde was writing, a loss of rank was largely a cause of anxiety for architects themselves. But since the Grenfell Tower fire, the wider ramifications of the erosion of the architect’s role on safety and quality have become apparent. There is one particular cause of concern: in current procurement architects have lost control over the specification of construction materials to contractors and subcontractors, and there is no longer a single point of responsibility for design and delivery. In The Guardian last September, RIBA president Ben Derbyshire called for architects ‘to reclaim leadership of housebuilding’ after decades of being ‘sidelined through complex contracts’. So how can the profession reclaim its role, and relevance?

Housing has been the source of both architects’ ascent and nemesis. First there was the rise, with the post-war housing part of striving for a better society. By the 70s and early 80s, it was the perceived failure of modernist social housing and particularly tower blocks that led to architects’ professional decline and the erosion of confidence in their abilities to manage projects and budgets.

Harvard Gardens, designed by PTE for the London Borough of Southwark, is part of the redevelopment of Aylesbury Estate.
Harvard Gardens, designed by PTE for the London Borough of Southwark, is part of the redevelopment of Aylesbury Estate. Credit: PTE/Tim Crocker

Kaye Stout, partner at Pollard Thomas Edwards and member of the RIBA Housing Group, says: ‘Architects have produced some fabulous high-quality housing over the last 30 years (since their position has been eroded), but the architect has probably paid for it (in time and emotion). In the design and build era, the guardianship of quality sits with the client as well as the architect. Without the client safeguarding design quality, the architect can continue to design fabulous high-quality housing, but there will be nobody to champion it and build it.’ It is a complex picture, Stout continues, as architects continue to be required to work ‘to shorter and shorter programmes, whether at procurement, planning or construction stage’, while ‘being asked to provide more and more information to make the proposals easier to understand/cost/build’. Effectively, architects often bridge the gap, providing leadership and skills where the client lacks in house capacity to provide them. The upshot is that architects are often not fully recognised and compensated for their contribution.

So, if leadership is an issue for architects and the quality of the built environment, how might we go about salvaging it? One way is to build it up, one step at a time, in individuals in the profession. Seven years ago, the RIBA set about tackling the need to develop leadership skills by launching Future Leaders, an annual three part programme introducing early career professionals to leadership through industry specific training.

Steve Radcliffe, a leadership coach and author of Leadership: Plain and Simple, is the keynote speaker at Future Leaders 2018 opening session, ‘Learning to Lead’. He believes leadership has to be tackled at a systemic level. ‘I used to think leadership came down to individuals,’ he says. ‘Twenty years later, I realise it is a matter of taking an organisation with you and speaking a common language, so everybody can grow. It comes down to an active decision to develop yourself and others. Most professions are too enamoured with the technical side. It is very revealing when people compare how long they have invested in learning technical skills with being a leader. This is as true of architects as GPs or teachers.’

Modern housing design relies on the client as well as the architect as guardian of design quality – as demonstrated at Woodside Square, by Pollard Thomas Edwards.
Modern housing design relies on the client as well as the architect as guardian of design quality – as demonstrated at Woodside Square, by Pollard Thomas Edwards. Credit: PTE/Galit Seligman

For Radcliffe learning about leadership comes down to developing soft skills, which he calls ‘the harder skills’ as they are often trickier for a professional to master. ‘Leadership is about influencing others and bringing them with you – creating followers. It’s not just a matter of being technically strong.’ It is also about engaging with, rather than talking at, people: ‘With a foundation of technical excellence, it makes people want to work with you.’ The need for leadership is never more pressing than during times of economic and political uncertainty: ‘When times are tough and resources tight, you need to add leadership to technical expertise. Leadership is the ingredient that enables you to get the best out of other ingredients. It is the great multiplier.’

But leadership has to be backed by good management. Stefan Stern, visiting professor in management practice at Cass Business School and director of the High Pay Centre, a think tank on income distribution, has become an advocate for management at a time when leadership is often regarded as ‘glamorous and exciting’ and management ‘petty and boring’. He quotes management guru Tom Peters as saying: : ‘the simpleminded way I put it is that a good manager has to be a good leader and a good leader has to be a good manager.’ Architects can’t afford to focus on leadership at the cost of management; the RIBA Working with Architects Client Survey 2016 highlighted process and business management skills as the areas of greatest weakness for architects.

Architects need to concentrate on their team skills as part of leadership. At Smartgeometry’s multidisciplinary workshop they get the chance to.
Architects need to concentrate on their team skills as part of leadership. At Smartgeometry’s multidisciplinary workshop they get the chance to. Credit: Lars Hesselgren

Retaining architects’ position at the forefront of the design and construction industries in the future is more than a matter of honing the required leadership and management skills – confidence in architects’ unique skills is also needed says Lars Hesselgren, director of research at PLP Architecture. A researcher and academic in architecture and urbanism, he is not only a pioneer in novel design technologies from parametric design to computational techniques, but as a founding director of the Smartgeometry group (SG) has also been influential in changing architectural culture to assimilate them. SG brings together teams from across architecture and engineering in practice and academia to workshop problems and learn from each other on digital design and how to integrate it into the design process. As Hesselgren says: ‘Architecture is the only profession that is at the heart of creating spaces where we want to be – from living to working to interacting with each other. No other profession is capable of that imagination – beautiful comfortable places where humanity thrives.’ Despite predicting that the next century will be dominated by the rise of AI robots and our coexistence with them, he says: ‘Mankind will still want to meet in spaces we love. Somebody has to conceive and design those spaces, that is the job of architects.’ •

Helen Castle is RIBA head of professional programmes and commissioning editor of Architectural Design (AD)

Steve Radcliffe and Lars Hesselgren are speaking at Future Leaders, three-part programme at the RIBA in London



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