Issues such as workplace equality and opportunity, fees, a culture of long hours and the environmental damage of the pursuit of growth exercised the minds of the latest winners of Rising Stars at a recent roundtable
Is growth always good? How hard is it to carry out meaningful community engagement? And are small windows the future? These were just some of the topics aired during a lively roundtable discussion between winners of the latest RIBA Journal Rising Stars Award, run in partnership with Origin Doors and Windows.
As well as grappling with the usual challenges facing emerging architects, the new cohort is doing so against a background of a cost of living crisis, climate emergency, and the aftermath of the pandemic. Despite all this, a sense of optimism and drive pervaded.
Farhana Jiwa of JTP said architects and designers must avoid thinking they instinctively know what the people they are designing for want. She feels that practices should be more proactive and fluid in their approach to community engagement by making sure they spend time talking to people and businesses in the locality, and by considering the full range of those who will be using the spaces they design.
‘There’s so much you can learn about a place just by having those informal conversations,’ she says, adding that sometimes architects have to ‘go that extra mile’ in reaching out to local groups, and look beyond designing to minimum standards.
Betty Owoo, who leads residential engagement sessions for Be First London, was interested in how architects can ensure their community engagement is meaningful and asked whether participants felt they received enough support from their clients to assist this process. Ensuring they build up the layers of understanding required is, she said, a ‘big responsibility’.
One participant mentioned a project where the design was fixed before community engagement began. But there were also more positive outcomes – Charlie Palmer, founder of Incremental Urbanism, cited an occasion where a community group client was happy to change the design to incorporate a play area in response to a consultation. His practice has also been exploring an alternative, partnership-style approach to fee structures that better suits the limited resources of the local community groups he works with.
New forms of value
There was agreement that the received economic wisdom that growth is good should be questioned, given the destructive impact that this is having on the planet. Participants talked about increased awareness of disconnects, whether between the food on our plates and how it was produced, or how the damaging effects of producing building materials may be felt on the other side of the world while going unseen to us in the UK. Jo Sharples of Manchester-based Editional Studio talked about the need to use local materials, and the creation of regenerative landscapes. Favouring extensive research over knee-jerk reaction, she advocated that architects should proceed with ‘calmness and slowness’.
Origin sales and marketing director Ben Brocklesby said the company was experiencing more interest from customers in the U-value performance and provenance of their products. He raised the question of whether there was a disconnect between energy efficiency and the quest for more natural light and space, and whether architects might be pushed into designing smaller windows. Jennifer Dyne of David Kohn Architects pointed out that smaller windows at her project The Red House hadn’t stopped it winning the RIBA House of the Year Award. There, the aim had been to address the local vernacular as well as producing something distinctive.
‘We try to bring out a character or quality that’s kind of strange, but familiar at the same time,’ she said.
Sexism still exists, especially on site, as some participants testified from personal and peer experience. And there is still a sense of taboo about talking about it according to Michelle Martin, who described how men naturally talk to her husband and business partner rather than her, the fully qualified architect, if they are both on site together.
Grimshaw architect John Naylor, an advocate for the use of bamboo in construction, said he was aware of the advantages his background conferred on his ability to network. He describes being asked to lead an educational workshop in Singapore on bamboo, and realising the invitation had come from a ‘post-colonial looking to Europe for validation’ perspective, given that there were many local experts with extensive knowledge of a material indigenous to them.
Would AI technology be free of prejudice? Given the role of humans in creating the algorithms, there was some concern that such problems would persist in AI too.
Reforming architectural education
Discussions touched on the proposed reforms to architectural education.
Betty Owoo wondered if this would change the route to architecture, and also address the traditional emphasis on preparing architecture students for a career in architectural practice, rather than in other areas of the built environment. Farhana Jiwa added that while architectural training resulted in many transferrable skills, there was a ‘lack of awareness’ as to what other avenues these could lead to.
Charlie Palmer welcomed the proposals as ‘great’ for allowing different undergraduates to join architecture, and for opening up potentially more affordable routes. Daniel Innes, a campaigner for LGBT+ architects, was also excited by the new emphasis on specific skills and capabilities, which he thought would help those who wanted to move into different industries by enabling them to better communicate their skillset.
Michelle Martin, as director of Live Site Learning and Live Site Studio, was concerned that architectural education doesn’t explore a lot of what’s involved in being an architect. In particular, a lack of practical experience on site meant that students weren’t able to make informed decisions on their career direction. And when working in practice, they may struggle with this lack of knowledge but not feel able to admit this.
Time is precious
While reforms to education are afoot, reforms to practice are also needed to address the persistent long-hours culture.
Daniel Innes, although himself at a practice where he can leave punctually to allow time for his Part 3 studies and activities such as the LGBT+ life-drawing group, said long hours were widespread among his peers. He called on the RIBA to either tell chartered practices not to allow overtime, or to at least make sure people are paid for it, or have the option to say no.
John Naylor talked about the personal cost to those regularly working long hours, and was also concerned about the dangers of ‘designing when sleep-deprived’.
Sometimes over-demanding deadlines were caused by a lack of confidence when dealing with clients. Michelle Martin felt there wasn’t enough training on how to deal with fees and manage money.
Jo Sharples said that co-establishing her own practice after experiencing an entrenched long hours studio culture has given her a different perspective. Her practice works a four day week, but she said there can still be challenges dealing with outstanding work.
Despite the many challenging issues facing those making their way in architecture, the Rising Stars cohort are well up for the fight, and relishing what they do.
‘I like the joy of it,’ says Bongani Muchemwa of McCloy and Muchemwa. ‘Maybe I’m imbibing too many self help books!’
THE RISING STARS' BOOK CHOICES
How members of the Rising Stars 2022 cohorts that were at the discussion spent their book voucher prize with RIBA Books.
Tokyoids - The Robotic Face of Architecture by François Blanciak, The MIT Press
HR for Creative Companies by Kate Marks, RIBA Publishing
Good Practice Guide: Fees by Peter Farrall and Stephen Brookhouse, RIBA Publishing
Happy by Design - A Guide to Architecture and Mental Wellbeing by Ben Channon, RIBA Publishing
Restorative Cities: urban design for mental health and wellbeing by Jenny Roe and Layla McCay, Bloomsbury Publishing
The Architecture Reference & Specification Book by Julia McMorrough, Rockport
Interim Certificate for MW16, RIBA Publishing
Issues of El Croquis
Detail in Contemporary Timber Architecture, Virginia McLeod, Laurence King Publishing
Collective Action: The Power of Collaboration & Co-design in Architecture, edited by Rob Fiehn, Kyle Buchanan and Mellis Haward, RIBA Publishing
Piet Oudolf At Work by Piet Oudolf, Phaidon
Good Practice Guide: Fees by Peter Farrall and Stephen Brookhouse, RIBA Publishing
101 Rules of Thumb for Low-Energy Architecture, Huw Heywood, RIBA Publishing
Architecture – From Prehistory to Climate Emergency by Barnabas Calder, Penguin Books
English Pastoral: An Inheritance by James Rebanks, Penguin Books