The Future Leaders Conference looked at how architects can take the lead, says Heidi Mergi

During your architectural education you learn how to analyse a building site – its constraint, history and context – in order to develop a concept suitable for the end user and the surrounding community. But realising this concept requires much more than detailing the proposals and everyone quickly faces reality when dealing with complex contracts, planning matters, deadlines and seeking new work on a day to day basis. The RIBA Future Leaders Programme aims to address these issues by organising events like the conference held at the RIBA in spring this year. 

Each project involves a large number of participants – the client, project manager, designers, consultants and contractors to name but a few – and all play a very important role on the way to a successful completion. All these parties are specialists in their field and, as Dale Sinclair of Dyer Associates highlighted at the event, they need to work as a team with one or another team member picked out to lead the group. Traditionally the architect took this role but over the past two centuries building projects have increased in complexity. With a large group of specialists  involved, who is going to take the opportunity to lead this team? 

The use of concept and executive architects is one of the recent developments in our profession which might already indicate a split of leadership between the earlier and latter stages of a project. Whereas the concept architect clearly leads the design team through the RIBA stages A to E, guidance is quite often expected from the construction team afterwards. Under design and build arrangements, main contractors employ architects to finalise the production information and this allows for the specialist knowledge of subcontractors to be accessed much more easily. The same applies to the main contractor’s knowhow, which is already used during the early work stages, and pre-contract service agreements hint that the collaboration of all individuals and the timing of their involvement is the key to success. 

Another important aspect of this was illustrated by Peter Nowlan of Nowlan Associates: conscious initiatives are the drivers to break out of familiar patterns and this might make the critical difference. Contractors have taken the lead by compiling the knowledge of all project participants in one team and have secured work this way, but architects now need to find a way to catch up. 

Nowadays architects rarely take full ownership of the design team but to compete successfully in the future they need to be in charge. This was reinforced by David Partridge of Argent in the most important point of the session: the voice of the client needs to be heard. He seems to favour a single point of responsibility!

The presentations and workshops of the day resulted in exciting discussions about the future of our profession. Most of us agreed – we need to collaborate, communicate, motivate and lead to retain and expand the role of the architect in the construction industry and beyond. 

The RIBA’s Future Leaders programme aims to provide the next generation of architects with the skills to lead their practices in an increasingly complex profession and construction industry. For Manchester on 26 September and London on 2 October see 


Heidi Mergi works for 3D Reid