Architects’ firms are in financial danger. Where is the RIBA?

It is not too late for the RIBA, especially given its fresh leadership, to reverse this widely-held perception on the part of members. But it needs to move very fast if the professional members whose interests it seeks to promote are not only to survive, but to flourish.

Sticking to the RIBA, since this is the AJ, the RIBA is in an awkward position, as it does not enforce standards – those are the province of the ARB. It is not alone in this, in that governments worldwide have become increasingly reluctant to delegate standard-setting and its policing to the relevant profession, instead choosing to place this duty on independent regulators. But where is the RIBA in relation to the historic expectation of a professional body seeking to ensure the financial viability of its members?

So we come back to the question of fees. The RIBA has seemed to shy away from this in the recent past, no doubt because of the intractability of the problem. But time is running out for those practices on the ‘in danger’ list. Perhaps right now there are indeed too many architects chasing too little business. This may be purely cyclical, but it is not an issue to be shy about. It is existential for the profession.

The RIBA has not been helped when some of those many highly experienced staff who have left in the recent past and whose measured advice had been hugely valued by so many members let it be known informally that they were quitting in part because they no longer believed that the mission of the RIBA was to serve its members. The strong emphasis on commercial activities, as is visible in the institute’s annual report, and moves to seek to require members to pay for services which might have been expected to be freely available in the past have bolstered this impression, whether well-founded or not.

David Green is a director of Belsize Architects and former regulator and standard-setter for professional services providers at the FRC, FSA and Bank of England



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It is unfortunate, to say the least, that at a time when the built environment industry is facing more challenges than perhaps ever before, two of the leading professional bodies, the RIBA and RICS, find themselves in some disarray.

Since the Middle Ages, trade guilds have served very valuable functions for their members. Critical among them is the setting of standards, both as a test for membership and assurance for users of their services. Another is seeking to ensure the financial viability of their businesses, sometimes historically through restricting entry to the profession and/or setting prices. It was, therefore, troubling when the governance of both the RIBA and RICS was called into question, with RICS’s standard-setting arrangements, for example, falling into disrepair, and we wait to see whether the subsequent reforms at both organisations are effective.

And there is the challenge and opportunity of AI. AI is transforming so much of what we already do. It enables much to be done effortlessly and at little cost which months earlier was not possible. This requires all practices to adjust or die, just as similar technological change has always done in the past. Supporting practices in all these areas is what members need and expect from the RIBA.

The financial viability issue has wider ramifications. There is an understandable desire for junior staff to work fewer hours for more pay. But where is the money for this to come from, when income is falling and so many practices are under financial pressure? The differential between pay at the top and pay at the bottom of practices is less than in most comparable professions, so the room to pay senior people less to pay junior people more is limited.

It has devoted a lot of its efforts and, presumably, budget, to publicity for what architecture can do for clients, through the very successful publicity for its awards. While this is important and extremely supportive for those nominated in the awards process, it is less clear how it helps the vast bulk of the membership, who face a range of challenges, of which the absence of fixed prices is just one.

This is a serious matter; indeed it is mission-critical. Recent figures I have seen from a financial analyst suggest that almost half of incorporated practices saw turnover fall last year, despite the apparent economic recovery, and, worse, 20 per cent of them are judged in financial danger. The fixing of fees, as a mediaeval guild would have done, is now legally problematic. Yet other professions still manage to flourish despite legislation against anti-competitive price-fixing. So what can the RIBA do for its members?

To name just a few others, there is the perception created by those same TV programmes which promote design awards that such buildings are somehow accessible at costs which in fact are completely unrealistic for most clients in most areas. Then there is the siren lure of ‘design and build’ and the promise, often false, that someone posing as being almost an architect can deliver, on site, an equivalent product.