How the RIBA can fix the problem of low fees in architecture

David Green’s piece in the AJ yesterday, Architects’ firms are in financial danger. Where is the RIBA? is an important read. It highlights the financial struggles many architects are facing at the moment and the role that the RIBA can play – or at least has the potential to.

Architects’ salaries have been low since deregulation and, for many, before that. We seem to be too easily parted from our ideas – many of the artists I have worked with over the years have seemed more aware of their worth.

The RIBA is an institution I have come to know well, having served on Council and in various roles. I know how hard the RIBA fights for all its members and how often its work is under-appreciated. But anyone who has followed my writing over the years also knows how frustrated I have been. At times, I have felt that the RIBA could do more.

There is so much interest in architecture right now. The standard of architecture is also, I believe, higher than ever. But it seems that the UK’s architects and the RIBA are appreciated abroad more than they are at home. Personally, I feel that if the RIBA were seen as more of a qualification than a club, thousands of architects from around the world would want to join as international members. The idea that you could play your part in a global community of like-minded architects, working together to address vastly complex environmental and urban issues, is a compelling proposition.

I think one key element to this is lifelong learning. This means a complete overhaul of our CPD, so that we can prove to clients and competitors that belonging to the RIBA adds value. I believe that this would also help to open up new routes into architecture for currently under-represented groups.

To support this, we should encourage greater variety in the CPD offer. Not all architects need to complete the same modules. We bring different skills, and we need to make them explicit to our clients. When I was studying architecture with Andrew Weston, long before we founded our practice, it seemed radical at that time for Norman Foster to say: ‘There’s no reason why architecture and business cannot coexist.’ And for years I have advocated more teaching of business skills in our schools. I have derived as much satisfaction from mentoring young architects in their careers through Weston Williamson + Partners as I have in leading our projects – and from helping them acquire the necessary skills once they leave formal education.

The key points in David’s criticism are being addressed. The organisation is being restructured to ensure that decisions taken by the Board and Council are enacted, and there is much greater joined-up thinking across the Institute. If the RIBA focuses on restoring some of the pride in the profession, and our perceived value, it will ultimately help drive up fees. There are several ways in which this can be done, including through more lobbying of politicians and decision-makers, and with greater involvement of the regions and chapters.

I should, now, declare an interest – I intend to put myself forward as a candidate in this year’s RIBA presidential election, something I have been considering for a while. My whole career has been based on collaboration and sharing knowledge, and I see a useful purpose for this in helping RIBA evolve. These are challenging, but also incredibly exciting times. With a more outward facing RIBA, we can show our value and help drive up income.

So, it really is a year of elections. Whoever you support when it comes to the RIBA’s nominations, please vote – we need to show politicians and the world that we are an engaged, energetic representative body. We are a profession of diverse interests and experiences, but every architect I know is passionate about what they do. This is true in all the UK’s regions, as well as chapters overseas. If the RIBA can harness that enthusiasm, we will be able to prove our worth and really make a difference.

Chris Williamson is chair of Weston Williamson + Partners