As many friends of the practice will know, our beloved Nick Gillibrand retired at Christmas and we asked him to give us his view on the major changes in the profession during his long and successful career:
Since retiring at the end of last year, I’ve had some time to reflect on the changes I’ve witnessed in the four decades since I qualified. Here are some of my musings.
What clients want
People have always approached architects for all sorts of reasons, but in the last 10 or 15 years, a hunger for good design has been a much stronger driver. I put this down to a greater awareness in the world, perhaps attributable to the prevalence of design and architecture on TV and in magazines. Well done the media!
One of the slightly odd things about increased design awareness is the importance of luxury. When I was young, a kitchen was just a place where someone cooked and a bathroom a glorified wash house. Now, kitchens are statements and bathrooms have become a sort of shrine.
I have been lucky and have been involved with all sorts of building types, but I don’t think that will be the same for the next generation of architects. Today, track record is paramount and if your practice hasn’t designed a particular building type, it never will. I, for one, think this a great shame.
Bureaucracy and regulation
Around 40 years ago, the first edition of the Building Regulations had just been passed as law: a single, thin book to cover everything and you could learn it off by heart. Now, the regs consume 15 heavy volumes, which are updated in rotation. Are we over-regulated? Probably. One plus is the advent of privatised building regulation inspection. This allows us to talk to one person nationally and develop a relationship with them. Well done, Mrs Thatcher (I think).
It used to be the case that each Local Authority published a Local Plan, which said what you could and could not do and I could advise people with 95% certainty at a first meeting what to expect. Now, every Local Authority has an ever-changing set of possible rules and most of the time, I haven't got a clue what you are allowed to do. Another big change is that you can’t talk to the planners. They are so overwhelmed by the whole business that they have retreated into a shell. It’s a shame, because the good planners made a difference. I'm not sure that is true any longer and I don't think the planning system is serving us well.
Risk assessment and litigation.
I think there was a major societal shift in the late 90s, whereafter we were all required to anticipate what could go wrong and act accordingly, rather than adhere to a set of published rules. I am convinced that as a nation we are ill-suited to this. We start inventing risks and rules that don’t exist; we cover our backsides about everything and spend half our lives stuffing newspaper down our trousers in case we might get a kicking. It’s all so unproductive, but the lawyers, alas thrive on it. Fortunately, I got through my whole career without any litigation on one of my personal projects.
In many ways, drawing using computers isn’t all that different. It gives one a bit more flexibility to explore ideas, but I also think it has greatly increased the amount of drawing we do. In the old days, one or two drawings for a new house was about what it took. Now it’s more like 30 or 40 drawings. I suspect that bumps the cost up.
The next generation will see a bigger change, because you will have to draw in 3D.
I love the paperless world of computers. Technical literature is now all online, so the huge office library of trade catalogues and technical guides has gone - and it’s all up to date. Brilliant.
Email is a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it’s nothing like as intrusive as the phone and you can sort things out pretty quickly. However, it’s a curse when people hide behind it. All problems are sorted out better by talking and are generally aggravated by emailing. When the first smartphones appeared, I made a decision never to send or receive emails on a phone, so no one expected me to, whereas others I know are complete slaves to email on their phones. I honestly believe that if you rush at things in the way that lifestyle suggests, you will actually do a worse job.
Texting is brilliant. It’s concise, it’s not intrusive, it gets the message across and, as far as I know, there is no record, so we are not frightened of it.
What hasn't changed
My first employers in England, Powell and Moya, taught me one thing in particular: to care about everything that you do all the time. It’s a golden lesson that hasn’t changed one iota. Care about everything.
The other thing that hasn’t changed is that it is a wonderful job, which brings one pleasure every day. I loved going to work, but I am loving my retirement as well!