THEME: The Future of Architectural Education

How Will Architects be...

BY Sebastian Macmillan | October 2012

Welcome to our inaugural series of think pieces, in which five experts share their views on one of the key issues to emerge from our 2011
\The Future for Architects\ report; How will architects be educated in 20 years time? We hope that these broad range of speculations about the future of education will provide opportunities for reflection, and you are invited to join the debate using the form on the right hand side. You can comment on both the theme in general and individual author’s response, if you want to react to an existing comment, please make reference using the ‘title’ field. You are required to input an email address to submit a comment, but you won’t be contacted in any way and it will not display. If you would like to join our mailing list, please sign up using the \home page\

Poppy looked around the group of seven other students. Today they would be presenting their ideas for the conversion of a former cotton mill in Burnley. With London inundated by flooding and south-east England extensively concreted over, Government had declared a moratorium on building south of Birmingham and the previously ignored cities of the north were, at long last, being revived. She welcomed this. As a student of the built environment in the displaced University College London, now renamed the University of Burnley, she could see how important it was to be creatively adapting and re-using, rather than demolishing, old buildings and infrastructure. Not only did this respect the achievements of past generations, it was also a vital low carbon option.

Her fellow group members were mostly female, though there were two chaps – one training as an interior designer, the other to become a specialist in managing buildings for the elderly. The others – the girls – were focusing on civil engineering, structural engineering, building services, building procurement and building economics. She herself was mostly interested in becoming an architect, although these disciplinary definitions were becoming largely obsolete as, once qualified, all would become members of the Royal Institute of the Built Environment, RIBE. They had joined the university’s School of the Built Environment together and had shared a common first year. Their second year had been more specialised; some were attracted to engineering topics, others to climate adaptation, building economics or procurement.

She found herself more drawn to three dimensional spatial layouts in what used to be taught separately as ‘architecture’. Perhaps it was in her genes as her aunt was an architect, and so was her grandfather. She knew from him it was only two generations ago when architects hand drew – yes hand drew – plans and sections with pen and ink on tracing paper and posted out printed copies! At least her aunt had grown up with computers and used them to generate and visualise her design work as part of a comprehensive building information model, although the data entry procedures sounded from her aunt’s description to be incredibly old fashioned and tedious using a mouse pointer, keyboard and touch screen!
Much as she enjoyed sketching buildings for pleasure, thank goodness that today WikiRIBE contained complete downloadable details of every UK building larger than 100 square metres, and more international buildings were being added daily. As well as full plans, specifications and cost information, there was feedback from building users operational information including not only energy and water use but measures such as commercial productivity in offices, footfall in retail centres, recovery rates in healthcare campuses, and educational attainment results in schools and colleges.

Having these details in WikiRIBE was an amazing resource although Poppy was fully aware of copyright restrictions and the university rules on plagiarism. Her course also emphasised site assessment, contextual analysis and placemaking; you couldn’t just copy and paste. However, there were model schools and model homes available that had been so refined over time that they far outperformed one-off designs and could be freely used.

Fully prefabricated complete buildings could now be bought off the shelf, either in a basic version or customised with different finishes, internal services and so on. They all looked quite different but, remarkably, underneath they were all from the same mould. The cost of school buildings had almost halved thanks to economies of scale, erection by robots, and healthy competition among suppliers. And because suppliers delivered so many repeat units, it was rare to find defects; there was certainly no need for the mandatory three-month period of ‘sea trials’ required for one-off prototype buildings. Even so, quite a few clients understandably wanted a building tailored to their specific requirements and many supply companies could provide more or less bespoke versions. Refurbishment and conversion of existing buildings, on the other hand, was more challenging and inevitably required a one-off inventive and original solution, which was why university projects were often now based on them.

So it was that Poppy’s group found themselves working on the conversion of an old mill into a modern hospice for the elderly. She intended later to choose one of the RIBE Part Two courses that majored on hospice design and specifically the design of facilities for those suffering from dementia for which, sadly, there was still a growing demand. Not only was it a way to serve society, but this particular specialism – tough as it was to assimilate all the design research literature – would help ensure her future employment.

With the virtual reality tools at her disposal and the resources of WikiRIBE, together with the integrated suite of lighting, structural and sustainability analysis tools the others in the group used, it had taken them only a fortnight to prepare their detailed design proposals. How this contrasted with the days of her grandfather when hand drawing and baton-passing around different professions took months and resulted in just one design option being explored. Even in her aunt’s day developing multiple options to give clients a choice of schemes, each with a different profile for cost and performance, was rare. Today though, the virtual reality prototype design tools were so quick to use that they could offer dozens of alternatives if they wished.

She thought about the process she’d been through with the group. With the specialist expertise around the table that the eight of them had, design decisions were based on a wide range of issues like capital cost, practicality and safety, maintenance and running costs. Her grandfather had told her that in his day clients deferred to the expert judgment of the architect. But she knew those days were past; the most knowledgeable clients knew their way around WikiRIBE as well as, or better than, many designers and were always asking for the evidence from various disciplines that underpinned proposals.

In part the move towards evidence-based design had been driven by the sustainability agenda where many early examples of low carbon buildings had failed to deliver the expected improvements in performance, and it had become apparent that sustainable buildings needed integrated teams. Without it, ambitions such as energy efficiency could easily become a casualty not only of poor communication but even inter-professional rivalry. Once the benefits of integration began to be clearly revealed in terms of better performance and improved value, clients had begun to insist on it. Much of the skill of design had become one of understanding what value meant to clients, and then as an integrated team developing a shared vision that would deliver it. Interdisciplinary design was widely acknowledged as the way, in practice, to design better buildings, and now formed the basis of built environment teaching in academia.

As had become the norm at Burnley University, quite a large group of stakeholders was assembled for the crit. Although she found it hard to believe, grandfather had assured her that in his day there would be only a couple of architect tutors present, who were not at all explicit about the criteria they were using to assess the proposals, and whose interest often seemed to lie primarily in the artistic quality of your rendering, since that was something they could readily judge. How different it was today! At their team presentation they were expecting not just an architect, a structural engineer and a mechanical specialist, but also a building control officer, climate adaptation specialist, and two end users – a medic and a senior manager from the nearby hospice. And the discussion was likely to revolve around a huge range of issues from the social and cultural, to the economic and the environmental. No one individual could know the answers to all the stakeholders’ likely questions. And there would be no hiding place if the team hadn’t done its background research in every aspect of the project.

Still, Poppy knew they’d designed their scheme in accordance with the best practice literature on hospice design and drawing on international projects audited as exemplary. Their three alternative schemes were fully analysed structurally and optimised environmentally; they were costed and the options for procurement were carefully set out. She herself had led on producing the most enthralling totally immersive virtual reality 3D presentation to convey their proposals to stakeholders. She wondered what her grandfather would have made of being so immersed in the representation that you were convinced you could talk to the nurses and reach out to touch the walls.

The team stood eagerly ready to start the presentation, and had agreed Poppy should be the first on. She knew how important it was today for each of them to be able to speak confidently to an audience and, although not a natural presenter, she had attended transferrable skills classes in public speaking offered by the university. She felt sure she would inspire her audience as she launched into the presentation: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to our group’s proposals …’


Sebastian Macmillan trained as an architect at Liverpool University before completing a PhD at the Royal College of Art. After a decade in practice, he became a founding partner of a specialist built environment research consultancy in Cambridge and has written many publications about design, value, and sustainability. He is currently Course Director for the masters programme Interdisciplinary Design for the Built Environment at the University of Cambridge.