04-06 March 2025
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Opinion Piece

It's time to act now

People’s Pavilion unpacked! by bureau SLA & Overtreders W with Arup ©Jeroen van der Wielen

Opinion piece by Duncan Baker Brown, Architect, Academic & Environmental Activist, Founder at BakerBrown

I want to thank Futurebuild for giving me the opportunity to write an opinion piece. I’ve been a big fan of the event for 20 years and since 2013 my students, academic colleagues and practice have been involved with this important annual event. I say important, but I should also mention that it is impactful. Why? Well, it’s one of the only construction industry events that I know of that actively encourages students, consultants, industry leaders, contractors, clients, politicians and all parts of the construction industry supply chain to its three-day event – where participants can see innovative products and hear thought leaders from industry and academia discussing the most pressing topics in our industry. So yes, I am a fan.

More than any other organisation, Futurebuild has allowed me to develop ideas around low carbon, sustainable and closed loop circular design by letting us host the WasteZone symposium for nearly ten years. This enabled the development of an international research community that stretches across UK, Europe and the rest of the world. All this was done when the circular economy, nature-based solutions, re-use and retrofit were minority and fringe interests. This network has enabled me to co-edit a new book with WasteZone veteran Prof. Graeme Brooker. It documents the teaching practices of circular economy principles across UK and Europe. Published by Routledge in June, it is called ‘The Pedagogies of Re-Use’. This book and the forthcoming second edition of my book ‘The Re-Use Atlas’ to be published by RIBA in September, simply would not have been possible if I hadn’t had the opportunity to curate the three-day WasteZone symposium at FutureBuild. The last time we held this event in 2019 we had nearly 60 speakers, with over 30 of them from across Europe, discussing the challenges and opportunities applying circularity at the scale of a city will provide us all in our battle to become an authentic low carbon industry.

Now in 2024 we are in a different world, one where perhaps an architect, academic and climate activist such as me might well be considered mainstream, the norm? To tell you the truth, I think that this is definitely the case. Since 2021 I have sat on the RIBA National Council where I co-chair the Climate Action Expert Advisory Group. Perhaps this is no surprise. However, what might be a less obvious move is that I have now decided that I want to be the next President of RIBA. It’s not a decision I take lightly, but one where I believe the time is right for someone with my 30 years of experience running a regional medium sized architecture practice whilst continually teaching and researching as well will serve the institution, its nearly 50,000 members, and the rest of our industry, very well. In these times of climate crisis, accompanied by the energy and cost of living crisis, we really do need to take stock and do things differently, to act now in a well-informed way to try and slow down the very quick march towards climate and ecological catastrophe. I really believe that the RIBA must effect positive change on our industry with its fantastic community of nearly 50,000 members, including over 15,000 students and 5,000 colleagues spread out across the globe.

As futurebuild identified this year and last, retrofit, re-use and the adaptation of the existing built environment is the big topic of debate, as well as being a massive opportunity for future work for all parts of the construction industry and the most likely route to net zero carbon. It has also become very apparent that it will be a huge opportunity for architects, especially as I believe that this embryonic industry will be incentivised in the not-so-distant future. When this happens retrofit and reuse will need the creative and diverse design responses that architects can deliver in order to meet this huge challenge. We therefore need to act now, and we need to work together across all disciplines.

If I am given the opportunity to be RIBA President I will focus on encouraging more cross-industry collaboration. What I have noticed over recent years, first with LETI and then with the forthcoming UK Net Zero Carbon Buildings Standard (to be published later this year), is our industry coming together with one voice to lobby for change. By doing this together, I believe we will affect the positive changes required to create the economic and legislative environment to sustain a vibrant green economy delivering the authentic low carbon, climate resilient, healthy and accessible built environment we all need to co-exist with our beautiful planet.

I would also argue that our industry has enough great guides to low carbon design. What we need now is the legislation to support genuine green economies and the resultant low carbon built environment this will create. Obviously, legislation comes by lobbying those who legislate, i.e., MP’s, government Ministers, lawyers, as well as the businesses, community groups, NGO’s and other people who can effect positive change for the planet. This is something I know RIBA is good at. However, I’m not wanting RIBA to work alone here. We need to continue to work together with all parts of the construction sector to present a unified and powerful message to government – “We know what to do and this is how we are going to do it”.

Now, getting back to my particular ambitions. Being an architect (or any part of the design and delivery team for that matter) in the third decade of the 21st Century is challenging. This much we know. However, it can be a lot of fun, a force for positive change and enormously rewarding. After 30years + in the industry, I feel that my particular and diverse experience lends itself to the particular and numerous challenges presenting the RIBA, our profession, and the whole construction industry today. I could waste space in the email describing the numerous challenges RIBA has, including those that appear self-inflicted. However, what has struck me more are the big positives RIBA presents and perhaps doesn’t make enough of. For example, RIBA has many very knowledgeable, talented, and supportive staff working very hard on our behalf. On my recent travels across the UK, Europe and to the last two COPs, I can’t help but notice that RIBA has a lot of respect. People want to engage with RIBA and its representatives. It opens doors and has the potential to be an impactful lobbyer on our behalf. More recently I have been inspired by the progress shown within the institution around issues of equality, diversity, and inclusion, as well as an understanding that there needs to be a just transition and access to the huge opportunities our green industries will provide. And so, to be clear, I am very keen to build on the work of our current President Muyiwa Oki, as well as that of our recent Past-President Simon Allford.

Despite these positive aspects, there is no getting away with it, at the same time RIBA are investing in the major refurbishment of its headquarters at 66 Portland Place (a project I support), RIBA has lost contact with many of its members – especially since COVID, the regional cutbacks that followed, and the ongoing student debt and staffing cutbacks in academia. So, if I get the opportunity to be RIBA President, I will focus on the following issues with all members in mind:

  • ARCHITECTS ADD VALUE, LET’S SHOUT ABOUT IT. Given the support of the RIBA we can convince clients and governments of the value of what we do. RIBA needs to invest and develop a short, medium, and long-term ambitious and comprehensive communications plan explaining the massive potential of our worldwide membership community and the value of the services we provide.
  • NEW WORK OPPORTUNITIES I will get the whole of our membership engaged with the massive opportunity for work that a creative and diverse approach to retrofit presents us all.. We need our members to provide creative, diverse, cost-effective, and impactful solutions to this challenge, and it is often small practices who are already well versed in doing just this. We can apply a similar argument to the opportunities presented by meeting the demands of the Building Safety Act. AI, and the housing crisis.
  • EDUCATION I studied part-time for my degree whilst working for an architect four days a week. I came from a working-class family without the money to support me through my degree. However, studying part-time gave me huge opportunities and set me up very well, but it was hard, and I ended up with a lump of debt a bit like most students have today. In my capacity as Principal Lecturer and Climate Literacy Champion at the University of Brighton, where I currently run a Masters Architecture Studio, I am very much aware of the huge challenges presented to all our students and academics trying to navigate their way through increased debt, having to hold down jobs whilst studying full-time, reduced staffing numbers and a need to make sure we are teaching and learning the right stuff. I will be lobbying RIBA to be a louder and more present voice in the current and future discussions around making our wonderful subject area more accessible to as many people as possible.
  • SUPPORTING SMALL PRACTICES Running a practice of any size has never been easy. I will work to make sure that RIBA has small practices in mind and develop cost-effective access to the currently unaffordable NBS, as well as better and more affordable PII cover. We also need an affordable way to train and sign up to the RIBA Principal Designer Register, Conservation Architect Register, as well as the forthcoming Lead Carbon Designer Register. A great idea but where will small practices find the money to sign up? I will also look at ways to engage a lot more with regional practices; for RIBA to promote the brilliant work being done across the nation. This could be an extension of the current LIF programme, especially if 66 Portland Place is closed for renovation for 3-4 years. I would suggest that the budget used to facilitate events at Portland Place would be handed over to RIBA regions who would each get a period of, say 3-4months, where they are in effect running the nation events programme for RIBA. A bit like the FA did when Wembley Stadium was closed for redevelopment and region stadiums held the international games.

I couldn’t have asked for a more interesting and enjoyable career in our industry. Combining research with teaching and practice has been extremely rewarding, and at times exhausting. It sometimes feels that I have done a bit of everything, but somehow, I have carved out a bit of a career or as my former colleague Gem Barton would say “Don’t get a job….Make a job”…… and I think that’s what we all have to do, work together to make a (good) job!

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