Monk building for future success

September 22, 1995

Assessors from the Royal Institute of British Architects will step into the nerve centre of a new Pounds 2 million teaching complex at Luton University next July to assess the final year's work of a group of architecture students.

The arrival of RIBA officials at Luton's department of the built environment will be crunch time for a course that is the first in 15 years to obtain - provisionally - Part I recognition from the institute. The results of the assessors' visit will decide whether the course merits RIBA's final seal of approval.

Anthony Monk, professor of architecture at Luton and recently-appointed architectural adviser to the Sports Council National Lottery awards panel, is optimistic: "RIBA has said that it is pleasantly surprised by the standard of work that has been accomplished so far."

Professor Monk, founder and ex-managing director of the HLM Architects, a leading practice with a line in hospital buildings, says a key objective at Luton is to ensure that the new course reflects the massive changes the profession has undergone in recent years. "Instead of being an individualist, a prima donna architect, the main thing that is required of us by society and as a profession today is to be very valuable members of the building team."

Architects are now members of a multidisciplinary building team, something Luton's department of the built environment mirrors by running its established construction management and building surveying degree courses in parallel with its new architecture course. Students from all three subjects study a common syllabus in the first year and are required to collaborate in groups on building projects. This forces them to learn and appreciate each other's skills and the mechanics of working as part of a building team.

The Luton course is not therefore about training people to be like Norman Foster or Richard Rogers, both of whom were colleagues of Professor Monk on Yale University's prestigious Master's course in architecture in the early 1960s. Professor Monk says: "At Luton we are training mainstream architects who will be valuable players in an architectural practice but who could also function effectively in construction management, as property developers, directors of building companies or as very informed clients."

He says that there is a sore need in the profession for such broadly-based, technologically aware architects. "People assume that in architecture you train people to be like the talented half dozen people who are world famous. That is their image of what an architect is."

More than 90 per cent of buildings built around the country need to be practical, durable, energy conscious and fit in with the surroundings. High-profile masterpieces are few and far between. Professor Monk suggests that many of the problems of the profession in recent years stem from its inability to act upon the needs of the mainstream projects: "If architects have neglected this area it is not surprising that other less well-equipped professionals such as project managers have moved in and said to clients that they must be the custodians of the programme and its cost because the architect cannot be trusted with these responsibilities. If a car-maker is delivering you a delightful car, by God it's got to function, be delivered on time and fulfill all the efficiency and quality criteria. In this day and age that is essentially what most architectural projects have to provide."

In considering other architectural schools in Britain, Professor Monk says that while there is, quite rightly, considerable variation in approach and philosophy, the schools are in general biased towards the arts. The result is that not enough attention has been paid in higher education to the increasingly important technological and practical aspects of professional architecture, in areas such as construction management. The use of new methods of building and computerised management techniques in particular have had a "profound and irreversible" impact on the profession, allowing costs and construction time to be slashed.

A crucial element of these new building methods, and one which is a notable departure from previous practice, is the involvement of the contractor at an early stage in the design stage. This allows the contractor to directly influence the methods of construction to be used, so helping to ensure that major disagreements or changes do not overwhelm site operations at the last minute.

Professor Monk stresses that practices which have come to terms with these developments have done so without undermining the cornerstones of architectural design such as structural elegance, functionality, delightful proportions and attractive spaces.

To illustrate the impact new procurement methods have had on the profession, Professor Monk cites HLM Architects' experience in building two hospitals of similar size.

Bournemouth district general hospital was conceived by HLM in the late 1970s and took ten years to complete. By contrast West Fife hospital, conceived in the early 1990s, took less than five years from conception to occupation.

Professor Monk said: "Now that is a response to American building techniques and US firms that have moved into the European market. Total management, efficiency, decisions at the right time - that's what it is about.

"Those in the profession who have ignored these developments in procurement have become irrelevant. The more enlightened have produced buildings speedily without sacrificing quality and aesthetics."

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