Saturday 21 April 2018

The right moves: Architects delivering value with leadership, creativity and innovation

David Browne
David Browne

Paul McNeive

David Browne, Managing Partner of RKD Architects, has taken over as President of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) for 2018/19. He comes to the role determined that "architects will deliver best value to their clients and society, by showing leadership, creativity and innovation." I met him at RIAI headquarters to discuss the architects' perspective on design, planning and construction.

One of his first initiatives has been to appoint a panel of spokespeople to comment on major issues such as the National Development Plan. "In the past, architects have avoided speaking as publicly as they might" but Browne thinks it important that "the measured voice of architecture" is readily available to comment on important topics.

Architects play an important role in working with government and shaping legislation that has an impact on the built environment - such as the new apartment guidelines and building controls. Browne wants to see that work ramped up, with architects "moving more into the public eye".

One important example he mentions is the regeneration of towns and villages throughout Ireland. Browne feels that architects can bring a lot of thought and vigour to that process. Next month, the RIAI will launch its 'Town and Village Toolkit', which has been developed jointly with government. This initiative aims to help people and local authorities bring 'character and viability' back into their towns and villages. It will provide practical advice on making towns great places to live, supporting moves such as - converting vacant shops into living accommodation, and advising on issues like sustainability and accessibility.

RIAI have long called for the appointment of 'town architects', but, recognising that resources can be a problem, it hopes that the 'toolkit' will encourage local authorities to engage architects from private practice to help with regeneration. Browne cites IDA advice - that making a town a nice place to live - will boost the chances of attracting multinational investment.

As regards cities, Browne is a supporter of achieving greater densities. To demonstrate his point, he showed me aerial photographs of Dublin and Amsterdam - cities with similar populations. He overlaid an outline of Amsterdam on tracing paper, over Dublin, and the built area of Amsterdam was roughly equivalent to just the south side of Dublin. "The average height of European cities of Dublin's size is six to eight, maybe ten stories" he told me "so we don't necessarily need 20 to 40 stories. A lot of increasing density can be achieved by building apartments instead of houses, and infill development".

RIAI fed into the National Development Plan, of which they are "generally supportive" and Browne says it is vital to maintain the urban growth boundary around Dublin, which will underpin higher densities. He also told me that it is important to have more mixed-use development, and to mix generations, to avoid isolating older communities and create more vibrant and interesting cities.

However, RIAI are calling for government to commit to an initial five-year capital programme, which identifies particular infrastructural projects. This, he says, will allow a construction sector at full capacity to plan a more ordered approach and smooth out the peaks and troughs of the market.

In 2014 the new building control regulations caused considerable division among architects but David Browne says that the new system has brought significant improvement. "We're four or five years into it now, and a new culture is developing. Every day, architects are seeing more rigorous inspections." However, he says that "RIAI is calling loudest for a revised wording on the sign-off by the assigned certifier, that better reflects the realities of on-site inspection".

RIAI are concerned that the Construction Industry Register Ireland, which was to have been set up by government by 2015, and then 2018, is still not in place. The Construction Industry Federation (CIF) has established a non-statutory register, but Browne wants the statutory register in place as a matter of urgency, "to protect consumers and less experienced clients".

Browne told me that the improvement in business for architects is finally being felt in the regions and he also pointed to the strong levels of business which Irish architects are handling overseas. For example, Browne's own firm, RKD, which has 160 staff, derives 15pc to 20pc of its income abroad, which he suggests is not unusual. "Irish architects are punching above their weight" he concluded.

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