Architectural Blatherations

The RAIA and the Boards of Architects

top rule

The Good Oil

As sociologists of architecture, one of our jobs is to study and analyse the institutions active in the occupation. One of these in Dr Garry's own country is the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) (rebadged in 2008 as the less imperial Australian Institute of Architects (AIA). This is the equivalent of Britain's RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) or the United States' AIA (American Institute of Architects).

Why we don't like the RAIA

We have no love for this self-declared champion of Australian architects; nor for its minions, the various state Boards of Architects, the bodies charged by law with registering architects.

We think the history of the RAIA shows that it is a prize collection of nitwits; who serve their members badly, and – quite often – eat their own children. Nor, for that matter, do we here at Architectural Blatherations have any affection for its sister institutions, the RIBA or the AIA.

We have no problem in them representing themselves as architects' unions. Someone has to. And a union's job is to secure the very best conditions that it can for its members. Sounds good to us! But none of these organisations claims to be a union. Oh no. They all claim to be advancing Civilization. What we find offensive are these two hypocrisies:

The RAIA's minions: the Boards of Architects

We don't think there is any point in distinguishing between the Institute and the Boards. Although in theory independent, the Boards are no more than the judicial arm of the RAIA. According to the Boards, their job is to ensure that only fit and proper persons are registered as architects. They hold themselves out as the protector of the public.

As was revealed so graphically at the Australian Productivity Commission hearings, they do nothing of the sort. At the time of the hearings, architectural incompetence was not a grounds in law for deregistration. An architect may be a bad designer, a bad estimator of time and cost, and even an outright rogue. But the Boards had no power to discipline the inept. They spent their time disciplining people who may well be excellent designers, but who fall foul of some legal technical requirements.

For 75 years in Dr Garry's home state of New South Wales in Australia, incompetence and ineptitude were no impediment to registration. How outré! The situation changed only when the Architects Act came into force in June 2004. We discuss this very significant reform here.

Only the wealthy need apply

The RAIA is, first and foremost, a club for the rich. Membership of the RAIA is open to students doing accredited courses, and to registered architects. It is not open to the many Australian professionals working as building designers who are not formally registered architects. The essential difference between building designers and architects lies in their class origins. Architects originate from wealthy families, building designers from a few rungs down the socio-economic scale. Architects went to university, most building designers did not. Most clients of architects are large corporations or affluent individuals, while building designers' clients are middle-class people or small companies.

The distinction is not, as the RAIA would have it, a matter of the designer's skills; but of the designer's class background. Nothing shows this more than the RAIA's membership criteria. A 17-year old child from the upper-class attending the right course at the right university can join; a 47-year old woman with 25 years design experience cannot, if she failed to attend such a course.

A bad advertisement for the profession

Engineers and quite a few clients lament a problem that has bedevilled architects for generations, their inability to bring jobs in on budget. There are many great buildings constructed on time and without excessive cost, but there are enough that are not for the problem to be a standing joke in the industry. We certainly don't think that the architects are always to blame, and we suspect that architects are usually the least of the problem.

Nonetheless, the last thing architects need is an embarrassing cost overrun. The New South Wales chapter of the RAIA landed their own members in exactly this embarrassment over the renovation of Tusculum in 1986-88. Tusculum is a beautiful and venerable heritage-listed building that the chapter decided would make a fitting headquarters. Very proper, too. It had been neglected for decades. The chapter appointed a very respected firm to renovate the building, and they did a magnificent job.

Alas, the cost was staggeringly over budget. So vast was the gap between estimate and reality that the chapter was obliged to ask every member in the state to cough up a special levy to pay for the overrun. It seems someone had overlooked the massive termite damage, amongst other matters. Dear oh dear. If they can't even look after their own jobs, what should the public expect?

The wet sock lobby group

Of course, the RAIA's function is to be a lobby group for architects. Great. That's their job. If they were any good at it, there might be some justification for their existence. But fees though they take, little do they do. Their most recent failure is their dismal performance in their submission to the Australian Productivity Commission. You can read about it here. As a lobby group, the RAIA has the same impact as a wet sock.

Renouncing your own membership

The RAIA may not be a great pro-active organisation, but this might be acceptable if they were good at protecting their members. To the contrary, there is a large segment of their membership that they specifically disavow.

The RAIA likes to hold out that it is the voice of Australian architecture, but if you take architecture as the design of buildings, then only 30% of all those who are involved in the design of buildings are members. About two-thirds of these members are partners, directors or owners; in short, the bosses.

The remainder who are working for a salary get short shrift indeed. Indeed, the RAIA has formally declared that it makes no attempt to defend their interests! We quote Mr Peter Gargett, RAIA National Past President, speaking in Architecture Australia (vol 85, no. 3, 1996):

But for obvious reasons, [the RAIA] cannot take sides on industrial disputes between different sections of the profession—such as the current notice of demand to many employers from APESMA [Architects Branch of the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers] on behalf of employee architects.

Obvious, our arses! If we were a novice architect sitting in front of a CAD station, we'd certainly be unhappy that our so-called national institute said that it sided with our employers and couldn't give a damn about us.

The RAIA is a union for bosses, clear and simple. Now, we have absolutely no problem with an organisation that acts for employers, let us say: in Australia, the Association of Consulting Architects does this quite nicely.

We had previously written that What we do object to is an organisation that claims to act for all, when it actually acts for a few. We received an email from Ms Sandra Draganich, RAIA Research Manager, in which she admits that:

the RAIA exclusively represents these architects [owners, directors and partners] and not employed architects.

So the Institute has at last cast off its pretensions to represent all Australian architects. It would seem that salaried architects would do far better by joining the Building Designers Association of Australia. We also think that they should check out the International Union of Building Centres.

Eating your own

All the RAIA's energies seem to be deployed in attacking their own kind, through their friends on the state Architects Boards. Examine the rare prosecutions that have been launched by the sundry Boards. Very, very few have been to protect the public against architectural incompetence, the supposed objective of the Boards. In fact, the only two cases we can think of involved two architects who were struck off after they were convicted of murder!

No: the Boards do not exist to protect the public from bad architects. They exist to protect architects from a vengeful public. Large companies are more than capable of protecting themselves, but the average Aussie bloke finds it difficult to have complaints heard.

The Boards' main function is to guard the title of 'architect' from pollution by unqualified outsiders. A worthwhile objective, no doubt, but the Boards are quite vicious in whom they prosecute.

The case of Mr David Beetson

For the malice of the Board's attacks against their own, we offer two examples. First, the case of Mr David Beetson, of Western Australia. You can read his story here. Mr Beetson is an experienced building designer, with the standard architectural qualification in Australia, a Bachelor of Architecture degree. But he never bothered to register.

In 1994 the poisonous toads at local Board of Architects prosecuted him for listing his degree on his business card, claiming that by so doing he was purporting to be registered. We find this utterly incredible: that in some Australian states, it is illegal to state that you have your own academic degrees; and that the local architects are keen to prosecute you for doing so.

Case of McDougall & Vines

And this from the architect Ms Elizabeth Vines, published in Architecture Australia in 1996 (vol 85, no. 5):

This letter is to express my dismay about our recent dealings with the South Australian Architects Board. I am a registered architect (in four states) and have practiced as a conservation architect for 20 years. I have been in practice for 10 years in South Australia, in partnership with Katrina McDougall, a historian specialising in architectural and social history. Our business name, McDougall & Vines Architectural and Heritage Consultants, was recently deemed by the board to be illegal. I requested to meet with the board to discuss this matter; the response was a solicitor's letter informing us that a $1000 fine would apply if we did not change our name within two weeks. We were required to remove all reference to 'architectural' since my business partner is a historian and not an architect.

The Architects Act makes it quite clear that there is a possibility for the board to act on their discretion in such a matter. The board's lawyers informed us that they had no intention of making any exceptions, and our request for personal discussions about the matter went unheeded. We have practised for 10 years now and have established a reputation as one of South Australia's leading heritage practices. There has never been any intent within the practice to mislead anyone as to the qualifications or expertise of the partners—architectural matters are dealt with by me and research and historical issues are dealt with by my partner; conservation policy is dealt with jointly. This was all clearly explained to the registrar, Ms Fiona Ritchie. However, despite our seemingly amicable discussions, the matter has been dealt with in this peremptory manner.

Under the Act, it is possible for us to include 'architectural' in our title if we incorporate into a company or, indeed, if I was to marry my business partner, this would be a straightforward matter! However, our accountant has advised us against a change of business structure due to unnecessary added costs. Had we incorporated into a company, our business and professional activities would not have changed in any way.

I strongly support the board's endeavour to restrict the use of the word 'architect' or its derivative to those who are qualified to use it. I believe that I am entitled in my business structure to use this title. Informal discussions with board members in Victoria indicate that this situation would be unlikely to arise in that state. I certainly feel let down by the attitude of the South Australian board and just wonder what value I have received from my annual fee to be a registered architect. I feel that my partner and I have been treated with less courtesy than could be expected, with little regard for our professional qualifications and reputations.