Many of the institutions that I’m involved with or watch; The Edge, RIBA Building Futures, CIBSE, even universities, are presently debating what it means to be a construction professional in the 21st century. We all recognise that construction has to change to deliver the required new paradigm but we haven’t yet figured out by how much.
The main problem as I see it is that society stopped trusting the professions a long time ago. When it has become normal for patients to challenge their doctors over diagnosis or choice of treatment, you can be pretty sure that public appreciation of professionality in general has been completely degraded.
It takes considerable time and effort to become a professional. A Chartered Architect or Chartered Engineer will require around 7 years of education and employment training to qualify, similar to the qualification period for a doctor. This is not something people undertake unless they are committed to their profession.
All members of professional institutions sign up to a code of ethics. These generally impose a duty on them to act in the best interests of society as a whole, not only of their clients. Yet, whilst the public is clearly interested in ethics, it seems no longer to recognise that professionality is synonymous with such ethical behaviour.
This loss of trust is reflected in many aspects of professional life. I often help evaluate applications for public funding of some sort or another. I also help assess applicants for professional qualifications. In both of these areas assessors are often urged to use their judgement to establish clear differentiation between applicants. Yet the awarding bodies deny assessors any freedom to exercise professional judgement by requiring us to follow a strict checklist process. As professional assessors we are no longer trusted to independently exercise our professional judgement.
The rise of project management in construction is another clear symptom of the death of trust in professionality. Clients, particularly in the public sector, require project managers because they no longer trust architects and designers to act in their best interests. They evidently believe that without the controlling hand of an overseer, highly trained and committed professionals would simply run amok. While it is true that there have been a number of high-profile public building debacles, the vast majority of construction professionals do in fact place the client’s interests at the forefront.
In some cases it is clear that high profile projects have gone wrong because the public sector client was unable to contain its ambition or to manage the procurement process. Equally, some of the blame in these cases must attach to the professionals who failed to advise the client properly and allowed the project to run out of control. Nevertheless, there are cases where architectural ambition has exceeded the clients budget, needs or capability. Whatever the cause, the professions as a whole are tarred with these failures.
The professions need to police themselves, and visibly so, if we are to regain the trust of society. Surely a key feature of the ethics of professionalism is the protection of the reputation of one’s entire profession? Public figures can have honours rescinded. Sportspeople can be castigated for bringing their game into disrepute. Should we name and shame the architects and engineers who blithely ignore their clients real needs or promulgate overpriced, underperforming buildings to the detriment of their whole profession? I wonder which of the professional institutions will have the ethical strength to actually enforce such a code of ethical practice?
I agree that we must find a new professionalism for construction. However I fear that unless we also address the shortcomings of the old professionalism, particularly the enforcement of existing codes of ethics and standards of professional conduct, then we will simply be constructing our houses on sand.