Upbeat design teacher

Incoming RIBA president Ruth Reed believes that the value of good design is recognised in government and commercial circles and will survive the downturn, Eeva Berglund discovers.

"The way that we design is going to have to change as building performance becomes central to the brief. It is not just buildings that have to change, but how people use them," says Ruth Reed, who took over the presidency of RIBA last month.

Reed bases this assessment on personal experience. She has worked for the public and private sectors, in rural and urban areas, on industrial sites and housing estates, on housing layout and landscape and large and small developments. Planning, she believes, must change.

Now an enthusiastic teacher, her fondest memories are associated with rural Mid Wales, where she started a small practice in 1992. From 2002 to 2004, she worked as a planning inspector. "I saw the extremes of life, from the landed gentry of the Home Counties to the backyard shed in Hounslow with jets grazing the roofs," she says.

Taking office in RIBA's 175th year, Reed is its first female president. "Yes, we are behind the times," she laughs, although she prefers to concentrate on being a role model and highlights her regional and rural associations more than her gender.

Reed seems unfazed by the gloom that has descended on construction. The government recognises the value of good design and the challenge is to build on this, she argues. "I would like to keep design in the broadest sense in the game, as building performance and as commodity, firmness and delight," she adds, smiling as she quotes Vitruvius's ancient maxim.

She is unafraid to see politics enter the built environment debate. Large and expensive public projects such as Building Schools for the Future, hospitals and the London 2012 Olympics are inevitably political and have heightened people's awareness of design and delivery, she reasons. The boom made design explicitly political as the creative industries became an extremely marketable commodity, she argues: "So anything that has a market has its politics."

Reed has also seen the recession bite at the Birmingham School of Architecture, where she is course director on its postgraduate diploma. "We are leaching talent," she notes. But the recession offers a breathing space for those students who keep their jobs. "We did an analysis on the profession and students put the recession under 'opportunities'. As part-timers, many have been working through the boom. They pointed out that as everyone has been working at a headlong pitch for so long, now is the time to tidy our desks and remember what it is we are doing."

While she insists that architecture still has glamour, she finds that public sector planning can be negative. "The role for planners in interpreting design for their committee frequently falls down because they do not have the visualisation ability. It is often left to a non-architect to try to convey a design. When it comes to urban design and context, architect-planners have a stronger sense of what they are delivering. So there is a skills gap," she says.

"A lot of things are creeping into planning that should not be there," she adds, citing building performance and section 106 deals. "We have tough times ahead and will need to deliver high-performing buildings on ridiculously small budgets," she warns. But she would like to see an enhanced role for design teams and a shift to a value agenda in which good design and architecture are key.

She identifies a need for this in her work with consultancy Green Planning Solutions. "A lot of the time we deal with the failure of design. We can tell clients that rather than appeal they would be better off having another go at designing." Many architects think that planning is just to do with buildings, but she recognises that the reality is more complex and intellectually challenging. "The green belt is an extraordinary gift. But we have an urban and a rural life that do not recognise each other's values."

The Chelsea Barracks debacle highlighted issues of heritage, social difference and values in London. Here too, Reed sees a silver lining. "The great thing about it was how it came after Prince Charles's speech to RIBA in May. It gave all of us a chance to talk about design, linking it to performance and general quality regardless of style. It is a message that is getting out there."

Reed has been critical of the London bias in architecture and promises to bring regional voices to the heart of the RIBA. After touring the country, she plans to publish her findings on the changes that 15 years of economic growth have bequeathed. "We are having a breather," she says. "We are taking stock."

Age: 53
Family: Two daughters
Education: Degree in architecture and MA in landscape, University of
Interests: Walking, gardening, music, photography
2009: President, RIBA
2007: Partner, Green Planning Solutions
2006: Course director, postgraduate diploma in architectural practice,
Birmingham School of Architecture
2004: President, Royal Society of Architects in Wales
1992: Principal, Reed Architects
1988: Architect, South Yorkshire Housing Association
1983: Architect, Hadfield Cawkwell Davidson
1981: Architectural assistant, Whelmar (Yorkshire)

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