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ACAN EDUCATION – Interview Series VOL.3

Ruth Dalton

Architect, Author and Inaugural Professor of Architecture at the Lancaster School of Architecture

ACAN Education has been interviewing a diversity of leading lights in the climate crisis and education debate. These interviews form an ongoing body of research and outreach for us as a group and it was deemed that the material was too good not to share and, importantly, the time for knowledge sharing is now. We can only create positive change together!

We approached Ruth Dalton to interview because of her recent exemplary work co-founding a new architecture school in Lancaster. The school is “based on the future of architectural practice, addressing real contemporary global problems including the climate emergency, workforce automation, data security and the aging population.” We were inspired by the school’s fresh approach to education and the environment and we were eager to find out more.

Back at the start of April we sent 5 questions to Ruth Dalton to answer. The questions were devised by the whole ACAN Education group and touched on key points of the debate. The fruits of these discussions have informed an RIBA article, to be published in Autumn 2020, and have become inspiration for upcoming ACAN Education campaigns so stay tuned and enjoy.

Q. What are your personal thoughts on the state of architectural education at the moment? In relation to the climate crisis or more generally.

RD. Generally, architectural education has been remarkably stable since the 1950s but now, with a plethora of different routes, such as degree/graduate apprentices, springing up, there are suddenly many more options open to students. From an educator’s perspective it’s an incredibly exciting time since it feels as if the possibilities and opportunities for innovation are boundless but I recognise that for prospective students it may feel harder to select the correct route for them.

In terms of education related to the climate crisis, at the moment there are three ways of approaching this: 1. Specialist provision (mostly specialist masters courses); 2. ‘Bolt-on’ (a single module/studio dedicated to the topic, often optional); 3. Ignored. In my view, architectural education of sustainable design needs to be fully integrated like the warp and weft of fabric where design is the warp and the climate crisis becomes the weft, woven into, and integral to every other educational activity.

Q. Can ARB prescription and RIBA validation be effective mechanisms for change given the urgency of the crises?

RD. Yes, these are effective mechanisms (also the new QAA benchmark), since they already specify the required graduate attributes (a proven route for ensuring educational quality) for a student and these do already include references to students having an understanding of sustainable design and environmental and sustainability legislation. Now perhaps it could be argued that these issues could feature more prominently in the prescription. The question is, therefore, not whether these mechanisms are correct but whether the graduate attributes need further revision and whether this can be done rapidly enough. I think the solution is simply for schools to act as if these more ‘enhanced’, climate-focussed, graduate attributes are in place already and to teach in accordance with this ‘enhanced’ or ‘expanded’ set, and let the professional bodies catch up rather than reject outright, because, generally, the validation process does work. 

Q. Or should schools reject this framework - sending the message to ARB and RIBA that their criteria are not fit for purpose?

RD. If not RIBA/ARB then what? I’ve yet to hear of, nor imagine, a valid alternative – so it is far better to tweak and not to throw away. Don’t throw away the baby with the bathwater.

Q. Should there be two tiers of architect - e.g. General Practitioner and Expert Consultant?

RD. I think that the two tiers already co-exist quite harmoniously – so the real question is whether there is any real need for this to be ratified by additional titles and I would have to be convinced of the value of going down this route. Who benefits from these titles: the public or the professional? Who would confer these titles? Would this become another validation process?

Q. And is there a specialist knowledge gap between education and practice?

RD. What do you mean by this? Either you mean that specialist knowledge resides in education (for example university-based research) which isn’t filtering into practice, or you mean that specialist knowledge from practice (i.e. professional practice concerns such as contractual issues) isn’t being adequately addressed by education, or both? I think the answer is probably that it is both, but I also think that this situation varies around the country and differs between schools, practices and individuals (educators and practitioners). At the Lancaster University School of Architecture we are already striving hard to create as close a relationship as possible with local practices and the closer/stronger this relationship can be made the less likely things are to fall between the gaps.

Q. There is a knowledge gap in managerial and collaborative skill sets for graduates. Do you think interdisciplinary live projects are the best way to give them real world experience?

RD. In the past, I have engaged in live projects with students and I found it extremely beneficial for the students but I must stress that the projects all had to be very carefully selected in order to ensure that there was no possibility that the live projects might be taking work away from practising architects (could/should there be national guidance on this?). In terms of encouraging different disciplines of students to collaborate (i.e. engineering students with quantity surveying students and architectures/design students etc.) then this becomes trickier as it is a problem of both curriculum coordination as well as meeting all the different disciplinary prescriptions/validations. However, I have attended a crit/review at ETH Zürich in which such an interdisciplinary group of students worked together on a live project and it certainly demonstrated the immense value of conducting design projects in this way, should the above-mentioned obstacles be overcome.

Q. If students (and tutors) are already overloaded, and we want to add more to ensure climate literacy, what do you take away? Something’s gotta give. What can we afford to take away from the syllabus?

RD. I would refer you back to my answer to Q1 about the warp and weft of fabric – if we consider that climate change should be integral to everything we teach then there is no need for adding-on ‘extras’, but rather it becomes part of our normal, everyday teaching: you sit with your tutor in studio once or twice a week, discussing your design, and they will naturally prompt you for your environmental strategy; if you are having a review/crit you would expect to be asked questions about your scheme’s embodied carbon or type of insulation used etc.; in architectural history/theory, expect to learn about vernacular methods of temperature control etc. I don’t think anything has to give, I just think that the climate crisis has to become utterly normalised so as to be part of our everyday conversation, all the time. When I was a student in the early 1990s, I attended a review, in which a student had included some alternative energy solutions, only to be rebuked, by a reviewer, that it was “hippy shit” (and yes, this really did happen!). This can never happen again; we should not even notice (except by its absence) when a scheme attempts to address climate change; it is integral to the design. Warp and weft!

We would like to thank Ruth Dalton for the time she gifted us to respond to these questions. Find out more about Ruth Dalton’s work and the Lancaster School of Architecture here. If anyone would like to join/contribute to ACAN and ACAN Education please sign up and let’s make change happen!