Interview – Carole Pollard, President RIAI

Carole Pollard discusses the challenges and successes that lie ahead for the Irish architecture industry, and what she would like to see as her legacy as president of the RIAI.

“There are empty buildings in every town and city in Ireland. Is residential use the best use for them now? Architects are best placed to figure how we look at this and how towns continue to work. Architects are at the forefront of these decisions, so it is imperative that the voice of the architect is heard on all matters relating to construction.”

So says Carole Pollard, president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, a powerhouse who is committed to guiding her industry through the next phase, as the industry begins to dust off the remnants of the recession and find it’s footing once again.

Architecture was always on the cards for Pollard, who as a child constructed dolls houses and drew plans of houses and cities. “I was always very creative as a child; art was my favourite subject and I was always making things. I think I was always very aware of buildings and of spaces. I had a sense of rooms that were well designed – I wouldn’t have had that language, but I was aware of how some spaces made me feel more comfortable or happier and how some spaces made me feel very uncomfortable, so there was always that sense of space and an interest in it.”

Sharing Of Knowledge

After graduating in 1988, she set up on her own in 1992, after her first child was born. “I very quickly became aware that I didn’t have a person to toss ideas around with and discuss difficulties with,” she explains. “Greg Tisdall, who was a friend of mine from college, and I were involved in the setting up of the small practice forum here at the RIAI. That would have been where I would have to credit the mentoring I got in the early years. It was very much peer mentoring, but it was a very valuable group of contacts and we would get speakers in on a particular topic and we would all discuss it.” Pollard cites mentorship as something that her members call for all the time. “It went by the wayside a little here at the RIAI because of time pressure”, she admits. “There used to be a group of older architects that provided mentoring, and I would have availed of that myself, from time to time. Kathryn Meghen, the CEO of RIAI and myself are trying to re-establish a mentor program.”

No Challenge Is Insurmountable

There is no doubt that the construction industry has begun to recover, and with it, the architecture industry is beginning to blossom again. What does Carole identify as the key challenges that architects need to face in order to move forward? “For quite a number of years now, the industry has had a very low level of activity, and during that time a lot of new legislation has come into place. Building Control Amendment Regulation has come through, and there’s new health and safety legislation, and then there’s things like BIM and Lean technology waiting in the wings,” she states. “The level of activity was so slow that we haven’t had an opportunity to test these changes, certainly with BCAR it’s only really in the past twelve months that practices have been able to test this.”

A lack of young, qualified architects to shoulder some of the workload is another huge challenge for the industry, according to Pollard. “A lot of practices are hiring again and we really need our young architects to come home from abroad,” she says. “Salaries need to improve, there is no doubt about that. We have a very high standard of architecture here in Ireland and it is internationally recognised, so I don’t think that there is any fear of being in a backwater by coming to Ireland to work – our practices are producing cutting edge design and technology”.

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Architecture Welcomes New Technology

The RIAI is in no doubt that technology like BIM will prove to be a huge asset to their industry. “BIM is very important to the industry,” states Pollard. “It means different things to different practices and different projects. I can see the larger practices embracing BIM more quickly; practices that are involved in projects like hospitals and industrial projects. I chaired a CitA conference recently and I really see the benefit of BIM in terms of the ongoing maintenance of a building, in understanding the running of a building”. There is no doubt that new technology throws up new challenges, but Pollard is convinced of its benefits. “It will affect different architects in different ways, but it is definitely something that we as an industry need to embrace and architects need to get a hold of in terms of managing it and using it to produce well designed buildings, not just technical ones. In this way, architects have a key role to play.”

A Sustainable Career

Passionate about championing a ‘sustainable career’ for all architects, Pollard says that the process begins at the very start of an architect’s career. “I ran the professional practice exam here in the RIAI and I teach professional practice at DIT so I engage with the graduates,” she says. “I see the proliferation of ‘internships’, Job-Bridge schemes that are not used in the true way they were intended to be used. I see a lot of people working long hours for little or no pay, and that’s not sustainable. It makes architecture as a career the preserve of the middle classes, because effectively those architects are being subsidised by their families”.

Financial planning is key to maintaining a sustainable career, according to Pollard. “I have seen architects and their families hit by a serious illness or premature death or even retirement and all of a sudden they find themselves in financial difficulty because there hasn’t been financial planning in place. The salaries and the fee levels aren’t enough to sustain people when they get side-lined, so it’s about looking at that whole area,” she explains. “Kathryn Meghen and I are in the process of arranging a Business of Architecture summit in the summer, with the aim of assisting architects to improve their skills in terms of running their architecture practice as a business and with a view to driving up fees to the profession. Construction is completely cyclical. The recession we have just come through is not the last and it’s not the first, so everybody, particularly those of us who work in the construction industry, need to plan for the next financial downturn.”

Architects In The Community

Pollard believes that by involving architects in community planning, towns and villages will run more successfully. “I really think that architects have a huge amount to contribute to society. We are very good at communicating ideas about space and about towns and villages, and I think it’s a resource that communities could really benefit from” she attests.

“One of the things we’d like to see is the idea of an architect for every town. This means local authority architects, and architects within the community get involved with the business owners, the various departments of the local authority, the local chamber of commerce and look at other towns and villages and how to make them better places to live.”

As more and more projects go to site, and the industry works to find a solution to the housing crisis that is strangling the country, Carole Pollard is convinced that the voice of the architect offers a hugely important angle to every decision pertaining to construction. “Architects have the skills and the facts and figures, so we are well placed to influence policy through our knowledge and expertise.”