• RIAI Conference 2017


Change | Challenge | Collaboration

Change | Challenge | Collaboration

Keynote speakers Alison Brooks and Fintan O’Toole reflected on the universal truths of beauty and sustainability in challenging times. Each session began with a short conference film, featuring RIAI Members nationwide who were interviewed by filmmaker Paddy Cahill on the conference themes.  

Day 1 – Cormac Murray

There was an air of guarded confidence on the opening day of the 2017 RIAI conference. While the economic situation has improved for much of the profession, complex and testing challenges loom large on the minds of a seasoned generation of architects. This double sense of optimism and caution was summarised in the theme set for the conference: Change | Challenge | Collaboration.

The diverse line-up of speakers throughout the day outlined numerous challenges: How can we house a growing population? How can we future-proof our built environment for an ageing population? How can architecture keep up with rapidly changing technology? How can Ireland keep up with a fluctuating global economy? The focus shifted from speaker to speaker from micro to macro scale.

Architect Ciarán Ferrie presented the Abhaile project, which demonstrates the potential to retrofit existing homes, increasing housing capacity and improving conditions for the elderly. John O’Mahony, of OMP Architects and RIAI spokesperson on housing, had a broader outlook, with pragmatic recommendations to improve housing delivery in Ireland. When Eoghan Murphy, Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, addressed the conference he echoed many of the objectives that O’Mahony had outlined as steps to mitigate the worsening housing crisis. Minister Murphy stressed the need for immediate actions with long-term solutions.

Dr. Michael O’Keefe described how recent scientific and technological advancements have transformed the healthcare industry to a point where it is almost impossible to imagine healthcare before these advances. Clare White, a Director with O’Connell Mahon Architects presented a number of completed and upcoming healthcare projects which demonstrated how architects can respond to these changes.

The notions of collaboration with other sectors, disciplines, inclusivity and dialogue were central to many discussions throughout the day. Reiner Nagel outlined how the Baukultur initiative engages all stakeholders in the building industry in Germany – architects, planners and developers – to propose a holistic planning strategy. In Darren Haylock’s presentation on the completed Maggie’s centre in Manchester, the Foster + Associates partner outlined how a relatively small scale building involved close collaboration from the earliest stages between architects, engineers, landscape architects, furniture designers and engineered timber manufacturers, many of whom work in house with Foster + Associates.

The nature of the professional was debated by Dr. Alan Mee and Tom Holbrook under the topic ‘The Generalist vs. The Specialist’. Tom Holbrook brought an international outlook to his debate, noting that many global issues such as climate change or rapid urbanisation require ‘solutions that are patient with the problem’. The generalist, he believes, is the best equipped to provide these solutions. Dr. Alan Mee argued that the complexity of specific problems facing the profession requires specialist engagement and specialist expertise in response. He explained the theory that professionals need to be ‘T’-shaped, covering a broad spectrum of knowledge in the horizontal, but in-depth knowledge in a specific area, the vertical.

Seán Donlon, a former Irish diplomat, spoke briefly of architecture as a reflection on the values of a country, referring to the beautiful Irish embassy buildings in Europe. The notion of beauty was central to the work of the day’s keynote speaker, London-based architect Alison Brooks. She described how beauty is a term avoided by architects and rejected by the functional ideals of the modern project. Brooks outlined her practice’s ideals: authenticity, generosity, civicness and beauty. Presenting projects from conception to completion, Brooks indicated how each project’s beauty is inherited from its brief, situation and architectural concept.  

Day 2 – Aoife Grogan

Saturday continued the theme of challenge, change and collaboration with the morning focusing on climate change and its impact on our built environment. To begin the day’s affairs we were presented with a sobering fact from Dr. Patrick Bresnihan, Department of Geography, Trinity College: “We are coming up to the thirty year anniversary of the announcement that human activity is responsible for 98% of climate change”. The need to create healthier buildings is crucial to solving this startling fact. While homeowners are encouraged to reduce the use of energy, industries are dramatically increasing their energy consumption.

The benefits of using sustainable architecture in offices was covered by Dr. Judit Kimpian, Architect and Director of Sustainable Architecture & Research at AHR. Kimpian uses virtual information modelling as a design tool in the early conceptual stages.

Similarly Dr. Sofie Pelsmakers, Architect and Environmental Designer stated that “architects need to own our energy literacy so that we can design with knowledge”. As we know there are new challenges to designing buildings today and often what starts with a very sustainable idea can end with how easily we are seduced by what “looks green” – in fact may be the opposite. Dr. Pelsmakers uses the example of vertical green walls, packed with flourishing tropical plants that realistically are not robust enough for our climate.

Merritt Bucholz of Bucholz McEvoy Architects finished this session with a holistic presentation on how we need to make these changes in architectural education. Visits to forests in Norway are part of the syllabus as he teaches his students the importance of connecting ourselves with the process of construction.

The next session was a lively insight into the contradictions and conundrums in our current building regulations which dictate and often hinder our evolution in design and sustainability. Highlights included Architect and Lecturer Liam Ross’s making a connection between the Grenfell Tower fire and the tragedy of the Great Lafayette, a German magician who perished in a fire during his own show in 1911. The case reports from this very show form the basis in our own fire standards. Nicki Cloonan, Architect at CODA Architects showed examples from her own practice – including the deconstruction, relocation and rebuilding of the Queens Room at the Curragh Racecourse – to highlight the exhaustive regulations for protected structures.

Architect Fionnuala Rogerson looked at Part M and how collaborating with specialists and users is optimum in creating a universal design for all in our architecture. Donal O’Donohue of Coady Architects sheds lights on Part L and its evolution from a document of a mere 32 pages in 1991 to comprising of two documents for dwellings and other buildings by 2008. Gary Mongey of Box Architecture finished with an amusing if not frustrating account of the six-month journey it took to build two 14m2 portakabins due to the red tape constraints surrounding our building regulations and building control. Mongey states that as architects we are paid to dream and trained as problem solvers, saying “architecture changes lives and we should get paid for it!”

Student awards and presentations brightened the afternoon – talent from all over the country was displayed and celebrated, between music festivals in the forest, gardens of earthly delights and the genius loci of London canals. Our future architects are dreaming to be different, bringing new and exciting concepts through their architectural education.

Ruth Morrow, Professor of Architecture at Queen’s University and Meredith Bowles of Mole Architects led the afternoon with their views on collaboration. Morrow discussed her project “Street Society” in Belfast as an alternative way to teach architecture which gives students live projects to work on. The project allows students to capture the ideas and connect with those who can’t visualise projects. Bowles looked at collaborating with other architects, extremely useful during the recession, and the benefits of working alongside others in order to create larger work.

Having shared values and complementary skills, Yvonne Farrell of Grafton Architects and Grainne Shaffrey of Shaffrey Associates came together for their Parnell Square Cultural Quarter project. Bringing their expertise, cultural values and dealing with various scales, the architects brought forward their demanding brief to allow access and inclusion for all in this large scale city library – certainly an inspiring connection for future collaborations. 

Keynote speaker and Irish Times Columnist Fintan O’Toole finished the day with a vibrant speech, encouraging us all to reimagine an Ireland with a predicted population of eight million people: “Our population can’t sustain the economic development we want to sustain”. O’Toole sung the praises of architects whose core skills include the ability to listen and to vision. Irish architects have made outstanding projects become a reality all the over the world, the challenge is to have more of that world-class architecture right here; “Ireland won’t be sustainable unless it has a sense of its own beauty”.

The RIAI wishes to thank all the delegates who attended the conference and to this year’s chairs Liam Tuite and Michelle Fagan. Thank you to the Premier Conference Sponsors Outhaus; CMI who supported a greatly reduced student rate; and to  Architecture & Building Expo who generously provided the conference space.


To watch the conference films by Paddy Cahill, please visit our  RIAI YouTube channel here.


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Contact Details & Location

The Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland 8 Merrion Square Dublin 2 Ireland

The RIAI is open Monday - Friday from 9am - 5pm