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How are architecture apprenticeships helping prepare the profession for future challenges?

Contemporary debates about architectural training and education remain rooted in historical questions of vocational identity and purpose. What is an architect? What skills are needed and how are they best acquired? Apprenticeships are now recognised as a critical work-based learning pathway.

09 February 2023

The annual National Apprenticeship Week (06 to 12 February 2023) initiative celebrates the value of apprenticeships to individuals, businesses, and the wider economy.

This year’s theme, Skills for Life provides an opportunity to reflect on how architecture apprenticeships are helping prepare the profession for future challenges. Daniel Goodricke and Luke Murray tell us more.

Contemporary debates about architectural training and education remain rooted in historical questions of vocational identity and purpose. What is an architect? What skills are needed and how are they best acquired?

Whilst most would-be architects once trained through a combination of apprenticeship and private study, they are today educated at university-level institutions on recognised courses, with minimal periods of office-based training. This shift, enacted at the 1958 Oxford Conference, saw architecture become an intellectual discipline over a vocation.

These fundamental questions were most recently debated at Interface: RIBA Education and Practice Away Day following the publication of proposals by the RIBA and ARB for modernising architectural education and training.

It was clear that ambitions to recruit and sustain a competent, skilled, and diverse profession relies on the reciprocity between education and practice, with apprenticeships championed as a critical work-based learning pathway.

Architecture apprenticeships were born out of the Richard Review (2012), the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy, and the work of Architecture Apprenticeship Trailblazer Group. Each of these steps saw increasing responsibilities devolved to industry with the IfATE arguing that employers are best placed to understand how to fill skills gaps in the economy with apprenticeships at the fore.

There there are currently over 500 architecture apprentices enrolled across universities in England with the first cohort recently qualifying. We spoke to two recent graduates to find out the value of apprenticeships to them and their employers.

A new dementia care home typology informed by primary research and the latest innovations in the field of dementia care. Image courtesy of James Aynsley / Northumbria University

James Aynsley completed his Part 1 in 2001, and spent 14 years in professional practice at Ryder Architecture before enrolling on a Level 7 architecture apprenticeship with Northumbria University.

“My apprenticeship offered me the chance to develop, or rather rekindle, my critical design abilities. After working in practice for many years, one develops an architectural shorthand born out of commercial necessity, so I was keen to rediscover a considered and critical approach to design.”

The latest enrolment statistics, provided by the Department for Education (DfE), suggest that a third of architecture apprentices are choosing to complete their formal training after a protracted period in practice.

Stephenson Building, Newcastle University. Image courtesy of NORR / Newcastle University

Sudhir Thumbarathy has also recently qualified, supported by NORR and Northumbria University.

“I was fortunate to be working on a sustainable exemplar project which, owing to its innovativeness and complexity, allowed me to constructively align much of my academic and workplace learning. As a result, I acquired a well-rounded knowledge of climate science and low energy design principles, skills in calculating predicted operational and embodied energy use and carbon emissions, and experience in advocating for sustainable design solutions.”

As part of his structured learning, Sudhir received OneClick LCA and Certified Passive House Designer training, and served on NORR’s international group on sustainability.

Reflecting on the value of Sudhir’s apprenticeship, his workplace mentor Robin Stewart, a NORR UK Director, commented “the combination of academic knowledge and professional practice experience enhanced our service, providing our clients with comprehensive sustainable information to make informed decisions benefitting their projects and the environment.”

Others recognise apprenticeships potential to develop previously untapped talent and skills. Homegrown Plus founder, Neil Pinder believes that they are an “excellent way to develop the necessary knowledge and skills for a diverse group of students, which does not leave them with a big financial burden”.

Whilst Dr. Peter Holgate of Northumbria University recognises the benefit of “synthesising authentic architectural practice with an individual focus on apprentices’ visual-spatial and interpersonal intelligences”.

A recent survey conducted with apprentices, employers, and training providers concluded that although the apprenticeship is predominantly recognised as a positive route to qualification – with 88% likely to recommend it to others – it is not without its challenges. London-based practice, Pollard Thomas Edwards outline keys to its success:

“Successful completion of Level 7 architecture apprenticeship takes hard work by the apprentice, good levels of communication from the university and good working opportunities and responsive support from the employer. It suits students with high levels of natural ability who are prepared to put in the additional hours that will sometimes be needed. If these criteria are met, successful apprentices look very likely to be among the most sought-after architects of their generation.”

Daniel Goodricke and Luke Murray are authoring the forthcoming Architecture Apprenticeship Handbook: Level 7 aimed at demystifying the route and helping apprentices make the most of their journeys and due to be published by the RIBA in early 2024.

At RIBA, we can offer guidance whether you're looking to become an architecture apprentice, offer an apprenticeship at your university or employ an apprentice at your architecture practice.

We also support students and early career architects through RIBA Future Architects.

Join our conversations about National Apprenticeship Week 2023 on social media using the hashtags #NAW2023

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