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RIBA Role Model: Dan Benham

Dan Benham

Dan is currently President of the Royal Society of Architects in Wales, the youngest person ever to hold this position. He is a visiting lecturer and tutor at the Welsh School of Architecture at Cardiff University as well as being Project Architect with Loyn & Co Architects which won the RSAW Building of the Year in the 2015 Welsh Architecture Awards.

Architects design for different reasons. Some want to make big statement buildings or express a political stance, others want to test new technologies or try building in difficult climates; all those things are valid. But for me, architecture is fundamentally about people.

People are the ones who use, enjoy and feel emotion when they experience architecture. I want my students to ask what it would be like to open that front door. What is the light like as you enter? What view do you see? We’ve got five senses and if you can design spaces that make people want to get up in the morning, then architecture can actually start to change society.

If you can design spaces that make people want to get up in the morning, then architecture can actually start to change society.

When I was at university, my ambition was to win a RIBA award – it’s like getting an Oscar for architecture. About four years ago we had two schemes that I was convinced would at least be short-listed and I was absolutely devastated to hear that they weren’t. Immediately after finding this out I went on a site visit. This particular client was in a wheelchair as the result of a work accident and we were converting his home, making it accessible, connecting it with the landscape and opening up stunning views. He had been very down and hadn’t come to any previous meetings but this time he met us at the door; he had a real sparkle in his eyes and said that the building made him feel alive.

Although it is wonderful to be recognised by others, awards are no longer my priority. You do architecture to improve the quality of people’s lives – and it can be the tiny extensions or changing a small outside space that makes the biggest difference. I think that’s why I get satisfaction from every project; if you’re always aspiring to build something bigger then you’re never quite content.

At work our studio is open-plan – both in its space and in its philosophy. Everyone is free to comment on anybody else’s design and there is no hierarchy. This atmosphere of trust and mutual support affects how I teach. I want my students to be able to express themselves and to believe that that they can make a difference through their work. I try to give them a platform to grow as architects and have their passions inform their designs, because that’s when architecture really flourishes.

People think that they can’t afford an architect, that they can do it alone, or they don’t know how to find the right one. That really worries me because I believe we always bring something different to the table. I love the challenge of showing a potential client what’s possible - something as simple as opening up a roof so that it will drop beautiful light into the centre of a space. Until you encourage people to dream, then architects aren’t going to be needed.

For me, architecture is fundamentally about people. People are the ones who use, who experience, who enjoy, who get emotions when they go through architecture.

In Britain the standard of our volume housing is so poor that people think it’s the best you can get. You go to Sweden and good design is everywhere. Their watches look good, their kitchens, their chairs, their shoes, their glasses; everything is beautiful. In Britain, that’s less the case. Architecture is not taught in schools, so people don’t immediately grasp it or understand what good design is. If we could introduce design-led GCSEs or A-Level subjects early on, it would become part of the sub-culture and a normal way of thinking. Some young people might go onto be architects and others commissioners of good architecture – but everyone would have had a flavour.

Apparently the top three house builders in the UK don’t employ architects and that’s just unbelievable. We need surveyors to price houses differently so that if they have been well designed they are worth more. It’s about moving from function to architecture. Function just works but architecture is where you create an emotion that goes beyond meeting a basic need. It connects people to one another and takes them mentally and physically to a higher level. My parents were originally from the Middle East, where nothing is more important than family and the home - architecture creates homes, not just houses.

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