By Alastair Donald

26 April 2013 - 11:07

'An architectural adventure in Argentina' by Elias Redstone.
'An architectural adventure in Argentina' by Elias Redstone. ©

Elias Redstone.

Could an Argentinian development practice solve the UK’s housing problem while also strengthening the role of the architect? The British Council’s Alastair Donald explains fideicomiso.

A packed audience gathered at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) this week to consider whether fideicomiso, a model of housing development popular in Argentina, could inspire UK architects to introduce new methods of building.

The final event associated with the exhibition Venice Takeaway: Ideas to Change British Architecture looked at solutions to what appears to be Britain’s most intractable problem, our inability to build enough houses.

As one of the numerous recent reports on housebuilding asks, ‘why has housing become so difficult?’ After all, the provision of shelter is one of our most basic instincts.

In the call for proposals for Venice Takeaway, we thought we identified some answers. We noted that at the heart of the crisis of procurement in the UK was a culture of risk aversion, over-regulation and anti-development, all set against a backdrop of low horizons, and a lack of willingness to experiment and test new ideas.

By offering to support architects in their quest to discover what is going on overseas, we hoped to create the impetus to re-evaluate the culture of architecture back home and to challenge existing relationships, policies and structures that may hold us back.

What is fideicomiso?

It was this desire to find new ways of working that led us to support the independent curator and writer Elias Redstone to travel to Buenos Aires to find out about fideicomiso, a fiduciary contract based on trust that allows an architect to link up with prospective residents to secure a site and fund the design and construction.

As Sebastian Adamo, of Buenos Aires practice Adamo Faiden, explained to the audience at RIBA, ‘You can build a building without a developer.’

Fideicomiso projects have been initiated by small and large architecture firms, as well as construction and real-estate companies. One advantage for smaller practices is that the model suits residential buildings with an average of eight apartments – a scale that allows architects to work on sites that larger developers may overlook.

There are advantages for occupiers too, not least because the client is a consortium of individuals rather than a single developer. This offers leeway for different levels of investment and the opportunity for the architect to design a variety of units within one block to accommodate different needs.

In effect, investors can purchase an architect-designed apartment but without the level of customisation or cost associated with a direct commission. As Redstone described it, this is less haute couture architecture and more prêt-à-porter – with architects offering an affordable range of products for the market.

What can the UK learn from Buenos Aires?

The interest in fideicomiso largely dates to the financial crash of 2001 and the need for architects to seek out new income streams and alternative sources of funding. But as Adamo has pointed out, this is only part of the story.

In fact, for architects in Argentina, an entrepreneurial approach to practice is a cultural phenomenon spawned by conditions within the country. Argentina lacks effective architectural institutions and competitions, while state-subsidised housing is not part of the set-up.

Consequently, architects have to invent solutions in order to work, which is why practices discovered how to initiate building projects through fideicomiso trusts, a solution that gives young architects work and also experience in design and development.

In the UK, which also suffers from a lack of impetus in state sectors and institutions, panellist David Kohn, a director at David Kohn Architects, indicated how he, too, is working with his students at London Metropolitan University to take a more proactive approach.

The students are expected to develop their own individual responses to the prevailing development conditions, establish groups of acting clients and engage with local suppliers. They develop new forms of visual representation that communicate the basis of each collaborative design decision.

In reality there is no shortage of potential sticking points that may hinder the success of such a new approach in the UK. Most obviously, the supply of land is heavily controlled, making suitable plots for development both scarce and expensive. In addition, processes to obtain planning consent are often complex and time-consuming.

Kohn hopes large clients such as the London Legacy Development Corporation will set aside plots at special rates for self-commissioned development. Yet the fact that it is still necessary for architects to engage in what effectively amounts to special pleading raises questions about the commitment of the public sector to such new ways of working.

Might architects need to be part of a broader culture change?

What will it take to change UK building practices?

The final panellist, Dickon Robinson, chair of Building Futures, argued that not only does architecture need to recognise that more can be done, but that the time has come for a cultural challenge to existing ways of working: the aim, he argued, should be breaking down existing barriers and encouraging a new generation of innovators.

Robinson pointed out that collective self-commissioning of housing has existed in the UK in the past, but, particularly since the late 1960s, architects have retreated from initiating development processes. He offered the refreshingly frank view that instead of avoiding risks, the profession – and more broadly the wider commission and developing bodies associated with architecture – should actually be taking more risks.

Compared to the standard British property market model, what makes fideicomiso an interesting proposition is the necessity for architects to take a place at the heart of the development process; they need to become initiators and risk takers.

As Elias Redstone pointed out, whether this approach will work in the UK context will depend on the desire of architects to experiment with taking on new roles in development and construction.

What are the benefits of fideicomiso?

The intriguing longer-term prospect is to help initiate a broader cultural shift in the way architecture is viewed and practised. Over the past 40 years or so, the development process has become oriented around the procurement manager or risk controller, and architects have moved down the pecking order of influence.

By contrast, the fideicomiso model places architects at the centre. And whereas design in recent times has been something of an ‘add-on’ when the situation is deemed to allow it, by initiating a project, architects could exercise design leadership from the outset.

Finally, by adopting fideicomiso – and more broadly, embracing an entrepreneurial ethos and becoming promoters and leaders of new development – architects could start to combat perhaps the biggest obstacle to housebuilding today: what the Venice Takeaway brief called a cultural mood of ‘anti-development’.

As Elias Redstone concluded, the only way to find out is to give it a go.

Learn more about the Venice Takeaway exhibition and see it in London before 27 April.

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