23 JANUARY 2002

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Building our future

Planning is always a sensitive issue, and the professionals involved – the architects – often come under the microscope when controversial decisions are made. President of the ‘Kamra tal-Periti’, Paul Camilleri, gives MIRIAM DUNN his views on this and other issues, including the changing role of the architect in today’s marketplace and how the PA has fared since it was set up.

The ‘Kamra tal–Periti’, previously known as the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers, recently issued a statement in reaction to a reference made to the profession by HSBC’s chief executive Tom Robson in an interview on the subject of surveys. Can you explain the chamber’s decision to react to the comment?

Since a slight reference was made to us in the interview, we simply wanted to make it known that the ‘Kamra’ is also aware of the fact that work needs to be done on the issue of updating the way surveys for banks are done, and is, indeed, already working on this issue.

Changing market trends, especially a boom in the development of commercial property with high risk factors, and globalisation, have brought about changes in what is required of an architect when he is making a valuation.

And we also agree with the banks, or lenders, that it is important the procedure is done correctly. So much so that our own discussions led us to decide that the system of carrying out valuations needed to be streamlined properly – and templates, or guidelines drawn up for architect to use as a matter of course. In this way, decisions will be made on established parameters, which are the same across the board, rather than being seemingly based on the subjective opinion of an architect.

We have been closely monitoring what other professional organisations are doing in Europe, especially with Malta’s European Union bid in the pipeline, and one of our members recently received a document entitled ‘Compulsory use of international valuation standards in Europe’ from a meeting he attended as the ‘Kamra’s’ representative, which we will be working on. We are fully aware that we cannot work in isolation in today’s marketplace.

We also wanted the public to realise that this will be a better scenario for all players, the bank, the developer and also the architect himself, since we are liable at Law once we put our signature to a valuation.

We are also talking with other professions, such as accountants, who might, for example, need further information to arrive at their share valuation. This has become much more important with the important role now being played by the Malta Stock Exchange. The key is to ascertain what each player needs and ensure they details are obtained on a standard format valuation.

The Planning Authority undoubtedly plays a major role in an architect’s work. Do you believe it has been a success?

On the whole, I would say the PA has been successful. Of course, there is always room for improvement – the very nature of what the PA was set up to do makes this inevitable - but we do our best to put forward our criticisms in a positive way, and suggest solutions. We make it a point that we do not just criticise but put forward critical suggestions.

And we have witnessed a number of improvements. In general, the processing of applications has improved, although this always will be a burning issue as the success or otherwise of the PA is perceived as being related only to the issuing of permits. Rather than applications moving very quickly, our ideal scenario would be one in which applications move at the right pace for the application in question with the correct input and evaluation - simple jobs moving along quickly, while complicated (not necessarily larger) jobs, would take longer because more studies are required.

One of our reservations is whether the system of the nominated people at board level is functioning as it should.

There are two main aspects to planning – the strategic stage, which is the preparation of plans and studies, as a basis for decisions to be made, and then there is the decision-making process. If the first part is not done properly, then problems arise in the second part, as has happened in certain decisions which have received a lot of publicity.

We therefore believe the board should be more concerned with looking ahead at what direction trends are moving in and crafting the policies needed for this, rather than approving individual projects. This would help to ensure the necessary studies are done in time, rather than leaving rushed decisions to be taken under pressure without the groundwork needed carried out.

These studies and plans, prepared at strategic planning stage, would become a set of rules and guidelines for the board to follow which would help reduce the element of subjectivity in decision-making matters – and therefore help eliminate the "two weights – two measures" phenomenon.

It is important here to re-iterate one of the ‘Kamra’s’ main concerns regarding the PA - the issue of the Local Plans. These are meant to be the co-ordinated plans originating from the "resolution of conflict" of all planning issues. It is our fear, however, that unless these local plans are detailed enough and are not generic mini "Structure Plans", this "resolution of conflict" will inevitably spill out into the permit approval stage – again bringing us back to the "two weights - two measures" concern. These Local Plans are bound to create a certain amount of controversy, but we believe that after 10 years of the PA being set up, we should have the confidence, experience and maturity to look into changes to our Planning System. This, especially bearing in mind that the system is currently facing heavy criticism and will be radically reviewed in the near future. The PA should be continuously updating its policies and Local Plans to either reflect, complement or guide the country’s progress and aspirations. This is the key to a streamlined and efficient PA – that policies are drafted, changed and approved before a project has a "face".

How do we ensure a balance between economic and environmental issues is found in development?

Planning will always involve, to a lesser or greater extent, a conflict between the economic factor versus the environment.

In fact, one description of planning defines it as the "resolution of conflict" between various factors, including social, economic, environmental, ecological, and demographic ones.

There is always room to improve the manner in which these conflicts are resolved, and a key way to do this would be to better the co-ordination between strategic planning and development control and therefore the compiling of detailed Local Plans and policies.

Giving heritage the importance it deserves should also be high on our agenda.

Our chamber forms part of UMAR (Union Mediterraneenne des Architectes) and is on a committee which is looking at the whole concept of heritage in a completely new way. In fact Architect David Pace and myself have just come back from the General Assembly held in Cyprus and among other matters, we’re working, together with these other Mediterranean countries, on a document with this theme, which really changes quite radically the way architects, among others, should look at the subject of heritage.

The philosophy being adopted is that there are two aspects to heritage – the tangible, which is the building and the intangible – taking into account the people and their culture and traditions. For example, where there is development, efforts will be made to ensure the preservation not only of important buildings, but also cultural traditions, such as our ‘festi’.

In other fora, such as the UIA (Union Internationale des Architectes) and ECCE (European Council of Civil Engineers), we are discussing issues such as sustainability, waste disposal and public tendering procedures.

There is growing concern about land saturation in Malta, both for commercial and domestic development. How can we tackle this problem?

When we recently gave our comments in a PA topic paper on housing, the ‘Kamra’ stated that it believes the problem in Malta is housing affordability rather than housing supply or availability.

It is well known that we have a problem of derelict buildings. In fact, our information tells us that about 23% of housing stock is empty. There are many reasons for property being vacant, such as multi-ownership, or districts becoming less fashionable than before.

One way to tackle the problem is the provision of incentives, perhaps in the form of subsidies, to restore the buildings. In Cyprus, for instance – a country with similar problems to us (but with a smaller heritage than we have - the government has recently introduced incentives of about Lm200 subsidy per square metre for renovation of small houses in designated areas.

Obviously such a policy depends on what funding can be made available. My fear is that without such incentives, we will only see renovations by affluent people that can afford it in areas that are being restored, such as Valletta and Cottonera.

On the subject of whether we should go highrise, I certainly don’t think we should adopt such a policy just for the sake of it. Yes if required we should definitely go higher, but then we would have to look at all other related issues when making such decisions

Problems have to be solved comprehensively, and unfortunately, sometimes we tend to only solve them partially.

I certainly don’t think we should allocate any more space for building. The rest of our greenbelt land should be left untouched and I also think it should be graded. For example the area between White Rocks and Pembroke is designated a green area, but perhaps it could be graded as less sensitive than Ghajn Tuffieha or Verdala.

We also need to learn from our mistakes, such as where certain building is needed, like the construction of a school, this should be done on periphery land, near other development, rather than in the middle of a green area. The schools of Saint Martin in Swatar and of San Anton and San Andrea schools in Zebbiegh are cases in point.

How has the role of the architect changed over the years?

The Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers (now ‘Kamra tal-Periti’), was set up at the turn of the century, so obviously many changes have been witnessed over the years.

Focusing on just the last half century, we have witnessed great changes in the emphasis of work. In the 1960s, there was a rush of building for the British settlers. Then in the 1970s and 80s there was a boom in Maltese home ownership. The 90s saw a mushrooming of hotels, while in 2000 a number of commercial centres have sprung up.

Our work is also affected by changing economic factors; clients have become more demanding, because project costs are increasing and competition is always becoming tougher. The need to balance designs with budgets has become much more of a priority and the architect has to interpret all of this.

The changing trends in architecture should also be reflected in the syllabus for students of architecture.

The issue of sustainability is a case in point, where the topic has now become a core subject in the UK architecture course. We shall also be holding a seminar on sustainability later on this year. We are currently also holding discussions with the Faculty of Architecture about this and other matters to ensure proper training for our future architects. In conjunction with BICC we are also looking at CPDs (continuous professional development) for established architects.

It appears that there is a move in the EU to make sustainability the responsibility of the architect. Although we probably already do this on a subconscious level now, there will be a need to give it greater priority and focus on it to ensure successful sustainable architecture.

Admittedly this has caused some concern, but I prefer to view such matters as challenges to our profession to rethink and improve the way we design, rather than as worries.

The ‘Kamra’ has always made its voice heard on topical issues. We were the professional body which first suggested the setting up of the PA in our memorandum sent to the political parties prior to the 1987 elections. And we have been made it clear in the PA’s transport topic paper that the emphasis over the past 10 years on providing parking with all projects has been somewhat counter-productive.

Our belief is that if parking spaces are provided within a building, then you are going to create a traffic problem or stoppage because the roads are not designed to cope with the increased traffic flow. The parking problem has to be addressed with other quite radical, sometimes painful, solutions, such as reducing the amount of cars, combined with using bicycles, public transport and pedestrianisation.

Looking to the future, we realise it is time to analyse the traditional ways in which the local architect has practised, since now we are faced with a long list of new issues, such as building regulations, access for all, fire regulations, innovative and new materials and methods of construction. We are currently assessing the best way forward to tackle these issues and use them as a catalyst for change. This will help us ensure that the competence of the architect reflects society’s current needs.

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt