Confidence is returning to the industry. We must use the renewed energy to ensure that we build in a responsible and resilient way, says Sadie Morgan 

Sadie Morgan new-2019-BW

Towards the end of March, the UK paused to look back at 12 months of restrictions connected to the covid-19 pandemic – a global experience that redesigned the way we live. Yet, as we enter the last leg of spring, brighter days have rolled in. The country’s vaccination programme and planned easing of restrictions have given legitimate cause for optimism, and this sense of hope has been reflected in the construction industry.

 A recent RIBA Future Trends Workload Index showed architects’ job confidence hitting a five-year high, outshining the profession’s expectations since as far back as the 2016 Brexit referendum. Data now shows that outlook on work prospects between March and May of this year jumped by 90% in contrast to figures published in December last year.

What is more, confidence has been injected back into industry sectors with the “build, build, build” mantra. Large-scale infrastructure is also destined to grow, together with more spending on residential construction work and rising home sales.

The need to use design to build sustainability and diversity into our built environment applies to projects of every scale

As ever, this renewed energy brings with it a fresh order of responsibility. As we set to work on building a future that is resilient and sustainable, we must ensure that design is prioritised as a primary agent in getting the job done. This is the moment to underscore the importance of championing design at every level of development, whether on a domestic or national scale.

Headway in this respect has already been made. Late last year, the government progressed a requirement for design champions to be appointed on all major national infrastructure projects. This came about in response to the National Infrastructure Commission’s

(NIC) National Infrastructure Assessment, which I worked on as a commissioner with my colleagues over two years. The acceptance was a sign that good design is moving up the national agenda.

In a similar vein, I have recently called for the appointment of a design champion on the High Speed 2 (HS2) board – a decision I believe can help to set an example for the way forward on all British infrastructure projects. Board-level status is central to this appeal, signalling the need for a dedicated advocate at the highest levels of decision making, rather than having the role added on to an existing job description.

> Also read: Meet the HS2 design director

HS2 has also recently launched a recruitment process to diversify its independent design panel, calling for design professionals from under-represented backgrounds to submit their applications. The new recruitment drive urges architects, urban and landscape designers, masterplanners, engineers and specialists in sustainability and inclusive design to apply. 

The process represents the first “refresh” initiative since the panel was established in 2015, and once again points to the importance of strengthening design integrity on projects of national scale. Diversity is an integral part of building that strength.

Both a reinforced panel, as well as the inclusion of a design champion at board level for HS2, have the power to ensure that design remains central to building a better future for the UK. These moves could also work to guarantee that environmental strategies underpin and shape that future. Prioritising design must equate the promotion of a sustainable philosophy across all development.

The need to use design to build sustainability and diversity into our built environment applies to projects of every scale. It is therefore incumbent on policymakers to forge more and better relationships with design professionals, and likewise on designers to exert their agency to advise on all types of projects – from every sector, in and outside of their immediate industry and comfort zones.

Design must be seen as a vehicle to making projects more robust, flexible, equitable and able to support healthy, fulfilling lifestyles. Now more than ever, the design industry has a unique opportunity to change the way our communities function. Developers and decision makers are equally well poised to ensure it can make a real difference to people’s lives. It is time to take control back from the pandemic, with design the protagonist in the country’s exciting next chapter.

Sadie Morgan is a co-founding director of dRMM, chair of the Quality of Life Foundation and a design advocate for the GLA