Good design has a positive effect on the lives of people. We need to collaborate to improve our built environment – and by doing so, make lives better

Sadie Morgan new-2019-BW

I have just spent two wonderful jam-packed days criss-crossing Scotland judging the RIAS Doolan prize – its equivalent of the RIBA’s Stirling prize. It was an extraordinary journey with a sumptuous mix of the heritage of Edinburgh, the urban grit of Glasgow, the incredible scale of Glencoe and the breathtaking beauty of Skye. All that with seven exemplary buildings thrown in. 

Buildings and neighbourhoods that have a positive effect on how we feel are good not just for the people who live there but the environment too

Judging architecture prizes is always a difficult task. It’s tough having to compare small-scale schemes with very low budgets against national commissions for million-pound art galleries or museums. One thing that ties them together is the quality, not just of the buildings, but of the teams. 

The collaboration that is needed to deliver buildings worthy of the nation’s highest architectural prize needs many things. It needs a consultant team all working as one, delivering on its packages of work, not relying on others to do it for them. It needs a contractor who is flexible and willing to work with the architects to solve problems not profit from them and a culture of innovation and risk taking. But for me the biggest takeaway was the entrepreneurial spirit of the smaller, cash-strapped schemes and clients. 

We will be drawing on expertise from people outside the profession, too, with a particular emphasis on homeowners and tenants to see what can be done to reach the ambitious housing targets for the country

It was their determination and collective spirit that became a driving force in getting things done. We met an amazing woman who, through sheer persistence, saved one of Glasgow’s historic Mackintosh interiors, restored it to its former glory and created a sustainable business, regenerating a failing high street. 

We saw an arts organisation that had managed to restore a landmark building that now houses fledgling artists within a lively creative environment. And we walked round a housing association building with a restrained yet beautifully designed office right in the heart of one of the most deprived areas of Glasgow. 

These are all projects that serve as profound signals of what can be achieved through the willingness to take risks and to believe in the community. 

Not only was the extraordinary resolve and resilience of these clients and teams inspirational, each showed real leadership. 

It made me realise that those willing to take risks in an uncertain climate reap the real rewards. And it is in just such a uncertain atmosphere we have (gulp!) started recruiting board members for a new, independent body called the Quality of Life Foundation.

Its purpose it is to raise people’s quality of life and wellbeing by improving our built environment, and it aims to work with large-scale developers, housebuilders and investors to find ways of improving how our buildings and communities are planned, procured and constructed. 

The foundation is committed to creating a new framework that brings about change, so, learning from previous initiatives, it will gather research and make recommendations that will make clear the responsibilities and benefits of promoting quality of life. 

As an architect, I have always been interested in the positive effect that good design can have on how people feel. But in the past few years, in particular in my work with the National Infrastructure Commission, I have come to realise how important the built environment is in shaping people’s lives and how intimately that is connected to the wider world. Buildings and neighbourhoods that have a positive effect on how we feel are good not just for the people who live there but for the environment too. 

Quite what the rest of the industry will make of it remains to be seen. Many good people from across the building profession are working hard to improve the quality of our built environment, but there is still a huge amount of work to do. 

The Quality of Life Foundation is an attempt to give fresh impetus to the debate, so we will be drawing on expertise from people outside the profession, too, with a particular emphasis on homeowners and tenants, and the communities affected by the changes we need, to see what can be done to reach the ambitious housing targets for the country. 

And yes, we want to draw on experience and highlight good practice from across the country, from Southwark to the Isle of Skye, and Leeds to Cardiff. 

We are all in this together, so together we all need to raise the bar, starting today.

Sadie Morgan is a co-founding director of dRMM architects. She is also the HS2 independent design panel chair, sits on the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission and is a mayor’s design advocate for the Greater London Authority