Great design of buildings, spaces and places is not rocket science
This is not an article about Help to Buy. That would be too obvious. Neither is it about the need to build more homes (at last the predominant message on most people’s lips) although we do all need to make a collective effort to get Britain building and to bring our land and vacant buildings into use.
Nor is it an article about government policy or investment, although we really need to see unnecessary restrictions lifted, most notably the borrowing cap on local authorities, and we could do with a turbo boost to affordable housing supply. More, I am sure, about those in the future.
This article is about what could become, and too often is, the forgotten cousin - great design of buildings, spaces and places. It is not rocket science and it is generally not that much more expensive when judged against the value gained. So why are we still building poorly designed buildings and poorly thought through places? You know it’s true …
Design standards and build quality have come on a long way since the seventies and eighties. Television programmes celebrate great design and individual flair and commitment. And public awareness of a sense of place and good design, not just the iconic, is much greater than many of us recognise. But come on housebuilders, developers, investors and planners. With the odd exception, we all know we can and need to do more to ensure that our design standards improve and our places and buildings and homes are universally better than they are at present.
Furthermore, with the pressure on to increase the number of homes built, the danger has to be that without an associated push on design and a general raising of awareness, standards will slip. There are days when I might want to go back to the eighties but never when it comes to design. It was hardly a golden era.
The good news is that public policy is in good shape. The National Planning Policy Framework makes a clear statement about the absolute importance of good design. “Good design is a key aspect of sustainable development,” it states, and goes on to declare: “It is important to plan positively for the achievement of high quality and inclusive design for all development, including individual buildings, public and private spaces.”
There is even reference to practical approaches such as design codes, the avoidance of excessive prescription and the importance of innovation. There is also a clear encouragement to use design reviews at both the local and national level to assess, support and enable high standards of design.
The onus is now both on planners and, most importantly, developers to roll up their sleeves and spend more time and, where necessary, a little more money on making sure that everything we build and every place we create has an enduring quality and is somewhere where we want to spend more time.
Let’s turn our words into commitments, our plans into ambitions and our developments into our legacy, against which we will be judged
I have heard a call for new building “log books”. But why don’t we just start with a simple plaque saying who was the designer and who was the client and the contractor for every new building? We label our clothes and our cars - why not our buildings and homes?
It is good to have the Farrell Review of Architecture and the Built Environment. However, I fear that it may call for new institutions and policy. We have an institution that is now independent of government and a national centre of excellence. It is Design Council Cabe. It is working directly and, where appropriate, confidentially with developers and housebuilders who know they can achieve higher standards. Many more need to follow their example and planners need to give them due respect when they go on to engage with the planning system. Design Council Cabe runs design reviews and can advise and support local arrangements. It also works with Building For Life, a powerful, easy to use industry standard that is helping to drive up the quality of our new homes. It needs to be used by everyone.
I am sure improvements will be identified. However, the real responsibility rests with practitioners and investors, starting with the readers of this journal. Let’s turn our words into commitments, our plans into ambitions and our developments into our legacy, against which we ask to be judged. Let’s demonstrate how we can convert our knowledge and skills on design into a universal and united approach that is applied everywhere and not just to our flagship schemes.
Above all else, let’s all recognise that design is about value not cost. Surely, no matter what we do and we where we sit in the delivery spectrum, it is the creation of value against which we are ultimately judged.
Richard McCarthy is executive director for central government and housing in Capita’s property and infrastructure business