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What next for Design Quality in Buildings

Posted: 7th July 2015

Nigel AP Wright


WRIGHT - CLASS Solutions Ltd

Two slides, from a recent presentation I gave, focussed on design quality guidance from 2000 to 2015. It highlighted an absence of design quality guidance and advice since 2010. By coincidence the previous coalition government streamlined their education building design advice and education premises regulations in 2010/11. The policy, to reduce bureaucracy by simplifying legislation, guidance and good practice advice was initially welcomed. The Architects Journal 02-04-2015 recently raised concern for education building design quality on the Priority Schools Building Programme (PSBP). Was it wise to overlook good practice advice?

Streamlining documentation, some of it was confusing and contradictory, is to be applauded, however deciding what to retain is crucial. I contend a requirement for design quality and good practice advice is a fundamental basis for effective strategic and initial briefing for a building. It should inform client thinking and inspire consultants, contractors and service providers to deliver better quality building design evidenced by design quality in the end product.

Why should government focus on design quality, not just reducing fees and time on site?

Ambition to conserve and steward wisely our limited natural resource is fundamental to inform our thinking about design quality and how it is defined, prioritised, implemented and measured. Government legislation strategies focusses on improved effectiveness across the construction process with emphasis on; collaboration, innovation in procurement, effective use of time, resources and finance. The aim is saving on resource and construction time on site. Data and information management including Building Information Management (BIM) is becoming integral to design and manufacture process. In particular off-site manufacture and standardisation is believed to be crucial to government achieving their public programme objectives of affordability, built on time, and consistency in design and build quality.

Government expectation for BIM is for new and innovative ways of working to emerge, and resolve waste in resource, cost time and processes, specifically the inefficiency in procurement. Completeness of design, at the right time in the design and construct process, is a crucial focus for BIM in the fight to reduce the risk of delay and claims which has ensnared our industry, divided professions and vexed clients for decades. But will these measures benefit design quality, variety and choice for clients. If the early indications from the government’s education Priority School’s Build Programme [PSBP] are anything to go by then I suggest there is a narrowing of emphasis on design quality compared with previous education programmes since 2000. Is this evidence of neglecting design quality?

The focus for organisations and government should be on design quality where it delivers measurable benefit. Design quality ought to be at the ‘bough wave’ of their thinking and not in the ‘wake’. There seems to be preference to pursue better management of delivery processes and commercial behaviours. The target should be making the most of what we have, and find ways to ensure we are able to focus on design quality that adds value and delivers measurable benefits. A focus on design quality should be central to our endeavour and not pushed to the margins of our clients and government thinking if we are to halt this decline.

What direction for design quality?

Understanding and measuring the benefit of design quality is not simple however the message to clients regarding the merit needs to be clear. We all experience good and bad design every day. The economic, social, ecological and health impact and benefit can to an extent be measured but I would suggest more research, post occupancy including building performance evaluation, is desperately needed to inform our industry and improve advice to clients. Design quality is complex, deceptive and holistic.

Design quality often hides the complexity, of a rigorous iterative journey taken to achieve a deceptive simplicity that is considered to be expensive. A cheaper alternative taken at face value may appear to offer a better solution. Counting the cost of good and bad design must consider broader issues. A business case and value proposition that limits the focus to initial capital cost should be challenged. Consequential thinking, applied to product selection, must now consider intentionality of design, functionality, operational and maintenance expenditure (OPEX) alongside initial capital expenditure (CAPEX). A function of design quality is to help the client consider ‘choice options’, in compliance with their ‘statement of requirements’, in terms of capital and operational expenditure set alongside social, ecological, economic, functional and operational criteria.

A clearer appreciation and understanding of design quality by the design profession needs to be demonstrated to Clients specifically the measurable and immeasurable benefits design quality can deliver. Being able to codify design quality benefit in language that stakeholders, financiers and decision makers recognise and value may provide a basis for more informed investment decisions. Some perceive good design is expensive the investment of time spent in conceptual thinking, briefing and design development, supply chain product development may not be worth client investment. The solution if untried and tested could fail to meet the requirements. Is it safer to adopt a tried and tested ‘standard solution’ and stick with what we know and keep repeating the same solution?

Principles of design quality with examples should be codified to aid dialogue on options with relative merit and impact identified. Examples of design quality need to include design intent, conceptual ideas, and predicted performance objectives. It is obtuse to abandon previous experience from public build programmes in order to focus on a single solution that seems to offer a quick short term fix, ignoring longer term lessons learned and good practice from previous projects and programmes. Improving on what has been done and learning from our success and failure may be a better approach than predetermining the solution before you have undertaken thorough and careful reconnaissance.

In pursuit of a better understanding of design quality, its value, how it is measured, why it is important, and why we all have good and bad experience, the discussion must take place with all ‘players’-stakeholders and build consensus through dialogue. We must avoid the reductive thinking that constrains, is predicated on a five year term and can barely move beyond a quick fix. This approach brings problems for users, communities and policy makers who are left make good at a future time. Their task is made more difficult when available knowledge, lessons learned and good practice advice is ignored, misunderstood or irrelevant.

A place to start, building on previous projects?

Design quality begins with the right advice. The next government (2015-2020) face challenging and complex decision choices. Informing those choices should emerge from the best information and professional advice available. Where there are gaps in knowledge, decide where research is needed to be better informed. Making the case for design quality is integral to the success of building design and use. Defining how design quality adds value must be more explicit. The construction industry is now more data dependent and data rich but evaluation from previous projects, post occupancy and building performance evaluation, is still extremely poor, despite the efforts of Innovate UK (formerly the Technology Strategy Board), CIBSE and others to raise awareness. If the industry is uncertain on performance objectives being realised in use how is a client to have confidence they have the right brief, or measures in place to test that the design quality predictions are realised in the in use. Evidence of building performance provides crucial information to inform clients and their designers, building users and operators, investors and stakeholders as to what works well, what does not, and where to prioritise resource and investment. Making a case for design quality is elusive. The pioneering work of the Usable Buildings Trust, and more recently the Government adoption of ‘Soft Landings’ will provide data feedback on building performance and a measure for design quality but it should be broader and not just focussed on energy use.

Good practice and design guidance documentation between 2000 and 2011 is a valuable resource that should not be discarded. A well advised and informed client starts with robust evidence from previous projects. Time well spent in reconnaissance, dialogue and thought about design quality, with access to reliable data, case studies and relevant design guidance provide us with an unprecedented opportunity to make informed decisions. A deep resource of design quality guidance and experience from projects will help us to save where it is prudent to save and invest in better quality where the value proposition is clear and the client and user benefits can be measured.

Contributor: Nigel Wright is an Architect, Client Adviser, Project Manager and DQI Facilitator

Contact Nigel via Linkedin