Architects, perhaps more than any other design professionals in Britain, have had a rough ride lately. Not only have commissions large or small been hard to find, but in mid-2010 education secretary Michael Gove accused architects of “creaming off cash” under the Labour government’s much-lauded Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.
The scheme planned to rebuild or refurbish every one of the United Kingdom’s 3,000 publicly funded secondary schools. Since then Westminster has played a cat-and-mouse game with architects, contractors and educators alike.
As a measured response, last week the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) launched “Good design – it all adds up”, a report citing the implicit value, monetary or otherwise, that good building design can bring. When it comes to the built environment, “design is not some kind of luxury,” says Anna Scott-Marshall, the RIBA’s head of public affairs.
Through a series of case studies, RIBA’s report shows that patients in hospitals with better views and more light recover faster. Single occupancy rooms in hospitals can dramatically improve health results – something grasped by continental European public health providers decades ago. Similarly, teenagers are less likely to bully or be bullied in well-designed schools, or so the report says.
A year after Gove’s attack, the government appears to be conceding. John Penrose, minister for tourism and heritage and the cross-government lead for architectural design policy, goes as far as “commending” the report to “those councillors and consultants involved in the commissioning process”.
This approach was also seen at the recent UK Design Council summit. At the summit, universities and science minister David Willetts talked about innovation, growth and the crucial role of design. Not exactly novel – but a comfort at least to the UK’s 250,000 design professionals, of which architects are a sizeable part.
How much Britain’s policy makers and, more importantly, its developers and procurers will listen to all this is another question. Bricks-and-mortar investment by both public and private sectors is often the first thing to be stung when times are tight. The RIBA’s new report certainly sets the agenda when it comes to the value of design. “We are talking about cost-saving by using and promoting good design principles,” says Anna Scott-Marshall. “It’s not all about creating iconic, bespoke design pieces so much as it is about designing improved environments and places.”
In Britain, more than elsewhere in Europe, architects have got used to talking money when it comes to design and there’s a common misconception that good buildings are costly and badges of honour for the architect, more than tools to aid the better functioning of a society. Cutting costs at planning and building stages proves more costly in the long term.