Viewpoint – Nigel Ostime from Hawkins/Brown

Nigel Ostime from Hawkins\Brown gives his views on the barriers to quality in the planning and procurement process, and how they could be broken down.

Architects will tell you there is intrin- sic value in good design. Quality is delivered through two distinct phases in the project process. The first is the conceptual design phase, and what is given consent in planning. In RIBA-speak (and not to get too bogged down in the detail) this is broadly Stages 1 to 3. The second phase is what happens to that design as it passes through delivery, Stages 4 and 5. (There is a third phase regarding alteration and extension to a building, but that can be likened to the first, conceptual stage for these purposes.)

Quality generated in the first phase can be lost in the second so both must be con- sidered with equal weight. We must also remember that quality does not equal value. Value for some building clients means lowest cost. But as many architects will attest, low cost in construction is not an excuse for poor quality design. Architects have an instinctive belief in the value of good design, but this message is not fully recognised outside the profession. We need to do more to promote it but at the same time we also need to develop a better under- standing of our client’s financial drivers.

As we saw in the recent RIBA Client Satisfaction Survey (go to www.architec- and search ‘RIBA for clients’) architects are considered to be good design- ers but less strong on process and financial management. Also, architects are generally reckoned by clients to be good at either concept or delivery, but not both. This is a massive generalisation but it is also a wide- spread perception.

It is always the case that the more time there is for design the more considered the building will be and the better the outcome. The cost of design is small compared to the cost of building and it could be argued that ‘fat’ design makes for lean construction and thereby better quality and value in the built product. Mistakes on the drawing board (or computer screen) are less expensive than mistakes on site. Multiply this by a factor for the building in use. Generating time for design iteration can be achieved through tighter management of the process but is also a factor of the fee. So clients have their role to play – as with most things you get what you pay for.

It can though be difficult to persuade clients to invest in a fully-coordinated design in the risky pre-planning stage, leaving an uphill task in the post-planning technical design stages. Design and build procurement compounds the problem. If we are to change this we need evidence from previous projects where the value of a robust detailed design stage can be demon- strated. The RIBA survey showed that clients view post-completion reviews favourably and we must use this to gener- ate momentum in the uptake of Stage 6/7 activities and feeding this knowledge back into Stages 0/1 on the next project.

Outside the design team, local authority town planners have an important role to play in delivering quality. Often though, they lack the teeth to implement their duties robustly. This is partly down to skill-set and partly to lack of resource. It is also of course a function of the planning process, where the final decision can be politically driven and decided by commit- tee members with little or no design training. However, democracy need not be a foil to quality.

The planner’s role pre-application is two- fold: firstly what planning authorities were originally set up to do – plan – and secondly in overseeing the planning application process. In the plan-making part, the planners determine the parameters within which we design. The UK system involves a set of relatively loose rules compared to those of countries like Germany or the US where a zonal planning system is more typical. These zonal plans set out maximum heights as well as land use and can also set out forms and typologies of buildings and design criteria that have to be met.

In the UK we have a plan-based but dis- cretionary system. We could invest more in the plan-making process and set clearer parameters in the way that other countries do. As with individual building projects, briefing and preliminary studies at an urban scale are essential to good outcomes. Neighbourhood planning could deliver this function but it needs appropriate stimuli and finance for a more comprehensive take-up than has happened to date.

Post-consent, the under-resourced plan- ners need help from wherever they can get it. One solution is to entrench a role for the concept architect who designed the scheme submitted for planning approval into the delivery stage, through a Section 106 mech- anism. In this way, if the original practice is not taken on as delivery architect, they can at least act in a monitoring and reporting role, paid for by the applicant but in support of the local authority. This has been trialled but needs to become more widespread.

If we want better quality outcomes in our building projects we need to address all of these issues and evidence of success in previous projects is a good place to start. Ultimately we need to provide evidence of the value of good design and not rely on unsupported conviction.

Nigel Ostime is project delivery director at Hawkins\Brown Architects LLP