More with less: Designing for quality in the public estate and why it matters

Ysgol Bae Baglan by Stride Treglown wins Eisteddfod Gold Medal for Architecture

Public value should be the primary objective of any investment of public funds and resources in any project, shouldn’t it?  Now more than ever we need to recognise that quality and adding long-term value matters more than short-term capital cost. The latter is perhaps even the critical factor that drives value down and undermines the power of the public purse.  Public value matters because people and communities – the public – matter.

In a context of uncertainty and budget cuts, it is easy for governments and local authorities to be tempted by lowest cost options now, with insufficient regard to the problems and costs they may store up for the future.  The financial cost of designing and delivering a new building, for example, is easy to measure – a sum of the fees, material and labour costs.  However, the true value and cost of that building over its lifetime is much more complex to understand and cannot be simply represented by a number.  Designers are continually challenged to achieve more with less – arguably it is their key skill.  Decision-makers must take responsibility for understanding and meaningfully assessing the whole-life costs, value and impacts of publicly funded projects, irrespective of how well supported they may be to do so.  Cheap, political quick-fixes are not a good solution.

The cost of poor quality
Poor quality buildings will cost more to operate due to higher energy use, demanding maintenance requirements and the need for more frequent replacements and repairs due to lack of durability.  Poor quality places undermine health, well-being and productivity which, in turn, places greater strain on public services.  And, if bad design means that a facility is not fit-for-purpose or is underused because it is unattractive or uncomfortable, the investment will not have been good value.

The value of good design
We know, and have known for a very long time, that well-designed, quality buildings and places represent good value for public money.  Durable, good quality materials and carefully designed details reduce maintenance and repair costs.  Well-planned and integrated environmental strategies minimise energy consumption and cost and create comfortable, healthy environments.  Countless studies show that good building design can reduce the recovery times of hospital patients, increase the productivity of workers and help children concentrate better at school.  Good quality streets and public spaces can encourage walking, cycling and other activities and foster an environment for social interaction.

Moreover, investing in quality in the public estate is symbolic of the value we place on people and their communities.   What kind of a declaration do we make when we default to the cheapest solution, regardless of its potentially detrimental impact?  Public spending must demonstrate responsible, resourceful, good value investment.

Investing in the design process
The good news is that quality public buildings and places don’t need to cost significantly more to deliver and provide significantly better value for money in the long-term.  Investing in a talented design team and affording enough time for early design processes are key to unlocking this value.

Sunlight, daylight, fresh air and good views are freely available and contribute to well-being and sustainability.  Good designers will make use of these natural resources to minimise energy demands and create comfortable, delightful buildings and places that stand the test of time.

Good designers are creative problem solvers and will aim to find the best value solution within a given budget and set of constraints.  Having a multi-disciplinary design team working on the project from the outset will ensure that different problems are tackled in an integrated way.  Meaningful engagement with clients, building users and members of the public helps designers identify constraints and opportunities and allows them to shape the brief and response for the project.

Complexity in buildings adds costs.  Intricate junctions are more difficult to build and complex mechanical services can be more expensive to run and are more likely to attract maintenance costs.  Good designers simplify without compromising function or beauty; but simplification requires time and skill.

A good design process involves a cycle of testing ideas and refining the design in response to the results, leading to better understanding of how a building will perform over its lifetime, reducing risk.

Good design takes time and skills.  Cutting costs and reducing investment in design reduces quality and value in the long run.

An encouraging winner
This year’s Eisteddfod Gold Medal for Architecture winning project, Ysgol Bae Baglan is a case in point.  Designed by Stride Treglown Architects, the so called ‘super-school’ provides for children from age three up to 16.  The Gold Medal, supported by the Design Commission for Wales, recognises architecture as a vital element in the nation’s culture and celebrates architecture achieving the highest design standards.  Encouragingly, this year saw a higher proportion of publicly funded projects entered and short-listed than recent years.

© James Morris

Judges praised the winning scheme for the aspiration to unite a local community which suffers from high levels of deprivation.  The approachable and welcoming building provides a focus for the community and offers facilities for everyone to use, so that the whole community draws value from the school.

The classrooms are spacious and abundant with natural light, and the architecture provides inspirational spaces for play and learning.  A central stage allows for arts, performance and gatherings; for a shared environment where lives and their potential are shaped.

© James Morris

Ysgol Bae Baglan encapsulates the aspirations of the school and the wider community and, through good design, delivers quality and represents good value for public money which no arbitrary capital cost cap and truncated design process will ever reflect or enable.  Prudence does not reside in the cheapest or the fastest. Public investment should focus on public value.  It should say ‘we value these communities, these children, these people.’  It is entirely possible, and should be the norm, to set out and adhere to realistic timescales, budgets and value-driven objectives, in a clear vision for the outcomes we wish to result from our investment.  Let us not only aspire, but commit to make every publicly-funded project in Wales worthy of an award for design quality and public value.

Written by Amanda Spence, Design Advisor at DCFW