This was one of the questions I posed to a panel of prominent developers known for their approach to good design at an event hosted by the Urban Design Group. The debate was structured around a conversation I lead between Louise Hyman of the Homes and Community Agency, Mark Latham of Urban Splash, Steve Sanham of Argent, Ken Dytor of Regeneration Investments Limited and Charles Brockelhurst of Wycombe District Council, a self confessed poacher turned gamekeeper.
We often overlook that what is built today has taken a long time to get to completion – cutting edge thoughts rarely appear so a decade later. It is easy to complain about poor standards of architecture, construction and urban design and forget about the good stuff that happens. In general now there is a better understanding and acceptance of what makes good urban design. The focus of my discussion was what value does good design add and ought we try to measure it?
The panel agreed that poor design had measurable costs, both now and in the future. It also agreed that investment in long-term stewardship of places and buildings was the most effective way of securing added value from design. Those commissioning design ignore too often the value added by the creative design process, whether it is architecture, landscape or urban design.
Long-term ownership of sites, like Argent at Kings Cross, seem rare. However, the time spent developing the approach to urbanism has obviously paid off there. The document ‘Principles for a Human City’ was developed to set out the delivery plan for Kings Cross in July 2001. It is still relevant to the project a decade later and not just for the commissioned architects or those who were uninvolved at the start, but also in attracting current investors who need to buy into the long term value of the area and have many choices about where to invest. The document lays out the vision: a sense of place, attractive to potential occupiers, when most of the site is still un-built. Crucially, the master planning architects have been kept on as part of the quality control process reviewing projects as they come forward; all too rare in master plans today.
For Urban Splash employing good design is the only way to unlock the potential of previously unloved and apparently negatively valued places. Investing in quality means embracing imaginative design solutions, which gives them the edge in creating markets where others say none exists.
Procurement by the public sector and others is another cause for concern with many developers wasting money on procurement systems that favour the highest price and not the best value. If you’ve paid too much for the process can you really extract a better value? Two stage procurement and overage clauses seem to help, but ultimately if we can’t present the evidence in financial as well as social outcomes then we will always have a critical part of the equation missing.
Bad design is less prevalent today but mediocre places are still all too common. If we are to convince the doubters that good design adds value then we need more practical evidence. Faster planning permissions, more sustainable development, higher rewards are convincing, but we need to demonstrate that good design gets a better financial return for developers, investors and home-owners. Urban designers may know the value of good design, but we need help from the rest of the property industry – the surveyors, valuers, developers – to prove it.