Choice and change are the keys to a sustainable future
A certain client both owned a particular redevelopment property and was a majority shareholder in the company to which it was pre-let. During the course of client meetings, he stressed at one moment the need to drive down costs to increase margins on his investment, and at the next questioned whether the rent represented good value to his company. We architects are required to tread a very fine line. This tightrope-walking is not confined to financial dealings; we alternate as gamekeeper and poacher as we explore ideas about the city, architecture, the needs of clients, and the game of construction. Projects are played up to one group, down to another.
Emerging planning attitudes in Westminster threaten to turn conservation areas into no-go zones. On the fringes of the City, retrospective planning refusal is in vogue. I was recently advised that the massing of a 19th-century neighbour to a building up for redevelopment was irrelevant - because it was excessive, and would not now get permission! By contrast, in Liverpool the desire is for regeneration to set new standards. In Leeds there is a halfway house between the good and the bad in the shape of the new vernacular of the butterfly roof. Who invented this inverted evil?
Nowhere is the line narrower than when we operate as a quasi-client or sign up to incentivised fees. I do not have a problem with treading this path, it is just difficult to operate outside the comfort of the traditional professional appointment. And, as attitudes to cost and assembly are challenged, our need for good clients and our chances of finding them reduce. We need to model new techniques for building appraisal, to celebrate what good clients do, and encourage more of them by demonstrating that it makes commercial sense to make better-designed buildings.
An age-old adage promoting 'commodity' as one of three pillars of architecture still holds true, as we consider how to react to the shifting patterns of occupation that create redundant buildings. How many times will the educational model shift over the life of a school? How many new schools will readily convert into apartments as their school-board predecessors have? We need to recognise that we work in a field of choice and change. We don't need black-box architecture, but boxes worth reusing; a proper sustainable model.
Which cost-plan models can we use? We must re-cost time in construction. The current orthodoxy is to save time on site, reduce interfaces and reduce risk - but that is in the construction process alone. We must also re-cost capital and maintenance expenditure as a function of time and future adaptability.
This is tough. Funding and leaseback - PFI and LIFT - are just a start, that may well be seen as mortgaging the future to buy a product relevant only to today. The present, of course, will soon be the past. Designing-in adaptability costs money but is more viable long term than demolition and re-build, since Building Regulations work against the idea of short-life building. This cost model, if we could describe it, can also liberate by encouraging building 'for keeps'; it also fits in with the heritage obsession. History suggests that we are, inevitably, designing the listed buildings of the future, a proposition that has the potential to upset both clients and the heritage lobby.
Making buildings is tough, making good ones even tougher - trying to do either really well, at any scale, is tougher still. So we should widen the line and give more room to operate.
And, as we rethink construction, we can create a new policy primer to make a real difference.
We must replace the emerging Tall Buildings Policy with one that reviews all buildings, regardless of height, length and width; a policy that reviews quality. Can you imagine the impact of a 'Good Architecture Policy'?