At a packed meeting in central London, attendees were urged to fork out £300 to join the 'Scheme'. The full details of what they were buying into was not made explicit and the speakers did not answer questions on the legal implications of the deal. If people signed up, they would be helping to start a 'culture of performance improvement'. They would know each other as 'trailblazers'.
No, this was not a shadowy meeting of the Church of Scientology, but the official launch of Design Quality Indicators (DQIs), the new toolkit devised by the Construction Industry Council to evaluate the design quality of buildings - 'assessing and measuring the value of the product'.
The process is a straightforward one whereby a relatively short questionnaire is used to check the perceptions of a building's performance under a variety of area headings. Sunand Prasad, of Penoyre & Prasad, one of the devisers of the scheme, likens the headings: 'Functionality', 'Build Quality' and 'Impact', to;
Commodity, Firmness and Delight, or; Good, Beautiful and True.
As many people as possible, who are, or have been, involved in a particular building and design process will be asked to give their views under those various headings.
These answers will then be scored and translated into a graphic representation of the project, pointing out, at a glance, where a scheme is scoring well or badly. Statements include:
Impact: 'The building lifts the spirits', 'The building has good acoustics', or 'The building makes you think'.
Build Quality: 'The building's structure is efficient', 'The building is energy efficient', and 'The building is safe to use'.
Functionality: 'The building works well', and 'The ratio of useable space to the total floor area is good'.
Even seemingly objective statements such as 'The building control systems work well' or 'The building caters for cyclists' are determined by subjective responses. All statements are replied to by ticking whether the particular respondent strongly agrees or strongly disagrees, etc, with the propositions put forward.
In the words of Lord Falconer, who sent a message of support as he could not attend the launch meeting, the criteria have been developed to 'objectively assess' the visual aspects of design. So how does this square with the subjective basis of the questionnaire?
CABE chief executive Jon Rouse says: 'Objectivity is collective subjectivity.' Confessedly using 'fuzzy logic' to come up with this formulation, he said DQIs had 'little to do with absolutes'. So it seems that the desired objective standards must be relative?
On 12 September last year, using this logic, would tall buildings have been quantified as objectively bad?
Relate for architects
The second aspect of the DQI scheme is as a forum for debate. Often discrepancies arise between what architects like but users do not. Similarly, a services engineer may be interested in pipe runs with little regard for aesthetic implications; the client may be solely interested in bottomline costs with little regard for user comfort, for example. This the DQIs describe as a lack of 'a common language for the evaluation of a building'.
Prasad states that the CIC wanted a 'tool which wasn't just a tick-box checklist'. Even though the questionnaire contains 90 or so tick-box questions and statements and little else, it is intended to operate as a glorified meeting agenda. Using this tool - an agenda, a mnemonic - parties to the design process can sit around and determine which aspects of the building they wish to see emphasised. It is a device to encourage us to talk to each other - an icebreaker.
The questionnaire will not necessarily be the preserve of architects, since that would give a skewed perception of the building. 'I wish we'd used this earlier - the designer didn't even seem to think about us, ' one nameless receptionist is quoted as saying. Her answers to the questionnaire are added to the many others to draw up a spider graph of 'content' and 'discontent' with a completed building.
Carrying out the same process at the design stage, DQIs could direct the way that the scheme develops.
Obviously architects and clients are still at liberty to ignore the receptionist's whining comments if they so choose, but at least they asked. However, if the questionnaire is used to post-occupancy evaluate the design quality of a building, it is difficult to see how the lessons learned can be carried over onto another building with a different group of subjective respondents.
DQIs are the next generation of participatory checklists. They identify a well thought out list of concerns, but an agenda is hardly a revolutionary concept. The problem with lionising subjective comments is that architectural processes could become an exercise in lowest common denominator provision. Is good design about keeping everyone happy? Discuss. It would be a shame if DQIs were to fall into the category of architecture by focus group.