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Does the DQI process work?

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The Design Quality Indicator evaluation method is now a mandatory part of the Building Schools for the Future programme. Rebecca Webb attended a stakeholder session to see the DQI in action

Devised under the guidance of the Construction Industry Council, The Design Quality Indicator (DQI) is intended to help stakeholders participate in the design of new schools. In theory, the DQI gives the under-represented – children, for example – a voice, helps them understand design and construction and its esoteric language, raises aspirations and engenders ‘ownership’ of a building project.

One way the DQI does this is by giving the stakeholder group, which comprises lay people, unused to talking about building design, a language with which to talk to the architect. The process goes as follows: at the briefing stage, the stakeholder group, under the guidance of a facilitator, works through a questionnaire of 113 ‘statements’, and debates what should be their order of priority. The idea is that their findings will inform the designer’s decisions as he juggles competing and often contradictory requirements. The results of the questionnaire, in effect, become part of the brief.

The stakeholder group repeats this process three more times to measure the implement­ation of the questionnaire against its aspiration – once upon completion of the design development, again at handover and finally as a post-occupation evaluation.

How does it work in practice?

So far, so good; but how does it work in practice? In the session I witnessed, which must remain unidentified at this stage, 20 school representatives, including teachers, parents, governors, one pupil, technical staff and the head teacher spent an hour and a half going through the questionnaire. The group reads each of the 113 statement and tags them as ‘Required’, ‘Desired’ or ‘Inspired’. ‘Required’ means that statement is an absolute must for the school. ‘Desired’ means that it would be a nice to have and ‘Inspired’ means that it should be an inspirational feature of the school.

Each statement comes with one of these three tags as default, which is obviously leading, as is the language of the statements themselves. The many statements that included the words ‘appropriate’ or ‘adequate’ were tagged as ‘Required’ automatically by the group, and statements that had an aspirational element were tagged as ‘Inspired’. Also, because the statements are so vague and generic (for example: ‘The building should enhance the activities of teaching and learning’), it is difficult to imagine any group being able to fashion them according to its own ethos. Our group identified only two statements which were particularly applicable.

 The DQI questionnaire is also divided into three columns headed ‘Functionality’, ‘Build Quality’ and ‘Impact’. The number of default ‘Required’, ‘Desired’ and ‘Inspired’ tags in each column means that you start in the middle of a fictional triangle composed of the three tags at the apexes. When re-assigning these tags to other statements, the group must keep the same number of ‘Required’, ‘Desired’ and ‘Inspired’ tags in each column in order to ‘stay in the middle of the triangle’.

The statements are either ambiguous, banal, or obvious. The very first reads: ‘The building should provide good access for everyone’. A debate ensues. What does access mean – to the building or into the building? Does that only mean into the front entrance, or all the way through the building? Somewhat sarcastically, someone asks: ‘Are we including burglars in “everyone”?’

Other statements read: ‘The spaces in the building should be the right size for their functions.’ – I wonder how this can possibly add anything to the brief. ‘The engineering systems should work well.’ – Could they be specified to work badly? ‘The layout, structure and engineering systems should be well integrated.’ The group is baffled by this, and opts for the ‘Inspired’ tag.

Before long, the room falls into cynicism and apathy. The terminology used in the technical sections leaves most of the group flummoxed. Even the facilitator looks demoralised. After the event, the head teacher in the group commented: ‘The questions on the form are often ridiculous. There are many statements where you start to think that, if you don’t tick ‘Desired’, you may imply that the opposite of the statement is acceptable.’

How useful is the DQI?

One architect from a large practice working in the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme felt the DQI was useful at the early briefing stage and during the design process, since it ‘aligns the project teams’ ambitions… and evaluates progress’. But a spokesperson for Partnerships for Schools, the body set up to deliver BSF, said, ‘Where the DQI is used in post-occupancy evaluation work it is particularly valuable, and we expect to see more of this as more BSF schools open over the coming years.’  The architect at the session I attended admitted they would ignore the output and just design the school as best they could, anyway.

Implementation could certainly have been improved upon in this particular case. The school was unprepared and the facilitator poor. There should have been more supporting activities around the process to help the stakeholders think about the issues. But this doesn’t excuse the ill-considered DQI questionnaire, which reeks of political compromise and vested interest. It has become a tick-box item in the most pejorative sense of the term. I left with the impression that this tool for helping to design our 21st century schools was nothing short of architectural quackery.

The DQI is only one of several design quality tools out there, but schools are required to buy the DQI toolkit and hire a facilitator (training as a DQI facilitator could be part of an unemployed architect’s recession toolkit). The sad thing is that the DQI is a synecdoche of the whole BSF programme: it offers a promise, raises expectations and denies any realisation of it. The DQI is also symptomatic of the wider culture of benchmarking and targets, which have no meaning beyond a bureaucrat’s spreadsheet and which obfuscate real issues.

There are far more useful and appropriate methods to inspire users, give them a voice and get their valuable input into the design process than the DQI. It is laudable in intention but laughable in implementation. The BSF programme is planned to continue until 2020. Unless this part of the process is fundamentally redesigned – and quickly – we will miss a seriously big opportunity.

The construction industry council’s response

‘The Design Quality Indicator, like any process which aids consultation, requires a committed client, a motivated community of stakeholders and good facilitation which responds to the individual needs of user groups. I think it is everyone’s responsibility to engender enthusiasm for projects in clients and communities as, for many schools, BSF is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for change, which must be guided by the needs of users.

The DQI is a collaborative design evaluation tool and its statements are designed to provoke thought, while ensuring rigour. Its standardised nature means findings can be compared and lessons learnt, so that we are not constantly reinventing the wheel.

But, in order for the DQI to be used as a design tool, it needs to be set up with the needs of users in mind during the design briefing stage. We realised there were some issues with this stage, arising from how it was applied to the early BSF projects, which were compounded by design being part of the competitive selection process. So, in mid-2008, the Construction Industry Council released a new briefing stage, focusing on encouraging and capturing debate to inform the design brief, and we have been training facilitators in this approach since then.

We have many examples of how the DQI has really helped to bring users and design teams closer in developing design debate. Last month we surveyed every local authority client, and more than 80 per cent of those who have used the DQI agreed it added value to the construction process.’ Graham Watts, chief executive, Construction Industry Council


A measure of quality in design

Released in 2002, the DQI was developed by a multidisciplinary group including a number of high-profile architects (among them Edward Cullinan Architects and Penoyre & Prasad) and engineers (Hoare Lea, Buro Happold) alongside Imperial College, under the guidance of the Construction Industry Council. A bespoke version has been developed for use in designing schools and is now a mandatory part of the BSF programme. The DQI is one of several tools available for measuring design quality: BRE has also developed the Design Quality Method and others are under development for the healthcare sector.

Strong facilitators needed in the DQI consultation group sessions

One way the DQI claims to help the participation process is by giving a language to stakeholders unused to talking about building design. Gus Grimshaw, head of primary at Bridge Learning Campus, has been through the first two stages of the DQI. He commented: ‘DQIs gave us a language to discuss the design. We were fortunate to have an architect among our school governors, who helped us through the process.’ The stakeholders need to reach a consensus, with the help of the facilitator, on each statement in the questionnaire. In order for debate to focus on the design issues rather than on how the consultation group will reach a consensus requires thorough preparation and a strong facilitator.

Stakeholders and participation in Building Schools for the Future

Schools are complicated buildings to design because they have many stakeholders. The client is never the same as the users, nor its interested parties, who are manifold and ever-changing, comprising the children, the teachers, the technical and administrative staff, the governors, the local community and the parents. When designing schools under the Building Schools for the Future programme, architects need to solicit input from these stakeholders as part of the briefing process and to understand the ethos of the school and its priorities. The composition of the representative body of stakeholders is up to the individual school to decide and can comprise up to 100 individuals in the consultation group.


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