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Alan Francis: 'We’re not uncomfortable with what we’ve done at DCfW'

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Alan Francis chair of the Design Commission for Wales (DCfW) talks about the first ten years of Welsh CABE

How has DCfW’s role changed or evolved since it was set up?
Established in September 2002, we became fully operational in 2003, not just with the national design review service, but with training and education services as equal partners alongside. Design review was then refined in its structure and frequency in 2005 and again in 2008/9. We later devised the design exchange supplementary service to create sessions for officers and members of Local Planning Authorities  to raise and discuss the everyday challenges they face in securing design quality. These sessions have no fixed agenda.
They can be geared towards simply getting to know us better, or to look at the principles of various projects, or to examine the barriers they experience and seek our help in addressing them. They may simply examine earlier decisions and what can be learned from them. We ‘ve worked hard to establish continuous engagement and often see projects several times or provide longer term client support. We also use design review intelligence to inform our bespoke professional development programmes.  

What do you think the organisation’s biggest impact has been?
We’ve helped much more broadly rather than simply at a scheme by scheme level.

If we started over, we’d still take an urban design-led and multi-disciplinary approach

We aim to build confidence and capacity, help inform policy and its application wherever possible. Particularly rewarding have been practices who have told us that our advice was vital to the success of their project, and members of the public who have found our expertise invaluable.   

What could DCfW have done better? Hindsight is a wonderful thing, although on the whole a key issue might be to have secured a public face, on the street, as it were, very early on. If we started over, we’d still take an urban design-led and multi-disciplinary approach rather than purely an architectural approach; we’d still take a supportive and engaging stance over a slamming and slating one. We’ve done a great deal with very lean resources and stayed flexible and light on our feet so we’re not uncomfortable with what we’ve done and we’re looking ahead.

Can design review really reach ‘local level’ and how will DCfW go about delivering it? Wales is a very small country and much of our work is local by its very nature. We have always accommodated grassroots projects, assisted individuals, groups and members of the public and we will continue to find ways to do so.

Do you think you do anything better than CABE?
We don’t compare ourselves with other organisations of different size, and capacity, working in a different context. CABE under both Jon Rouse and Richard Simmons was a close and collaborative partner, as is A+DS and our Irish colleagues. While some could view our size and resources as a disadvantage,  we always have the advantage of flexibility and the ability to be fleet of foot, combining proactive services with the capacity for swift response.

What do you think of the quality of the buildings built in Wales’ biggest cities/towns in the last five years? Compared with ten years ago when we started out, many are better, some very good, and some outstanding. 

What is the best building built in Wales in the last ten years?
Pat Borer and David Lea’s Wales Institute for Sustainable Education (WISE) at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Machynlleth. No question.  

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