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Sadie Morgan honoured with AJ100 Contribution to the Profession award

Sadiemorgan jimstephenson 12
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The co-founder of Stirling Prize-winning practice dRMM has taken on a broader role, ensuring that design is valued on major public projects, writes Pamela Buxton

‘We need to help shape policy,’ says Sadie Morgan, co-founder of RIBA Stirling Prize-winning practice dRMM turned government design champion. ‘Architects need to be much more proactive in getting to the table right at the very beginning when we can add the most value. We can’t just wait until policies take a built form.’

That’s not a charge that can be levelled at her. As chair of the independent design panel for High Speed 2 since 2015 and one of 10 National Infrastructure Commissioners, Morgan is in a powerful position to promote the value of design to the highest level of government. She is currently in the early stages of setting up a Quality of Life Foundation to encourage developers to prioritise wellbeing in their projects.

And somehow, in addition to her continuing role at dRMM, she also finds time to be professor of professional practice at the University of Westminster, a non-executive director of both the Major Projects Association and developer U + I, and a Mayor of London design advocate. Back in 2013, she was the youngest ever president of the Architectural Association.

She grew up on a commune, an experience that taught her, she says, a deep sense of social responsibility and community 

It’s this impressive roll call of achievements that has led to her winning the 2019 AJ100 Contribution to the Profession Award.

Having set up dRMM straight after studying interior design at Kingston University and the Royal College of Art, Morgan has been keen in recent years to gain new skills and perspectives outside professional practice and to take up the challenge of promoting the value of good design outside the comparatively narrow architectural world. 

She certainly seems to have found her forte.

‘I soon realised that I could actually add value by putting myself in organisations where good design and creative thinking aren’t necessarily the focus,’ she says. ‘You appreciate that your voice helps to bring a different perspective to that conversation.’

In her roles on HS2 and the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), she is striving to ensure the architectural thinking is heard on major infrastructure projects. 

Drmm kingsdaleschool sportshall cmmack

Drmm kingsdaleschool sportshall cmmack

Kingsdale School sports hall, London

‘Big infrastructure projects tend now to be led by engineers, which is entirely right,’ she says. ‘But because architects have had so little involvement in those kinds of projects – I don’t know why that is – their voice is missing. And worse, they aren’t thought of as people who should be around that table.’ 

She finds this frustrating, given how well-equipped architects are to think about how major infrastructure affects the people and places it touches. Too often, however, the opportunity to draw on this creativity at the most important time of the project is lost. 

‘If you’re not in on that conversation early on but are brought in a quarter or a half of the way along, you’re losing a quarter or half of your value already,’ she says, adding that projects are then in danger of becoming process rather than outcome driven.

At HS2, she changed the procurement for some £6 billion of civil engineering contracts to ensure design was given a considerably higher weighting

She admits to finding it harder than she expected to change the culture of big infrastructure projects and ensure that recommendations to encourage design quality get successfully drilled down into delivery.

‘It’s taken me a while to reframe my advocacy of good design,’ she says. ‘You have to talk about good design in the context of saving money and problem-solving, and in a way that fits within cost, time and programme, and that’s entirely possible to do. But I don’t think architects naturally speak in that way.’

Nonetheless she is hugely – and rightly – proud of her achievements so far with HS2 and the NIC. These include the inclusion of a chapter on good design in the National Infrastructure Assessment and the establishment of the NIC’s Design Group, which she also chairs. This is in the process of drawing up design principles for all major infrastructure projects. In this way, she says, there will always be someone thinking about design quality, whether it’s on a flood defence system, an energy centre or waste recycling plant.

Drmmdirectors crop feb2000 cdrmm

Drmmdirectors crop feb2000 cdrmm

Source: dRMM

dRMM directors Alex de Rijke, Sadie Morgan and Philip Marsh, February 2000

She has also established an NIC Young Professionals Panel, to make sure that those who are working hard at the ‘coal face’ stage of their careers are also able to have a role on shaping policy for the future 30 or 50 or so years. After all, she adds, these are the ones who will be around to experience the results of long-term policy being formulated today.

On HS2, Morgan’s achievements chairing the design panel have included changing the procurement document for some £6 billion worth of civil engineering contracts to ensure that design was given a considerably higher weighting – something she hopes will have a ‘significant impact’. She has also led the use of specimen designs to demonstrate what great design should look like. On a broader level, she has encouraged the HS2 team to ‘look beyond the red line on the map’ to have a vision for how the route can affect the wider environment, both in rural and urban contexts. 

‘That mindset has definitely changed since the panel has been around and this will, I think, make a significant difference,’ she says.

Drmm onecentaurstreet kitchenandlivingroom cfrenchandtye

Drmm onecentaurstreet kitchenandlivingroom cfrenchandtye

Source: French and Tye

One Centaur Street apartment block, London

Her work outside dRMM shares the practice’s ethos that ‘great design can transform people’s lives’ – as demonstrated by such schemes as the new wing at Clapham Manor Primary School and the Kingsdale School music and sports buildings, both in south London, as well as the rehabilitation of Hastings Pier, which won the Stirling Prize before the pier ran into well-documented financial difficulties. 

Her big new project is setting up the Quality of Life Foundation, for which she has secured private funding. This is being formulated with the aim of encouraging large-scale developers, housebuilders and investors to improve the way buildings and communities are planned, procured and constructed to enhance wellbeing. While it’s too early for detail on how this will operate, it may include formulating a set of principles that will drive the industry to perform better on improving quality of life for those who live in their developments. 

Morgan talks about how her work is informed by her unconventional upbringing. The daughter of an architect father and designer mother, she grew up on a commune founded by her psychiatrist grandfather, an experience that taught her, she says, a deep sense of social responsibility and community.

Drmm claphammanorschool interior01 cjlencer

Drmm claphammanorschool interior01 cjlencer

Source: j lencer

Clapham Manor Primary School interior, London

‘We lived independently but we had shared spaces, we had shared responsibilities,’ she recalls. ‘So I’ve always believed very strongly in the power of community, and the power of looking after your neighbour, and the power of sharing.’ She adds that this can in part be facilitated by the design of the place where you live.

This, she says, may be as simple as getting the basics right, by designing, for example, an apartment building that engineers opportunities to meet neighbours, that enables parents to keep an eye on their children when they are out playing, that is dual aspect and that ensures there are areas both for sharing and privacy.

‘There are plenty of things we can do to make people feel happier,’ she says, adding that this requires meaningful rather than token consultation with stakeholders to ensure that any new development successfully embeds in the community. 

Setting up the Quality of Life Foundation in addition to her many other roles is likely to keep her very busy over the next half a year or so. But it seems unlikely that this dynamic doer will stop at that – it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see her take on further roles promoting design quality at a high level in the future. Meanwhile she is also a prolific public speaker – as a woman at a senior level in the building environment, she feels she ‘has a responsibility to be visible’. 

Her role has inevitably changed at dRMM. Although she is still involved in projects and is nearly always in the office, she has stepped back from a hands-on role.

Drmm hastingspier definitiveoverview caderijke

Drmm hastingspier definitiveoverview caderijke

Source: Alex de Rijke

dRMM’s Stirling Prize-winning restoration of Hastings Pier

‘I’m a great believer in enabling others,’ she says. ‘We have an extraordinarily great team at dRMM which has grown up with us. There’s nothing more satisfying then seeing the team make fabulous architecture, and I can help and support that. But I feel like it’s time to let others spread their wings, and they need to be given the space to do that.’ She is, she says, someone who needs to be active, whether championing design to industry and government or pursuing an impressive variety of energetic hobbies, including sailing, cycling, riding and mountain climbing. Treatment for cancer three years ago only spurred her on further.

‘I said that if I stay alive, it [cancer] will be the best thing that ever happened to me,’ she says.

‘It totally changes your perspective. You suddenly realise that the world is a very precious place and you should work hard to contribute in some way to it.’

Previous AJ100 Contribution to the Profession Award winners 

  • 2018 David Adjaye
  • 2017 Alison Brooks 
  • 2016 Zaha Hadid
  • 2015 Thomas Heatherwick
  • 2014 Julia Peyton-Jones
  • 2013 Richard Rogers
  • 2012 David Chipperfield
  • 2011 Michael Hopkins
  • 2010 Laura Lee
  • 2009 Ken Livingstone 
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