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Dumbed-down design should be addressed within the planning system

Paul Finch

It is possible within the existing planning system to take steps that make it more likely buildings will be delivered as designed, says Paul Finch

The AJ’s excellent feature last week on the reduction or elimination of design quality once the architect has achieved a planning permission, was a necessary reminder of what appears to be a chronic condition.

In 2003 the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment published Design Quality in Planning as a response to genuine concerns that a combination of cynical clients, self-interested so-called value engineers and jackal executive architects were deliberately reducing the quality and integrity of successful designs produced by others.

Since the dozy coalition government and its hopeless architecture minister eliminated Cabe, the only body capable of not just producing such a report but getting ministers to pay attention to it, there seems little current chance of the document being updated to take account of legislative changes.

Architects often talk of planners as the enemy, but they can be useful allies in the war on dumbing-down

However, its general message holds good: that it is possible within the existing planning system to take steps that make it more likely (not guaranteed) that buildings will be delivered as designed. Admittedly this takes not just commitment but also a greater level of detailed monitoring than may be considered appropriate given current financial circumstances, but then planning fees are there to take care of that sort of thing. I do hope they are not being frittered away on non-planning matters.

That Cabe report, as a public document, is available via the National Archive – just Google the title. It still reads pretty well, and ought to be a reference for young planners worried about the apparent diminution of powers and responsibilities. In reality it is perfectly possible for the system to deal with the dumbing-down question without any fresh legislation, just the bringing of pressure to bear.

One obvious area is details and materials, which can of course be conditioned. Despite the fact that architects often talk as though planners in general are the enemy, in reality they can be useful allies in the war on dumbing-down. There comes a point when it is not worth a client’s while to change the architect when so much is already set in stone, and not worth the contractor doing his best to make things worse.

Dsc9092 edit

Dsc9092 edit

Studio Egret West has disowned its Gatefold building in west London. Source: Anthony Coleman

Incidentally, here is a comment by the late great engineer, Peter Rice, when asked his opinion of value engineering: ‘It has nothing to do with value, and f— all to do with engineering.’

The idea that anything creative or playful has no value is the stock-in-trade of the dullards who produce dismal environments because better ones ‘don’t stack up’, when what they really mean is that they can’t afford to do a proper scheme because they paid too much for the site. They love forcing architects to rebid on work they have already designed, on projects they fully understand, in order to save a minute amount on fees by substituting someone worse.

I would love to see a truly vigorous campaign by the RIBA to fight for changes in legislation that would make dumbing-down far more difficult, and would make architecture itself a critical element in the planning process, rather than it being a necessary but ditchable element used to create a trading commodity, ie the permission. It is probably not possible to insist the original architect completes the work because the site may be sold, but we could do an awful lot more to deter the cheapskate behaviour of some clients in this area.

Surprisingly, the opponents of tall buildings have not made much of this issue, but perhaps they are too busy with the footling campaign against Renzo Piano’s revised Paddington Station development, an elegant 18-storey office cube, which will generate more than £60 million towards improvements at the station. Some people are never satisfied.


Readers' comments (2)

  • How about the ARB taking architects to task for unprofessional behaviour if they actively engage in 'dumbing down'?

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    This is a hugely complex issue, one which we (as architects and designers) find ourselves immersed in daily. We toil, battle, research, innvovate, debate and develop our schemes against significant pressure and constraints throughout the pre-planning phase of any project; planners, stakeholders, EH and lobby groups, residents, user groups, guidelines, policy and so forth. This work adds absolute value. It creates legacy, wealth and so forth. The quantum of any designer fee relative to the increased value this work brings is grossly disproportionate, doubly insulting given the incredible unpaid effort that is invested by extensive teams to get each project as right as it can given all of these circumstances. To expect any client/developer to deliver on the word of the planning consent doesn't seem to me to be an unreasonable expectation. However this is rarely (if ever) as straight forward as one would hope. Typical practice includes being instructed to remain vague about the precise detail and material specification on drawings, producing 'marketing' based visuals as a means to demonstrate suitability of the scene rather than mandatory detailed verified views for 'every' application, and so forth, only increases the likelihood of change post planning. I believe that the system needs to entrench the delivery of the scheme into the approvals process, otherwise we continue with a before and after approach to the system, rather than a continuous seamless and integrated process which has a much better chance of delivering the expectation of quality. A few simple, if painful, adjustments to the approval process might include;
    1-The conditions of any application must include a requirement to demonstrate the suitability of the architect intended for the delivery phase, coupled with...
    2-Financial sanctions on any developer changing an architect post planning, with a contribution in some way, along lines of section 106 Payments.
    3-Impose planning conditions which demand developers must demonstrate that the intended design is being met through the detail. A little like ER's (employers requirements) but perhaps PR's (planning requirements).
    4-Make it mandatory for any planning application over a certain scale, or in a certain location/context to demonstrate the intended procurement strategy, to include proposed build contract, a viable cost plan (audited by planning authority), a schedule of selected contractors to be invited to tender, including their approach and portfolio of previous builds...
    4-and so forth....

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