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The case for the value of architecture would be helped if we knew what buildings really cost

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What we should be making clear to the public is the reality of the all-in cost of construction, says Paul Finch

It doesn’t matter how many times you demonstrate it, and it doesn’t matter what fresh evidence you adduce on your behalf. It only takes one politician, head teacher, or councillor to say that paying for fancy design adds cost without value and you have to start from scratch in making the case.

The problem is that some of the things said on this subject are matters of opinion rather than fact, and even if you accept the core argument that design makes a difference, it begs the question as to how much you should be paying for it.

Stephen Hodder is restarting the RIBA’s work in this area, which in living memory included a big report produced by the institute’s Building Futures group, with funding from CABE. He is right to do so because this issue is not a battle, but an ongoing war where a victory is always followed by another battle.

Convincing messages on this subject need to be carefully prepared and carefully marketed, but what usually happens is all the work and budget goes in researching and proving the value of design. There is nothing left for the essential matter of making the findings stick in the public mind, or at least in the minds of people in a position to do something about it.

Of course the public is sceptical about almost anything which is claimed about architecture and construction, because the key demonstrable fact is that the cost inevitably rises, often inexorably, for any significant public project. The HS2 project is only the latest in a line including the Scottish Parliament and anything procured by the Ministry of Defence. Little distinction is made between architectural projects and those at the civil engineering end of the spectrum, as illustrated by the general lumping together of costs for London Olympics works, both below and above ground.

The cynical explanation for the consistent underestimating that occurs is that, if the public really knew what it was going to cost, it would be impossible to get political approval. But is this really true? By and large, spending on roads and tunnels goes unchallenged. The Lottery has not generated huge controversy about building costs, but has instead annoyedpeople by refusing grants for First World War poppy planting and village halls while supporting rubbishy politically correct projects that frequently fail to complete.

If the cynics are right, however, then it is time for the public to understand what buildings actually cost. By this I do absolutely NOT mean the contract cost, where all too often professional fees, VAT and myriad other costs are left out of the picture. What we should be making clear as an industry is the reality of land cost, surveys, planning fees, design, construction, fit-out, etc - all including VAT, where appropriate.

This would be a useful guide because it would allow the public and media to ask relevant questions when buildings are being proposed, and it would mean that politicians would be less inclined to tell lies about true costs. A rough guide to per square foot prices would be helpful and could be regularly updated. The distinction could be explained between a building and the kit that goes into it.

The RIBA could do us all a favour by publishing an authoritative guide to every stage in the life of a building or retrofit, with sections on landscape, public realm and street furniture, art and sculpture and so on. This would be truly useful, helping to counter the nonsensical misinformation which leads people to believe you can deliver parliamentary buildings for the price of a B&Q.

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