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What, exactly, is ‘fit for purpose’?

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Paul Finch’s Letter From London: Fitness for purpose is surely about more than structural integrity

The recent James Review on school design prompted a criticism that nowhere did it define what ‘fit for purpose’ meant. This was an interesting criticism, since it raised a general, as well as a specific discussion point, which could apply to any building, structure or organisation.

Indeed the phrase ‘not fit for purpose’ has been applied to subjects as varied as the Home Office, the planning system, the Football Association, any BSF school, hospitals, prisons, and so on. It is a simple smear that is rarely followed up by detailed analysis or explanation as to the nature of the unfitness.

The more you think about the concept, the more elusive it becomes. For example, if we think about the school buildings of Eton College, it would be hard to disagree that they are fit for purpose.

Does that mean that, if a local authority decided that it wanted the same sort of buildings for its new academy, it should follow Eton’s example?

It is doubtful that this would be allowed, not because of fitness for purpose reasons, but because the government believes that buildings of a lower quality, space standard and specification would still be fit for purpose, but would cost less money. In other words, the fitness for purpose test is not just about the purpose of the building, but also about procurement. It is a financial test, not one about utility alone.

The person who has expressed this most succinctly is the government’s construction ‘czar’, Paul Morrell. He makes a distinction between ‘good’ (or, perhaps, ‘really good’) and ‘good enough’.

This begs the question of what the word ‘good’ means; but we must leave that to clever lawyers.

I think we know what he means, which is that if a building is good enough to fulfil its proper purposes, then the benefit you will get by making a better building (if it involves significantly increased expenditure) is impossible to justify. The best becomes the enemy of the good.

Some architects have been far too quick to attack Morrell as a kind of quantity surveyor simply trying to cut costs. In reality, his approach is based on defining the desired results of (in this instance) creating a new school. This is important, because the general approach of the building industry, especially where PFI procurement is involved, is to focus on outputs, not outcomes.

As soon as we think about the outcomes, then the question of fitness and purpose can be seen in clearer perspective. It is not enough for a building simply to stand up and not leak. lf it is a school, it needs to help, rather than hinder, the process of teaching and getting the best out of pupils. If it is a hospital, it is about curing patients more quickly. If it is a prison, it is about more than mere incarceration.

You might say that fitness for purpose, in its narrowest sense, is defined by the Building Regulations. In a wider sense it is defined by a mixture of client/public ideology, planning regulation and a broad definition of function. In respect of the latter, it would be perfectly reasonable to expect a new school building to be of a quality which would encourage staff recruitment and retention.

Exactly the same argument was made by Paul Morrell in his British Council for Offices period, when he argued that one powerful justification for design quality (not then a synonym for excessive cost) was the increase in productivity it could bring about, as well as the more prosaic stuff about sick days and staff churn. Marginal improvements in the efficiency of our office stock would have disproportionate outcome benefits.

It is no different for schools, hospitals or homes. You don’t have to go as far as Berthold Lubetkin, who famously remarked that ‘Nothing is too good for ordinary people’, to believe that we have too much around us that is not good enough – let alone really good. Good enough, in the Morrell outcome sense, would be welcome.

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