Why it's so hard to get high quality, efficient and healthy buildings built these days

view across village green
© Umpire View, Sarah Wigglesworth Architects/ Photo: Tim Smyth

Sarah Wigglesworth explains the challenges she faced on an affordable housing project.

Architecture is a tough profession these days; there is a consultant for everything now and some have relegated the architect to the role of exterior decorator. It’s particularly difficult in the era of “value management” which is a misnomer, because often they just know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Umpire View across green space© Umpire View, Sarah Wigglesworth Architects/ Photo: Tim Smyth
Sarah Wigglesworth, a talented UK architect that we have followed on TreeHugger, bravely discusses the problems with a recent project of hers, Umpire View.

This modest housing development in Harrow shows how simple yet distinctive design can rethink the ubiquitous suburban home. The project includes twenty seven new homes for Notting Hill Housing Trust on part of a disused greenfield site.

section of building© Sarah Wigglesworth Architect

It was all energy efficient, designed to the Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4 (a code that was cancelled by the Conservative government along with net zero targets as too costly) and focused on a Village Green that was transferred to public ownership, “safeguarding its future and creating a place for children to play, a morning run or a walk with the dog.”

Then the fun begins, as the project was to be built under a design/build contract, where the architect in fact has little control.

D&B contracts secure almost no authority for the architect, and we often have to fall back on small tactical manoeuvres when the strategic powers offered by the planning system and client support lets us down.

details of Umpire View© Umpire View, Sarah Wigglesworth Architects/ Photo: Tim Smyth

She fought battles over substituting vinyl windows for wood: “uPVC is harmful to the environment, and when we repeatedly refused to carry out this instruction we were threatened with removal from the project.” Other trims and details were changed to plastic over the architect's objections. Wigglesworth writes:

As architects we are often marginalised when cost information is withheld because it forms an essential component of the design brief. At Umpire View this was the case – an uncomfortable and infantalising situation that goes against collaborative ways of working that are at the heart of our ethos. While given freedom to select a facing brick within a price bracket, we are left asking: how can architects make a sound decision on specification without the full information? And why are we not trusted with relevant information so that we are effectively working blindfold? Unless the client shares the design vision, champions quality and supports the architect, the end product will inevitably be compromised.

Nick GrantNick Grant explaining Value Engineering/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

It is so sad to read all of this, especially when we need so much new, healthy and energy-efficient housing. Earlier this year I wrote about Learning to Live with Value Engineering from Nick Grant, who writes about the problems in the UK with what is called Value Engineering, but is really just cost-cutting done after the design is set and done.

When I practiced as an architect, the two phrases that were daggers to the heart were “value engineering” and “design-build”, both of which ripped control from the architects and put it in the hands of the cost consultants and the contractors.

Nick thinks it can be fixed, and suggested that "the marriage of these could be rebranded as Integrated Design, if that helps us move on. Something needs to change fast if sustainability is to become normal, which is part of the very definition."

Something certainly has to change. To save a couple of pounds the cladding at Grenfell was changed; to save a bit of money on Umpire View the project was compromised enough for Sarah Wigglesworth to write the kind of courageous article in the RIBA Journal that ensures that you never eat lunch in this town again. But we need high quality, energy efficient and healthy buildings, which sometimes cost a few pounds more to get right. Wigglesworth concludes:

The architect’s struggle to bring lasting value through design quality is a permanent battle. It needn’t beat us, but it takes determination, persistence and a few simple tricks to overcome the structural problems that restrict the architect’s powers, and – in the words of Yvonne Farrell of Grafton Architects – to ‘lift something over the threshold, from being something that is okay to being something of value.’

It needs more than that -- it needs a change in the system.

Why it's so hard to get high quality, efficient and healthy buildings built these days
Sarah Wigglesworth explains the challenges she faced on an affordable housing project.

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