The Value of Quality...

24 Sep 2012

...from conception to realisation

In The Big Issues, WAN’s Editor in Chief Michael Hammond and Jim Woolley, UK Business Development Manager for lift specialists, KONE discussed the major factors affecting the architecture industry on a global level. For Jim, the biggest bugbear was contractors being rewarded for ‘get rich quick’ buildings ‘to the detriment of the environment’.

At World Architecture Day next week we’ll be taking The Big Issues and presenting them to our panellists and attendees in an attempt to find solutions for the industry’s biggest challenges. Send your Big Issues to WAN’s News Editor, Sian Disson at so we can put them to the panel. If you're attending next Monday's big event, please log in to the World Architecture Day Forum using the details sent to your email address to meet your fellow attendees.

In the meantime, here’s our Chairman, Richard Coleman’s Big Issues for London:

1. I blame the Local Authority planning system for allowing the watering down of design quality after a planning approval. All too often we find that the built article is a shadow of what was intended, what was promised and what justified a given form, approach or height. A number of schemes I have collaborated on and provided design quality assurance for, have later appeared in real life as lesser 'beings'.

2. While governments admirably simplify planning policy and proclaim design quality as a major consideration, the end product is too often an unpleasant surprise. The appeal approval for the Shard, some years back now, included a safeguard against poorly conceived 'value engineering', driving the quality away. There the Inspector of the Inquiry made very clear that, ''I approve this design and no variant of it''. The fully emerged Shard thankfully appears to be the very design which the Inspector sanctioned.

3. In another case, in the same London borough, the Strata building transformed from a multi-layered subtle shaded, pale brown facade at planning permission, to a strident black and white, crudely detailed version when built. The Gherkin was also different at planning stage. It was to be of entirely white glass with spiraling cascades of external, horizontal, white glass louvers. These were value engineered away and black glass used for solar control. But in this case, so enduring is its form that it remains a great building. I remain proud of my part in its conception and a particular moment in the design process where maintaining its structural integrity was necessary. The external diagonals could so easily have been just cladding with vertical columns behind! I persuaded the client that the quality of the design would be hugely compromised. But few buildings today are of that same bespoke origin, involving a proud client. The developer is rarely the end user.

4. Frequently, subtle changes to cut corners diminishes quality: curved glass is substituted with straights; load-bearing stone facades become cladding; expansion joints go where the contractor wants them etc. Eric Parry's load-bearing Finsbury Square facade could have gone to cladding had I not taken a late night drink with the project manager post planning permission, and persuaded him that he was about to be responsible for a masterpiece if only he respected the 'no vertical stone joints' rule. I suspect that cladding it would have been accepted by the local authority and it would have been cheaper to build, but its value as a piece of outstanding design would have been lost.

5. CABE tackled this issue early on in its life, running a seminar and publishing recommendations but their document has merely gathered dust. The problem continues. Only more stringent planning scrutiny at the detail stage can resolve it. Alarm bells should ring when a scheme approved principally owing to its design quality, is suddenly submitted for detailed approval by a different architect.

6. Developers too should be aware of the ultimate value of a product being dependent upon its quality and how it can be easily diminished. They should recognise that if a design really needs to be made cheaper, the original architect is more likely to achieve the necessary savings while maintaining quality, than ‘A N Other’, who lacks the intimate knowledge of why earlier design decisions were made. Architects themselves must pay heed to the need for change and compromise and service the plight of economic realities, if others are not to take over their designs.

7. Ultimately the 'cards fall down' on making the quality of a design relevant in planning acceptance decisions unless it can be guaranteed.

Richard Coleman - Architect, Heritage and Townscape Consultant, CABE Building Environment Expert and Chair of World Architecture News

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