Dispelling the bogey of dispensability: evidencing the value of architects [BOOK REVIEW]

Architects don’t know what they know and so can’t communicate their value.

 

Listenback is always hungry for evidence to improve its underlying rationale. Our last blog mentioned a new book that falls into this category, and it’s fascinating. Here’s our review…

Why Architects Matter: Evidencing and Communicating the Value of Architects is a polemic calling for architects to buck up their ideas. Written by architect and academic Flora Samuel, who is also the RIBA’s first ever Vice-president of Research, it focuses on the profession’s so-called ‘bogey of dispensability’, which she describes as ‘the feeling that they aren’t really necessary and that what they do is of dubious worth.’ Her thesis is that this insecurity causes them to ‘assert rather than evidence value, often in a manner that alienates others.’

Her encyclopaedic trawl through the ‘swirling miasma of hearsay, focus groups, and spin’ that constitutes the profession’s current body of knowledge reveals a fundamental problem. The profession doesn’t know what it knows, and so cannot articulate its value to outsiders. ‘The key attributes of professions are knowledge, ethics and professional judgement. Lack of clarity about what architects know makes it very difficult for them to defend their territory.’

“Architects’ body of knowledge is a ‘swirling miasma of hearsay, focus groups, and spin'”

Samuel is sympathetic to architects, who she defines as ‘socio-spatial problem-solvers, integrators of complex bodies of information and masters in space-craft.’ That said, her book is a no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners brickbatting of the current marginalised state of the profession, which she clearly regards as self-inflicted.

She criticizes architects for having been largely focused on the ‘nuances of aesthetics’ and beguiled by the geometry of structures, ‘sometimes with hidden or less hidden quasi-mystical associations with nature, relying on faith for validation.’ The notion of what makes architecture good today, she says, is ‘heavily skewed by cultural capital and architectural preferences for research that is pleasing to the architect’s eye’.

All this was fiddling while Rome burned. Instead, architects (and the way they were taught) should have been ‘refining methodologies for investigating and improving the relationship’ between the wellbeing of people and the built environment over time. The tools of salvation are post-occupancy evaluations and robust research, supported by better teaching, organizational learning, knowledge management, and service design. As she says, ‘Only 3% of architectural practices undertake POE on a regular basis. Guesswork continues to be the preferred mode of operation.’

“The tools of salvation are post-occupancy evaluations and robust research”

On this analysis, it is hard to deny that evidencing and communicating the value of architects is one of the biggest questions facing the profession. As Samuel implies, it goes to the root of many pressing, some say existential, issues: the race to the bottom in fee bidding; loss of authority; poor build quality; low productivity; inefficiency; architects’ marginalisation; and so on.

The old way of quantifying value, which was simply to declare it, simply won’t wash any longer. Thanks to better communications technology, clients are alive to the fact that professionals can be fallible, just like any other human. While this realisation is hardly revolutionary, architects have been slow to respond with the right kind of reassurance. In short, relying on a professional qualification is no longer good enough: architects have to walk the walk before they can talk the talk.

So we need more robust evidence for their value. Samuel is optimistic that this is possible, the chief challenge being to convince architects to reframe and formalize what they currently do as research, and to capture the knowledge in a way that can be reused and built on.

“Accessing streams of research funding for the benefit of members”

In December 2015, the RIBA Council unanimously supported a new vision:

By 2020 the RIBA will be the leading architectural intelligence network, facilitating innovation, and improving practice effectiveness and outcomes through research and knowledge sharing.

Interpreting this vision in her role as VP of Research, Samuel aims to earn  RIBA the status of Independent Research Organisation. This will instantly open the door to otherwise inaccessible streams of research funding for the benefit of members. Her targets are to:

  • make post-occupancy evaluations mainstream
  • carry out a strategic study of how the profession grows, promotes and safeguards its knowledge
  • support practitioners in accessing research funding across the nations
  • produce a social value post-occupancy evaluation toolkit.

While this sounds hopeful, there have been false dawns at the RIBA before on this topic, particularly under the presidency of Frank Duffy. This time, however, the project is led by a senior academic and battle-hardened warrior on the research funding front, enough to inspire confidence.

To my mind, one of her first missions will be to untangle some knotty questions standing in the way of the yearned-for validation.

What is value? There is no universal agreement about what counts as value or what the unit of measurement should be in this industry. At the moment, value tends to be calculated in terms of a building’s financial performance, which is the product of time, cost, quality and yield.

 But what about things that are invisible to the balance sheet? For example, it’s possible that the building will set the scene for an uptick in occupant wellbeing with a resultant reduced demand on health and social services. It could also bring economic, social, environmental and cultural benefits to the local community and indeed society as a whole.

Most architects would argue that these benefits should be credited as value-adds, but how do you go about convincing clients, for whom these benefits are costs?

How can we accurately predict the future value of buildings? A true measure of a building’s value is only possible at the end of its life. Only then do you (in theory) have all the data to inform your assessment.

 However, that’s not the way markets work. Clients don’t pay their project team after they know for sure that the building has been worthwhile. They pay on the promise that it will be.

Until someone invents a time machine, we must rely on the market, whose choices are swayed by professional valuers, who base their predictions on historic financial comparables, some other non-financial evidence (provided it is sufficiently robust), and the promises of the project team. How educated are these promises, and how accurately do they reflect full value? We don’t know.

How much of value creation is down to blind luck? Like any project, procuring and constructing a building is only partially controlled by the project team. Uncertainty, volatility, complexity and ambiguity have a huge influence on the outcome, good or bad.

A project that you thought was heading to be meh at best can turn around simply by catching a lucky break: underlying market conditions improve; the price of building materials come down; the ground conditions are better than anticipated; new regulations change in your favour; the client is replaced by one with different priorities and more money; and so on. None of these is controlled by the project team and so they should not be credited for their beneficial effect when it comes to calculating value.

How much is down to the architect? A point that Samuel makes several times is that a new building is the collective output of many different people’s work and not just the architect’s. While it might be possible to quantify the value of a building to some extent, distilling which parts of the building made a difference and what proportion of that value was down to architects’ work is hard to discern.

Which aspects of the architect’s performance add value? It might be that a particular innovative design feature is entirely responsible for all of the architect’s value. Alternatively, their value might be distributed across all their activities in a way that cannot be disaggregated. How can you tell?

Clearly, none of these questions attracts a simple answer, and yet they are all necessary pre-conditions to being able to distinguish architect value from all the other value accruing to buildings. Even before then, architects have to stop thinking of themselves as artists and acknowledge, as Samuel says, that “they work in a knowledge-based service sector.”

“A splendid manifesto for the Information Age”

Why Architects Matter is a splendid, if somewhat bludgeoning, manifesto for architects in the Information Age. It calls on the profession to leapfrog the stagnant pond of its collective inertia through research and post-occupancy evaluation as standard to affirm its special place in the production of the built environment. While a dense read in places (not helped by the book’s layout), it sets out a practical agenda for confronting architects’ rapidly evolving, demanding professional future.

And its relevance to Listenback? Well, client feedback allows you to improve the design of your service. Samuel quotes Winch and Schneider: ‘Although architects provide plans which eventually result in a building, what they offer is primarily a service, the quality of which is judged by clients on the basis of the overall experience rather than the end project alone.’

As Samuel says, ‘Clients need to be able to comment on the service at critical junctures in a non-threatening way or they just ‘slop away’. Service design is a key, yet underrated, part of the profession.’

And unlike an analysis of the building, analysis of the architect’s service is uncontaminated by other value systems.

 

Listenback is currently looking for practices willing to partner with us to test the tool’s use and functionality.

If you are interested in participating, please get in touch with Matt Thompson at matt@listenback.co.uk

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