Balancing Design and Specification

Although it's a few years old, I had never read this article before it appeared in my social media feed the other day. It should - unfortunately - be second nature to check the age of 'news' these days, but the subject matter was too interesting for me to immediately pay attention to the date of publication.

Redevelopment of the Gas Works buildings at Kings Cross. Photograph by Paul Forrester.

As a piece on how buildings - award winning ones at that - fail their users, it felt every bit a story made in 2018. To discover that it was actually written four and half years ago only served to prove that performance gaps have long been a problem, and lessons are slow in being learned.

Round table

Last year I had the pleasure of attending a round table event with a group of architects and designers of housing solutions, and spent the afternoon listening to professionals discuss new models for delivering housing and shaping communities.

There was just one problem: the topic was supposed to be the delivery of energy efficient housing and how performance gaps can be addressed.

The excitement of demonstrating leadership in design-centred solutions almost entirely drowned out any discussion of what such solutions would actually be like to live in. Reading about the energy inefficiency of the Scottish Parliament in the Stirling Prize article transported me right back to that round table event.

Flow of ideas

My experience in domestic architecture is small works or one-off houses. I've never been part of master planning or large scale housing developments, so I don't understand the flow of ideas through or around a design team to be able to pinpoint where the failure to address fundamental building performance might occur.

The failure may not be in the design team at all. It's not uncommon for the method of procurement to call for generic specifications from the architect, with the detail worked out by the contractor or sub-contractor. Contractual arrangements have long been identified as a problem.

Just days after first drafting this blog post, I read Helen Castle's article in March 2018's RIBA Journal, calling for architects to reclaim control of specifications and their positions as leaders. Perhaps the thrust of the discussion at the round table event was emblematic of a group whose roles centre primarily on design and much less on specification.

Interestingly, the same article suggests that clients need to be "guardians of quality" just as much as architects.

Whole-house packages

That copy of RIBA Journal was given out free at ecobuild, a construction show at which several companies exhibited 'whole house' concepts designed to deliver modern housing solutions to certain energy and/or comfort standards.

As well designed as these concepts are, however, their promise of performance is based on predictability and repetition - thereby lacking the ultimate prestige of a bespoke architectural design. As their own client, the companies can take charge of delivering the level of quality they aim to achieve.

But how much do end users care about the performance? Would they be any more or less likely to buy the house if it achieved Passivhaus or barely scraped building regulations? And if those building users become clients themselves one day, how keenly will they impress upon their chosen architect a requirement for low energy specification?

The merry-go-round of questions and answers continues...!