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INSIGHT: Ticking the Right Boxes: In today's quest to add value at all costs, are we not losing sight of the most important aspect of all - the architecture itself?

by Austin Williams
September 23, 2004

Note: This article originally appeared in The Architects' Journal; reprinted here with permission.


At the recent RIBA conference in Dublin – amid the gentle whirr of self-promotional PowerPoints and a rhythmic purr of well-oiled somnolence – debate turned to that old chestnut: the “value” of architecture. I say “old chestnut” as architecture has always been “valued” to greater or lesser extent throughout history, but it is only recently that pundits have tried to quantify it, capture and bottle it.


“Value added” is now a recommended assessment tool in architectural circles. Whereas we used to get on with the business in hand, knowing that the product of architecture had intrinsic value, these days we all seem to be angst-ridden about whether we are adding enough value and if it is the right quality value. After all, how do we measure how valuable the added value is: Is the value that we are trying to add sufficiently valued by others? Could a concentration on certain core values, devalue other fringe values? We just don’t know and so we continue to have conferences to pontificate about it with little chance of reaching a conclusion. This is the recipe for building-by-numbers, with architects playing a demoralizing, never-ending game of benchmarking.


The real problem – and one that we miss at our peril – is that the tail is beginning to wag the dog. One developer at the RIBA conference spoke of preparing for a scheme by actively engaging the local community, considering the historic value of the site, partnering, participatory involvement, considering the sustainable viability of the scheme… before showing the audience a block plan for a hotel (not an ordinary hotel, he was at pains to explain, but a “boutique hotel”). Some people in the audience nodded sagely; he had ticked the right boxes – “sustainability,” “participation,” “community-centered.” What value! What a client! What a guy! But what architecture?


Counter-intuitively, “design quality” is yet another of those coded references demanding quantifiable benefits. The noble Vitruvian ideals of commodity, firmness, and delight have been reduced to mundane tick-box [checklist] criteria such as “functionality,” “build quality,” and “impact.” The “impact” of a building is measured by how much of a “positive impact on the local community and environment” it has. Presumably, the self-defining cabal of architectural advisors who are the mainstays of the conference circuit will determine what a positive impact means.


Nowadays, a positive impact is one where an architect shows empathetic respect for inanimate resources, the client, the user, the community, society at large, the planet, the ozone layer, and who knows what else, as some kind of display of adding “value.” Worse still, architects now have to justify their work in moral terms: does the design improve well-being? Does it add value to business efficiency? Will it improve the health of the occupant? Is the willful use of materials being kept to a minimum? Ultimately, the debate centers on whether the architect can justify their scheme – not in design terms, you understand – but in terms of its “quality” and “value” to the fictional “community.” Just as five-year-olds are taught citizenship in schools, so architects are being taught to prioritize environmental respect and social responsibility in their design out-turn.


It all sounds so laudable, doesn’t it? But have we really come to such a sorry pass that architects are fêted for their literal, unmediated, and instrumental role in creating architecture? Just as the art world seems to have lost faith in its ability to promote “art for art’s sake,” and hence tries to validate individual projects using spurious social “meaning,” so architects have ended up justifying their work through the idea that it improves a range of social ills: anything from productivity to health. It may look shite, but hey, it’s added value. Tick. Do not be surprised if architecture is soon advertised as an aid to virility…or hair loss.


Architects’ new clothes


Marrying “design quality” with “added value,” one speaker at the conference explained the “fact” that schools in America have “clearly shown (that) students have improved their performance by up to 30 percent in schools with large windows.” Is it just me, or does no one recognize balderdash when they hear it any more? For example, just how big do these magic windows have to be? If they were even bigger would students be even brainier? Are students more academically minded with round, square, or arched windows?


My worry is that this sort of tosh, masquerading as a scientific exploration of cause and effect, used to be confined to the feng shui fringe. Unfortunately, it is now the mainstream. In terms of educational facilities, the California Energy Commission Technical Report, "Windows and Classrooms: A Study of Student Performance and the Indoor Environment" (October 2003-pdf), includes such gems as: “When teachers have white marker boards, rather than black or green chalk boards, they are more likely to use them and children perform better in math.”


Apart from the danger that if we buy into this arrant nonsense, the reverse is also true – that architects will be held liable in our increasingly litigious society when things go wrong. For example, Phil Dordai, an architect in Kansas, recently designed commercial facilities to encourage weight loss in its staff (he did not design a gymnasium, he just built the office car park a mile away, forcing car drivers to walk). Will he be liable if the morbidly chubby don’t manage to shed a few pounds? By constantly talking up instrumental applications of architecture – that is, a deterministic exploration of the tangible, physical, environmental benefit that can be shown to have accrued though a piece of architecture – architects are playing a dangerous game. It reflects a tick-box mentality that seems to have seeped well and truly into the architectural mindset.


In times past, the benefit of architecture was an ethereal thing that tended not to be expressed verbally except in the desire that it be beautiful, functional, and stable.


After all, what else is architecture other than doing one’s best to fulfill this triumvirate? Vitruvius did not judge the success of architecture by getting a range of responses from lay user and community groups. He did not use a questionnaire. He understood that good architecture could lift the spirit but did not claim that architecture could heal the sick. He did, however, acknowledge that good architecture advances the health of society. But this is a different thing. It is one thing to study and understand the psychology of architecture and quite another to recognize that it adds to the sum gains of civilization in many disparate, unconscious, and conscious ways. Today, the former is being lionized and there is claim for a direct connection between cause and effect: designing out crime; accessible design to prevent discrimination; inclusive design to build an egalitarian society; environmentally friendly design to save future generations from themselves; therapeutic design to improve health service turn-around.


When the California report could not legitimately find a link between increased window sizes and educational performance, it excused the inconvenient facts by flagging “potential confounding variables, including view-related distractions, glare, operable windows, radiant thermal comfort, indoor air quality, and acoustic performance.” In conclusion it found that the “reverberation problem tended to be aggravated by the presence of teaching assistants who provide in-class tutorials for individuals or small groups.” So, after all that, it seems that it was the teachers who were the most significant problem for poor educational performance, blocking the natural educationally enhancing benefits of daylight. This has all the hallmarks of pre-war social Darwinism. Once we accept an instrumental view of architecture, people can legitimately be seen as the problem.


It is fair to say that authoritarian architectural diktat, whereby an architect wantonly disregards quality, social impacts, and the value of his or her work, is nothing to be celebrated. However, this scenario is premised on a fictitious architectural characterization.


Architects, by the nature of their profession, do their best – to the best of their abilities – most of the time. It is a low opinion we have of ourselves if we believe that architects are so useless that they have to design to monitored criteria. Obviously, some of the people presiding over this new tick-box culture are not referring to themselves when they point out bad architecture. After all, they have determined the terms of the debate and have moral righteousness on their side.


Architects need to find their critical voice again and start challenging the craze for value added, that actually adds no value other than increased regulation, and for design quality masquerading as social engineering.



Austin Williams is the Technical Editor of the Architects' Journal; he can be reached at:

© 2004