Austerity’s just dandy—for the other guy.
While U.S. politicians quarrel ad nauseam over fiscal policy, Britain’s coalition government went ahead and swung the axe. On Oct. 20, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced a plan to reduce government spending by roughly $130 billion over the next four years. Osborne intends the British deficit to dive accordingly, from its current level, 11.5 percent of GDP, to 1.1 percent of GDP in 2016. That’s big savings.
So what must the British people sacrifice in exchange for a cleaner balance sheet? Design, for one thing. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), a government-chartered group that provides guidance on building design and urban planning, has lost all of its government funding, which last year accounted for 40 percent of its operating expenses. Now CABE’s very existence is in question.
The annual savings on CABE will amount to roughly $1.5 million. In light of other measures, such as the elimination of nearly 500,000 public-sector jobs and a hike in the retirement age from 65 to 66, the CABE cuts may seem like the least of Britain’s worries. The flurry of objections in the nation’s design press could easily be dismissed as special-interest griping.
Yet CABE’s accomplishments are major, and I suspect the British people will come to regret its loss should the government cuts prove to be crippling or fatal to the group. CABE has conducted 3,000 design reviews in its 10-year history, on every conceivable building type: offices, housing, hospitals, schools, and parks, to name a few. And CABE-guided projects have raked in the design awards, which demonstrates that the architecture community, at least, approves of the group’s work.
Unfortunately, most design awards are an insider’s game, with limited effect on popular opinion and zero grounding in quantifiable metrics. In evaluating each other’s work, awards jurors typically are asked to define quality according to the vaguest of criteria: aesthetics. While aesthetics matter tremendously to architects and provide real benefit to the public, “beautiful” simply doesn’t compute in the mind of a government accountant.
The seemingly casual elimination of CABE’s $1.5 million is symptomatic of a larger problem for architects. The profession does many things very, very well. But demonstrating the value of architecture in the context of a devastated global economy historically hasn’t been one of them.
Joe and Jane Six-Pack (or Joe and Jane Six-Pint, if you’re British) probably perceive design as a luxury good, a Louis Vuitton splurge when times are good. The powers that be obviously feel much the same way, despite a zillion Fast Company arguments for design’s potential contribution to the bottom line. Like it or not, we’re living in a nickel-and-dime world now, and I fear architecture isn’t coming across as a sound investment—not only in the U.K., but in the U.S. as well.
Stateside, the AIA helps with aggressive lobbying and promotional campaigns. But the AIA can’t go it alone. The real burden of proof—proof of the tremendous return on investment in design—sits squarely on the shoulders of the individual architect.
Don’t feel overwhelmed. The solution is already out there. Architecture firms and their clients increasingly are documenting building performance. There’s a growing industrywide effort to monitor buildings’ energy and water consumption. These efforts are important and should become standard practice. And such practices can go even further, to encompass the effects of design on a company’s core business.
Gensler, a business-savvy practice if there ever was one, has its own in-house research department, which generates post-occupancy reports on its office projects, proving hard benefits of design such as increases in staff retention and declines in employee absenteeism. A law firm loves to hear that its paralegals took fewer sick days because their new workspace cubicles have better access to daylight. That’s value.
Not every client is willing to pay for post-occupancy research, but there’s always the possibility of gathering the data, ostensibly on the client’s behalf, as a value-added service. The value will accrue to both client and architect. Research findings will guide architects’ design decisions in the future and help them justify those ideas to the next client.
If the profession as a whole gathers enough findings and broadcasts them effectively, programs such as CABE would fall into the category of essentials, and architecture would transcend its perception as a luxury trade. I wish good design could speak for itself, but occasionally the designers themselves need to speak up. There’s value in that.