How Do We Measure Design Quality?

Issue 78

It is one of the hardest questions that should be asked of all designers - how do we measure quality?

Over the years I have seen many attempts to try and formularise a system of assessing design quality, most recently in the mass housing sector.

In my world, architects spend a minimum of seven years to graduate and fully qualify. Only then can they legally use the title ‘architect’. It’s a protected title and like doctors, recognises the time, skill and commitment required to achieve it. Architects then spend many years building up experience (in the real world) of projects, clients, legislation and contract law. So why does the country produce so much mundane work alongside the good? We enjoy the television shows of Grand Designs for housing but need to expand this interest to all buildings. In this country we celebrate older buildings as good, simply for being old, yet many people are reticent (or even scared) about new, modern architecture.

We still see so many ordinary buildings on our high street, estates and business parks and yes, sadly, many will be drawn by architects, surveyors and those with titles like architectural designer (code for non-qualified person – so beware!)

It is easy to blame bad design on lack of budget, speed of requirements and the planning system. Yet even with the simplest project, a clever design solution or idea can turn an ordinary project into a wonderful piece of design.

The well-known American architect, Frank Gehry famously said: ‘why employ an architect and then tell him what to draw?’ That is an extreme view, but I understand the sentiment of the statement. We all need a client brief, an understanding of the project and an idea of the budget. My skill is to come up with ideas – solutions that meet the brief – even challenge and question the brief.

The architectural skill is to use combinations of materials that turn an ordinary building into a piece of architecture. I have written recently on the planning system and the problems within it, and the pressure on the limited number of planners currently working (in the system). One aspect is the assessment of quality, or the lack of ability to assess design quality within the current system. The planning system is not at fault for lack of quality. One really good idea is to have panels of experts who can assess design quality across architecture, landscape architecture, urban design or sculpture. This can assist in trying to gauge and assess quality.

In the North East, one such group is the Northeast Design Review Panel. Developers, clients and planners can use this organisation to assess projects. I would encourage local authorities, planners, and client groups to use this organisation. Yes, it costs money, but if your project is worthy then a report from a panel of experienced designers will/should go a long way to justifying your projects. Awards are another way of assessing quality and we were delighted last week to win a National Civic Trust award for Neville Hall in Newcastle.

Ultimately, we need clients to have the conviction to challenge and set high standards of their designers. And we need architects to rise to the challenge, rather than look for excuses.

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