Camilla Siggaard Andersen of Arup explores how, regardless of the construction industry’s myriad motives, the worth of projects that architects and designers create is ultimately about their social value – how they shape peoples’ lives
Why do we build? Depending on who you ask in the building industry, the answer to this question is certain to vary. Architects, engineers, and designers may be passionate about shaping structures that leave a physical imprint on the natural world. Builders and entrepreneurs could be attracted by the power to construct and assemble disparate parts into a whole. For developers, the drive might be the thrill of finding and closing gaps in the market, or indeed, the urban fabric itself. Across these and many more sub-sectors, we are united by a motivation to build – to add pieces to the puzzle that becomes “the built environment”.
When populations and, in turn, industries grow, we construct ever more complex structures, find astute technical solutions, and engineer economic models to help us meet the bottom line. We have largely succeeded in answering to the demand by continuously supplying bigger, taller, longer, and, more recently, greener projects. But is this enough? I’m not convinced. Winston Churchill famously said: “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”. Since then, an abundance of research has reinforced the truth of the statement. In his book ‘Happy City’, Charles Montgomery explains how the design of hallways in buildings determines the likelihood of neighbours becoming friends. He also points out that your ability to concentrate at work may be linked to whether you were subjected to traffic jams en route. The former is a product of building design, the latter, of car-centric urban planning.
In 2007, the BBC reported that people with ‘dirt exposure’ could benefit from a healthier, happier hormonal balance, while Dr Frances E. Kuo has published research since the early 2000s showing that urban greening reduces aggression and crime in inner cities. Yet, green space is still often regarded as a nice-to-have amenity, or a tick-box exercise.
An analysis of the 2016 US presidential election by The Atlantic suggests that places which invite diversity through mixed land use, building stock, and functions either create or attract more people with left-wing political views, while the opposite is true for places that are more uniform. And at the most basic level, researchers working at the intersection of architecture and neuroscience, such as Colin Ellard, Oshin Vartanian, and Moshe Bar, have demonstrated how our brain interprets the shapes, textures, and colours of the built environment. As it turns out, we are biologically programmed to be on edge around hard angles, while soft and curvy spaces put us at ease.
All of these studies have come to the same conclusion. When we shape the physical world, we are also inevitably shaping a social landscape; we are impacting on the ability of individuals and communities to live healthy, happy lives; we are either creating opportunities for people, or we are taking them away.
Legislation has followed suit, setting out the new standards that professionals in the built environment industry are expected to meet. In 2012, the Public Services (Social Value) Act was introduced, and in 2015, the United Nations released the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The former calls for all public sector commissions to consider wider economic, social, and environmental conditions. The latter is a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that people enjoy peace and prosperity.
These issues may seem a little too ambitious to tackle with a simple building or infrastructure project. However, with nine out of ten people in the UK living in built-up areas, and with clear connections between the built environment and people’s physical and mental wellbeing, every project must endeavour to make a positive difference. We must deliver ‘social value’. Social value is commonly described as a ‘triple-bottom line’ that considers social, economic, and environmental impact, from a community perspective.
It is a concept that summarises the responsibility of the building industry to consider the wider repercussions of a project on people, for all of the reasons outlined above. To achieve this, we need to embed ourselves in communities, listening to their needs and wants, and redefine our idea of success accordingly, across all avenues of the building process. We have to build not to prove the strength of metal, but to support the strength of people. We have to design spaces that optimise natural light as well as social encounters.
When we build roads, we have to consider both what they connect and who they divide. A facade has to protect the inhabitants of the building from poor weather and make the passing pedestrians feel safe and welcome. Everything we have learned to do has to do more. To add meaningful social value to our projects, we have to design with people at the very heart of the process and at the forefront of decision-making. It can be complicated, because as much as we try to calibrate, calculate, and validate the wider societal impacts of buildings, places, and infrastructure, we will never be able to fully capture the value of human experiences in a spreadsheet.
However, we have another unifying factor within our industry; we like a challenge. That’s why we build.
Camilla Siggaard Andersen is design lead at Arup Digital Studio