At the end of last year, I wrote about three things that architects and design professionals could do to build a better future – placing focus on the need to decarbonise the construction industry and improve communication and collaboration across disciplines. But, as much as designers and architects should reflect on their practice, so too must those who wield arguably greater power over the fate of the built environment: their clients.
The best buildings have the best clients – and the public sector is lagging behind
In 2021 we saw some of the most exciting developments of our decade kick off. This year’s schemes should be even better.
Architects often say that the best buildings they have made have had strong client leadership at the helm. This needs to be qualified. What makes a great client?
Clients who have long-term and stewardship interest are consistently behind the best projects
In today’s world, it boils down to foresight. Clients who have long-term and stewardship interest are consistently behind the best projects. This means leadership that has the patience, skill and courage to see value in virtues and benefits that are universal and timeless, as opposed to just high yielding in profit.
Often, these leadership traits are personified by private sector clients – universities, the great estates, cultural institutions – that by nature are motivated by factors that go beyond immediate market demand, and whose endeavours dictate an interest in remaining robust and relevant into the future. The public sector is currently lagging behind on getting what matters right – namely sustainability, diversity, efficiency and social good.
Government-led development needs to become as dynamic and progressive as the private sector, encouraging best practice across all its work, but specifically in areas that focus on building resilience.
Today, any applicant bidding for major private sector projects must be able to show accountability for how their practice delivers on sustainability, diversity and social value. The public sector does not exert that level of pressure in its procurement – a pressure that is called for when things are not changing quickly enough organically.
The vision of a good client holds matchless power to highlight and prioritise the real and diverse needs of people
In 2021, RIBA’s client of the year award went to the Cambridge Mosque Trust – a client who, over 10 years, stuck with a vision for a community space that championed sustainability and civic life. The significance of this award rests not just on highlighting the great benefits of a healthy client-architect relationship, but also as a means of signposting the weight that project leadership has in shaping our world.
The vision of a good client holds matchless power to highlight and prioritise the real and diverse needs of people. But this can only be done if there are the right checks in place at the start, and if those checks tally with an ambition that is fit for both present and future purpose.
Nothing will change unless clients begin to understand the importance of long-term value, which is what major private sector regeneration projects around the country are getting right in their tender briefs. This is why industry leaders are pushing for procurement reform and calling for a change in the recipe for project requirements.
Housing, infrastructure and other large-scale sectors that are led by the public sector must follow suit, ensuring their ask on major projects is for a demonstration of innovation, efficiency, excellence, and the faculty to aid decarbonisation.
In my roles as a design practitioner, design advocate and advisor to both public and private players, I often witness the frustrations and limitations held on both sides of every fence. Yet across all industry, these deficits must acquiesce to a greater set of goals.
We need to fix the problems that exist by looking and learning across sectors, turning to the legacy of great institutions who have built longevity into their expansions and regenerations, and blueprinting their approach.
Our environment is progressed by a wide and complicated tapestry of players, and in 2021 we saw some of the most exciting developments of our decade kick off. This year should only bring better, and both public and private development must start as it means to go on – quality in, quality out.