Total Design Seminar

April 15th 2004,
Centre for Mathematical Sciences, Cambridge

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User, client and designer perspectives in the Cambridge expansion

On April 15th 2004, built environment professionals from across the East of England region attended shape's seminar exploring aspects of the design process from the perspectives of the architect, commissioning client and occupying end-user.

Sponsored by Cambridge University 's Estates Management and Building Service (EMBS), the seminar was held at the RIBA award-winning Centre for Mathematical Sciences designed by Edward Cullinan architects.

Forty-three representatives of the construction industry, environmental planning, design and the housing sector enjoyed three illustrated presentations exploring the ‘totality' of the design process required to deliver successful buildings.

Director of Cambridge University's Estates Management David Adamson gave the assembled audience an insight into his department's working methodology which encourages architectural and environmental quality for all University building projects: from the initial briefing for the design team, through to an effective ‘soft landing' process immediately following practical completion.

David presented an approach based on balancing different perspectives and processes to achieve quality design, using several University buildings as both good and bad examples of this. During his presentation David criticised the Egan report for pushing design to the margins by encouraging an, ‘If you can't measure it, you can't manage it' attitude, stressing that this was not the case with the work of Estates Management.

A final enforcement of David's view that the design process is a balancing act came when he fielded a question from the floor, which asked, ‘how can control be maintained throughout the building process?' His answer was that quality design is not achieved by a single person or group controlling the process, but by building professional relationships which create a self-controlling system.

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Architect Bob Allies of Allies and Morrison gave the audience a unique ‘guided tour' of the practice's recent work including a fascinating insight into the Abbey Mills Pumping Station. This project allowed Bob to describe how the function of a building could be interpreted and strongly influence its form. It also allowed Bob to introduce the idea of the differences between the client and user, in this project one of the main targets was simplicity for the end user.
Amongst other projects, Bob went on to talk about the Sidgwick site, Cambridge . In this project the end users had very specific physical needs whereas the client's main aspirations which were about allowing for growth and adaptability. Allies and Morrison took into account that the main money and drive was behind the buildings, but of equal importance in terms of design were the spaces between. During the design process the composition of the buildings was considered to contribute to the totality of the Sidgwick site, reflecting the moves between the context of college, university and city.

Bob finally talked through the design of the Allies and Morrison offices in London , where they acted as the client, architect and end user simultaneously. According to Bob the entire process has helped him to appreciate clients and listen to users more.

He gave a brief description of the approaches from different perspectives which they used during the project:

User perspective: The building should reflect the organisation within it, encourage exchange, be calm, relaxing and internally adaptable.

Client perspective: There should be cost certainty, the building should be easy to maintain (with low economic commitment to maintenance), energy efficient, durable and a good investment.

Architects perspective: The building should be simple, elemental, complete, should have a ‘beauty' in the materials and spaces, take into account the wider context and contribute to the surroundings.

Finally Bill Bordass talked about the building in use. Bill was part of a team working on the PROBE project (Post-occupancy Review Of Buildings and their Engineering) which examined a selection of educational and office buildings.
In the light of PROBE Bill gave the audience a tour of their findings. He began by acknowledging that generally once the building was in use failures were only reported to the design team if they were severe. Bill also showed several stunning examples of ‘the pudding being over egged' by the design team. These examples included ‘low energy' buildings which on post-occupancy energy tests came out with high levels of energy consumption, self-closing windows and vent shafts propped open with pens and blinds closed in the summer due to glare and never being opened again.

Bill went on to say that some of the buildings which work best do so because they have fantastic building managers. His main advice for designing quality buildings from the perspective of the user was not to rely on building management, but to ‘keep it simple'. To ensure the best for the end user Bill pointed out that following through on a project with ‘soft landings' is not enough. Hindsight is needed by the design team to ‘close the loop' and feedback should be linked to project delivery.

He also provided us with a fascinating comment from a library user, ‘the BMS may know the temperature, but it doesn't sit in the draft it causes.' And followed on with the interesting statistic that in two thirds of buildings the occupant says that the environment detracts from productivity.

Bill finished by stating that improvements, for the end user, to the engineering of buildings should be celebrated, even if the system is not perfect.

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