Ask the Expert 2

In this second in a series of blogs for Insider Wales, Director Toby Adam looks at how good design can pay back the initial investment many times over.

Although our reactions to architecture operate on many levels, it is the visual appearance that often comes first. But is design more than just skin deep? In this blog, I will look at what “good design” means, how following a robust process can help achieve it, and how good design can make a difference that goes beyond the building façade.

When our response is visually led, it is easy to conclude that as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so “good design” must also be subjective. However, my experience as a panellist for the Design Commission for Wales has shown me that good design is possible to objectively assess. The Roman architect Vitruvius defined three characteristics of good architecture in his treatise “De Architectura” more than 2,000 years ago. As the only text on architecture to survive from antiquity, it has been regarded since the Renaissance as the first book on architectural theory. These principles are:

  • Firmitas (Firmness) – It should stand up robustly and remain in good condition.
  • Utilitas (Commodity) – It should be useful and function well for the people using it.
  • Venustas (Delight) – It should delight people and raise their spirits.

The definition proposed by Vitruvius all those years ago remains a fundamental tool for assessing the qualities of good design to this day.

“On Architecture” By Vitruvius. Penguin Classic Edition

As Thomas Edison is said to have remarked, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”, and architecture is no different – to make the big idea come to fruition takes hard work, professionalism, and following a clear process. Since 1963, the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) has promoted the use of its project framework, known as the Plan of Work. It explains the outcomes, tasks and information exchanges throughout the life of a project. It does this by dividing the design and construction process into “stages” that split a project up into manageable parts.

The Plan of Work starts with assembling the brief, the business case, and understanding the site and works its way through concept design, tendering, and construction all the way to completion and handover. Recent versions even go beyond completion to cover how a building operates once open, suggesting testing and commissioning to ensure it works as intended.

By following a time-tested process, architects can properly define what a client needs, and thus arrive at a design that provides the “firmness, commodity, and delight” that Vitruvius recommended.

But does this emphasis on “good design” make any difference in the end? Does it add value? Many studies have shown that this is undoubtedly the case.

A report issued in 2011 by the RIBA provided evidence for how well-designed buildings can deliver tangible social and economic benefits to those who use them and invest in them.

“Good design – it all adds up” brings together research from the UK and abroad to illustrate the benefits that good design in housing, education, health, the workplace and public spaces can bring.

For instance, in terms of care design, Patients with access to daylight and external views require less medication and recover faster. At Skypad Teenage Cancer Trust Unit in Cardiff, one teenage cancer patient said: “It doesn’t feel like being in hospital. It makes treatment easier as I am not focusing on that”.

“High quality architecture and design make a really important contribution both to society and to the economy, particularly when budgets are tight and value for money is key.” John Penrose, MP.

To discuss your project, you can contact Toby using the details below.

Toby Adam

Director, Gaunt Francis Architects, 23 Womanby Street, Cardiff

Tel: 029 2023 3993



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