Designing with social value in mind

Author(s) Dr. Kelly Watson

Designers should harness the potential of social value approaches to demonstrate the added value of their work, and promote better design in the built environment…

The social value agenda has visibly gained prominence and attention across a variety of sectors over the last couple of years, and this is certainly true for the UK design and construction sector. Increasingly, both public and private sector clients are asking their suppliers and wider project teams to consider, articulate and evidence how they will deliver wider value as part of built environment projects. For local authorities, this requirement is driven by the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 which ensures contracts are awarded based on value for money, rather than upfront cost savings. Similar legislation has been developed in Scotland (Procurement Reform Act 2014) and Wales (Future Generations Act 2015).

Social value refers to the range of economic, social and environmental impacts that accrue to stakeholders, end users and local communities due to interventions, investments and developments.

Yet, too often this conversation is focused on the construction phase of development, with an emphasis placed on supporting jobs, offering training opportunities, apprenticeships, staff volunteering, and other CSR activities. Whilst this is an important part of the social value story, it misses the potential to add value from much earlier in the project process, nor considers the impact of the designed asset once completed and in operation. It is a challenging ask for architects and designers as their core contribution comes at a much earlier work stage, and there is less opportunity for design practices to offer project-related apprenticeships, training or outreach in the same way as a construction firm.

Recognition that social impact is also generated through both the design process and the physical asset itself is growing. The “Social Value in Design of the Built Environment” report by the Supply Chain Sustainability School argues that important decisions made during early design stages actually de-limit the kind of social value it is possible to achieve later in the project. The UKGBC “Social Value in Development” report also emphasises the importance of considering social value across the full project process, from investment and commissioning decisions, all the way through concept and optioneering, planning, detailed design, construction and post-occupancy stages. The MHCLG Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission is another example of where the design of the built environment is gaining prominence at a national level, with the first report now available to read.

There are a range of emerging drivers that are pushing designers to consider social value measurement: it is becoming a work winning factor for many projects, with social value contributing up to 30% of the quality score on some public sector contracts; the market is moving in this direction; it is a significant factor in being able to attract and retain talent, especially in the younger workforce; and there is a growing consensus about the importance of responsible business practices, in a wider context of public sector cuts, socio-economic impacts of austerity still being felt, and a declared climate emergency.

As a result, it is not just contractors with the requirement to answer social value questions as part of proposals and tenders. Architects, engineers and other designers also need to be able to articulate the added value of their work in a meaningful way.

For many, social value seems implicit to the core mission of the profession. Yet, a lack of evidence means the social contribution of architects is often overlooked. This is a challenging proposition for designers, as the impact of design is often intangible, subjective and difficult to pin down. Post-occupancy evaluation approaches can help to tell this story, but still require a push towards social impact assessment rather than focusing on the performance of the built environment, even if this is from the perspective of the end user.

Recent research at the University of Manchester’s Urban Institute has sought to plug this gap in available methods to capture the impact of design. During my PhD research between 2012-2016, Social Return on Investment (SROI) was trialled as a novel from of social postoccupancy evaluation, and shown that it is possible to qualify, quantify and monetise the impact of high-quality built environments. An SROI case study of Maggie’s Nottingham was published in the RIBA’s Building Knowledge: Pathways to POE report. This was followed by a project called Well Cities, to develop and validate a multi-item scale tool to measure the psychological wellbeing impacts of place. This can be added to a POE survey as an extra module and represents a cost-effective way for designers to gather some primary evidence about the impact of their designs. These methods are applicable at a range of scales in indoor environments, the public realm, and for blue-green infrastructure.

Industry has also been capacity building in this area. At Hatch Regeneris, we are working with a number of design clients to help them think through their approach to social value. This looks different depending on the client. For some, it is a strategic exercise to set a high-level approach which pulls together any activities currently underway and embed a common set of practices into current process and policy. For others, the wish to demonstrate the impact of their work is leading to a case study approach to evaluating completed schemes retrospectively. Whichever way this journey is started, our aspiration is to help designers build social value into their existing project process so that it becomes an embedded aspect of their practice, and a demonstrable contribution within built environment schemes.

Core principles for designers looking to maximise their impact include: engaging with stakeholders and asking the difficult questions, promoting the value of engaging with end users and local communities as early as possible, promoting informed design that responds to evidenced needs, addressing social value risk and opportunity throughout the project, and integrating social value objectives and targets into project processes. Ultimately, designers have a unique opportunity to take a holistic cradle-to-grave perspective across the project lifecycle. For example, the connection between early stakeholder engagement, needs-informed design, post-project evaluation and social value is as yet unformed, but a significant opportunity.

The Professional Institutes are also recognising the need for designers to capture and evidence the social value contribution of their design work. The RIBA is considering the idea of a social value overlay to its new Plan of Work which will drive increasing interest in social value across the full lifecycle of a project. This is tied to an initiative of the Architecture Research Practice Leads group and led by Prof Flora Samuel at the University of Reading, to develop a Social Value Toolkit. A group of designers, consultants and academics have been working together for the last 18 months to develop and pilot a simple and practical way for architects to capture and measure the social impact of their designs. The toolkit is due to be published by the RIBA Practice Committee in the new year and draws on principles of SROI and post-occupancy.

Designing with social value in mind
Source :‐value‐toolkit‐housing‐architecture‐progress‐flora‐samuel

This agenda is also growing within infrastructure engineering in the UK. The Design Task Force of the National Infrastructure Commission, as well as the regional commissions, are considering added value in the context of major infrastructure schemes, and the ICE has recently funded a social value research project being undertaken by Useful Projects.

It is clear that the level of activity and interest around social value has skyrocketed in the last 12 months. For designers, there is a real opportunity to take the lead on embedding social value considerations across the project process, drawing on the emerging thought leadership around monitoring and assessment, and ultimately delivering and demonstrating improved design outcomes in the built environment.