Ben Derbyshire writes for BD online

Cut-throat fee competition among architects is both a perennial complaint and a self-inflicted wound.

But to wait in hope for a return to mandatory fee scales or protection of function is to wait in vain while the realpolitik leaves you far behind. You cannot, and nor should you, try to buck the competition. Instead, we must work together to do something effective to improve the outcomes of the procurement process – halting and reversing the race to the bottom.

I have long argued that our task as professionals is to restore value to our relationship with society, and our clients, by demonstrably adding more value to the outcomes that they seek through our work.

To a very great extent this is a task for us – ensuring our offer is relevant, researching and disseminating knowledge, learning to use the new technologies and skilling up to better manage risk. Risk management is fundamentally at the heart of any professional relationship.

Meanwhile we have been thrown a lifeline, which we should reach out and grasp for its ability to haul us back from the murky depths. Architects assert that our holistic design-based education sets us apart in a world where everyone now calls themselves “professional”. The Social Value Act of 2012 gives us the opportunity to prove it.

We are not quite yet where we need to be in relation to this shift in the world of procurement, but we should encourage and support those who are trying to get there – not for our benefit, but to improve the value of investment to deliver improved social outcomes. If you agree that design quality is essentially about delivering well-being – that aesthetic delight is a part, but only a part of this – I hope you will join the clamour for change.

We are fortunate in having some indomitable champions for this campaign. Ann Bentley, author of the Construction Industry Council report Procuring for Value, is tireless in pointing out that procurement criteria which score in favour of capital cost are guilty of basing critical choices on a tiny fraction of the costs of overall ownership. Further, CIC argues for outcome-based procurement in which wider benchmarks than cost alone are used to make choices, and test effectiveness.

Julie Hirigoyen, in the UK Green Building Council guide, Social Value in New Development, argues powerfully that these outcome measures should include value beyond social benefits imparted during the construction phase alone, to include social, economic and environmental benefits to occupants and community through the life of development.

Grabbing this lifeline requires the professions to get serious about predicting and assessing performance. Too few possess the techniques or display the behaviour necessary to make a convincing case. That is why RIBA’s Climate Challenge 2030 is limited to readily available measures of energy and water consumption, and embodied carbon. We must massively improve on the pitifully modest proportion of professionals and projects which benefit from serious attempts at the performance feedback loop. We must learn to walk before we can run.

In due course, I am sure we will settle on widely accepted measures of social outcomes. When we do, we will finally be on an upward spiral, where interdisciplinary collaboration will be a prerequisite of a new ethical professionalism and where measures of social value will sustain the proposition that our contribution to building a better built environment, building a better society, has been underrated.

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