Architects at the heart of quality built environments


There is consensus that the quality of our built environment has a positive impact on the quality of the lives of the people who live and work in that environment – but there is also a view that modern urban planning and badly-designed buildings are leading to a loss of quality and that things need to change if we are to achieve a more sustainable future. Georg Pendl, President of the Architects’ Council of Europe is optimistic about this future, particularly if architects are able to play a more central, more holistic role in planning

Last year, European Ministers of Culture, along with other institutions and NGOs, highlighted in the Davos Declaration “a trend towards a loss of quality in… the built environment… all over Europe”, characterised by “the trivialisation of construction, the lack of design values, …the growth of faceless urban sprawl and irresponsible land use, the deterioration of historic fabric, and the loss of regional traditions and identities”.

Of course this statement is an overarching generalisation designed to attract attention to make a very important point. As the declaration also stated, a high-quality built environment makes a “crucial contribution… to achieving a sustainable society, characterised by a high quality of life, cultural diversity, individual and collective well-being, social justice and cohesion, and economic efficiency”, so it is important we work towards achieving this quality. But while there is a broad consensus that a high-quality built environment impacts positively on people’s everyday lives, it can prove difficult for public authorities, project developers and built environment professionals to assess and guarantee the quality of the buildings and urban spaces they commission and design.

The Architects’ Council of Europe (ACE) has responded to this conundrum with a recent statement called Achieving Quality in the Built Environment, which seeks to define more clearly what quality means. The statement supports the Council of the EU’s decision to create under its Workplan for Culture 2019-2022 an expert group called High-quality Architecture and the Built Environment for Everyone.  Georg Pendl, President of ACE believes the focus on architecture within a cultural context may go some way to improving the perceived lack of quality in our newly-developed built environments. “This is something new and I think there is good chance that this will improve things,” he says. “Firstly, on the political level, it seems more evident that the success of the whole European idea will not be based on economic success alone. This does not create a mutually beneficial experience for all in the union. Culture could be a much stronger driving force for the European idea and this may make architecture more relevant.”

Pendl will wait to see how serious the commission is about culture when the next budget is published, but he believes that with the new workplan for culture stating that architecture should be for the common good, we are moving in a positive direction. “This is a good thing for the ACE,” he continues. “I don’t see our role as simply lobbying for architects. I believe our role is to promote the quality of the built environment. I believe that if there is a good built environment and a desire for good quality, then it follows that architects will do well.

“If this workplan is leading to the need for a quality built environment being more clearly defined and an acknowledgement that we need to take care of this for the wellbeing of all, then it helps us in many respects, including in terms of sustainability and energy efficiency.”

Pendl believes that architecture needs to play a central role in the whole planning process for our built environments, helping to get the right balance between the cultural, social, economic, environmental and the technical requirements of people living and working in them.

“Architects are able to take a more holistic approach to the whole thing,” he explains. “It starts with the shape of the building, the basic volume and ratio of volume, floor areas and all the many factors. The earlier you think about sustainability in the planning process, the more sustainable the result will be. 

“If you have a simple plan and then try to make a sustainable building, you are already 70 per cent lost. Taking this holistic view, the architect can start by considering the use for the building, considering things like more mixed use rather than the usual segregated use we have in Europe. The earlier the architect has a role in the planning process then the bigger impact the architect will have.”

The problem Pendl sees so often is that decisions taken at an early stage are not long-term planning decisions. For example, traffic solutions are often planned before the buildings are planned and how the buildings will be used. “There are many decisions taken before the core planning process begins, while a lot of the focus is on the business element of any development, the return for the investors.

“And this is what the Davos declaration is seeking to highlight,” continues Pendl. “It brings  into consideration ‘baukultur’, a term that means a more holistic way of thinking about the whole planning process – not only the architecture of buildings, but zoning, urbanism, planning processes that involve citizens and the participation of residents and users. These are all elements of ‘baukulfur’ and it offers architects and planners other opportunities for developing better built environments.”

“I would say that at the moment in Europe, and for some time, we haven’t invested enough thinking, creativity and, to be blunt, effort in our built environment. A lot is done in a very unplanned, hasty way and this way of doing things is not sustainable. If you consider the development of cities, particularly in Europe where we have a unique model of a dense way of living together compared to other continents, it was very good until the 1920s, 1930s. Since then, urbanism has lost relevance, which can be seen in the new suburbs, which just grow and grow, particularly in the big cities. The growth is accidental, randomised, with little long-term planning. This doesn’t start with urban planning. It starts with zonal plans which lead to this enormous urban sprawl as if cities can grow endlessly. This cannot be the case.

“Urban sprawl brings many problems, particularly with the whole infrastructure, which becomes increasingly problematic. This is all on the wider scale. It is also to do with energy use and sustainability as these aspects are not only related to the buildings themselves and the energy they use, but connected to the traffic that is needed to connect people and to move them around for work.”

Pendl is also critical of the directives and regulations surrounding the development of modern urban spaces and uses the European obsession with cooling our homes and work spaces. “Cooling is a modern trend anyway. We have only started needing cooling in the last 30-40 years in Europe. It is ridiculous and comes because of the wrong ways to build. A hundred years ago no one had an area of the house they needed to cool and now we have rooms where regulations dictate that the temperature cannot exceed 26 degrees. This is absurd. If it is summer, then it is hot.”

The materials we use to build are also a very big issue in terms of the quality of our built environments, restricting what architects can do. “On the European level, for example, all the energy directives and the ever-stricter rules make it more difficult to experiment, to try different materials,” he says. “The energy issues are driven by the insulation industry. It’s that simple, but a little crazy. We build concrete walls of, say, 20cm and then we pack in 25 or 26cm of EPS or ESPS, which is something that will cause problems later on.” Meanwhile, he says, the renovation of older buildings to bring them up to date and improve their quality in terms of their possible use for homes or work, is restricted by cost and lack of imagination in terms of changing their use. 

“Often, renovation concentrates on thermal insulation, which again is largely due to the influence the insulation industry has,” he says. “But one should also consider the use of a building and the possible change of use that may be possible, when considering its renovation. 

“Take the buildings of the early 20th century. If you just pack them with insulation you lose the quality of the buildings. You may as well just demolish them. The problem is that the design of the building does not match the insulation needs. You can insulate on the inside of the building, but this is not easy and it is not cheap, while it is also disruptive for the residents. These are cost issues and, though important, the high pressure that is created by all the directives that exist is not good either.”

Pendl believes that as we move towards a carbon-neutral future, a better built environment that is energy efficient and helps people lead more fulfilled and happy lives is possible. While the mainstream sector of the built environment is currently very much driven by technology and industry, he wants to see a move towards more traditional, localised methods of building, like building with clay and wood and other natural materials. “I would like to see more work take place where people are using the materials found in the local area for their built environment, making low-tech and simple designs. 

“This is not the solution for everything, of course, but it shows us that you can have a completely different starting point and approach in the whole building process and we need this to move away from urban sprawls and homes restricted by ever-tighter regulation to quality, sustainable built environments that make people happy.”  H

According to the statement presented on 4 May 2019 in Innsbruck (Austria) on the occasion of the ACE conference “How to Achieve Quality in the Built Environment: Quality assurance tools and systems” the essential features of a high-quality place should include the following:

Aesthetics: architectural quality has an artistic dimension; buildings and cities must be beautiful and exciting.

Habitability: the place serves the purpose and achieves the functions for which it is designed. Its technical characteristics make it safe, healthy and comfortable. It is well maintained and provides a feeling of safety. At district level, it integrates harmoniously all necessary functions and services that people regularly require (homes, workplaces, shops, public services, etc.)

Environment friendly: designed to be low-carbon, energy-efficient and resilient to climate change throughout its life-cycle.

Accessibility and mobility: the place is well-connected (public transport) and it is easy to move from one point to another – in particular using soft modes of transport (walking, cycling) – including for people with reduced mobility. The distribution of volumes and spaces is straightforward, making the place easy to perceive by users.

Inclusiveness: the place is designed for all: everyone, regardless of age, gender and ethnicity must feel welcome and have the opportunity to participate. 

Distinctiveness and sense of place: the place is specific, fitting the local context, and has distinctive characteristics, generating a sense of place; 

Affordability: there is a strong compatibility of the programme with the place and the budget of the client;

Integration into the environment: integration into built, natural and cultural environment in a harmonious and coherent manner.

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