TAKING THE LONG VIEW

David Premi

In the investment world, short-term investments are generally associated with higher risk. If this is true, why do investors often fail to look long-term when constructing buildings?

Many investors, donors, developers, institutions and purchasing departments embrace the lowest initial cost for their buildings and designers while placing less emphasis on the life-cycle cost and the legacy that the built form will represent.

With the evolution of Building Information Modeling (BIM) we can calculate how much a building will cost over its lifetime, which can help investors decide where to cut costs and where to spend.

The initial investment of a building includes the construction cost plus “soft costs”. A significant soft cost is the fee for professional design services such as architects and engineers. Choices made during the design phase are critical because they will continue to impact future profitability, flexibility, operational costs and occupant health, happiness and productivity for the lifespan of a building. It is during the design phase of the process that a building owner has control over how much the project will cost in the long run. It is more accurate to refer to professional design fees as an investment rather than a cost.

With the current low-margin model, buildings of relatively poor quality often reach the end of their serviceable life after 50 years, before being demolished and replaced by new ones. What once seemed like a great investment is reduced to a pile of rubble in a landfill. We know that this trend is not financially nor environmentally sustainable – and there is a better way forward.

A more profitable and sustainable model exists, allowing us to construct better quality and more energy-efficient buildings. It’s now possible to build to a net-zero standard, where buildings produce as much energy as they consume. There is also a growing trend to perform deep retrofits to existing buildings, which is a renovation of an existing building which results in a substantial reduction in energy consumption. These approaches come with an incrementally larger initial investment in both design fees and construction cost but drastically reduce operation and maintenance costs over the building’s lifetime.

To better understand lifecycle cost, check out the video below:

Common sense and history tell us that investors who take the long view are the ones who end up on top. As designers, it is our responsibility to encourage our clients to see beyond the initial costs to gain an understanding of the true value of their investment.

DESIGN DISRUPTION

David Premi

Rendering of a proposed streetscape by dpai.

Historically, disruption has been associated with bad behaviour; we all remember those disruptive students at school. But today it has evolved to have a different meaning. From a business or organizational perspective, “disruption” is defined as changing the traditional way that an entity operates, especially in a new and effective way.

Disruption is now ubiquitous. Profound transformations in industries such as transportation, hospitality and music continue to occur through disruptions sparked by Uber, Airbnb and Spotify. The design industry is no exception. Tradition must be challenged if a design process is to be robust. 

Creating a virtual reality

Today, designers can create functional, virtual replicas of their projects, neighbourhoods and cities. These virtual models can be navigated in 2D or visitors can be immersed in virtual reality. Bus schedules, tree species, existing built fabric, complete with materials and textures, and an accurate daily cycle of the sun’s path can be embedded into these models. Cars and pedestrians roam the streets based on actual traffic data. Soon we will be able to include dynamic computer simulated wind, air quality, and temperature data to assess the environmental impacts of a change to the built fabric.

Unlike the cumbersome, expensive and time-consuming practice of wind tunnel testing, unlimited iterations of a proposed building or park can be studied “live” with this technology. Designers can see the impacts of their design as it is in its virtual context. Through web sharing of the model, the visual and environmental impacts can be experienced dynamically by many groups of people simultaneously. Public consensus at this scale could have a profound impact on any political issues surrounding a proposal.

Disrupting traditional processes

As a public engagement tool, this technology has the capacity to seriously disrupt both the traditional development and planning processes. Imagine a proposed building, twice the height permitted by zoning, is empirically and publicly demonstrated to have only positive impacts. Conversely, what if a permitted height is shown to have unacceptable impacts, pressuring developers to reduce the density on which the economics of a development were based? Land values could be affected on a hyper-local level.

Could virtual reality hold the answer to a truly democratic and participatory urban design process?

WHAT IS URBAN DESIGN?

David Premi

Urban design is the practice of arranging the elements of a city that provide infrastructure for a healthy, lucrative and productive environment for residents. Urban design deals with built form, transportation, density, public space, architecture, landscape design, land use, public transportation, public health, recreation, sustainability, politics, public art, micro-climates, and ultimately the character and quality of the built environment. It is a holistic practice that considers the complexities and inter-relationships of all these systems.

Urban design must therefore be a collaborative effort, and must a acknowledge and embrace the context of its political, economic, environmental and cultural complexities. Many voices must be heard and included to ensure success.

Urban designers

Unlike the roles of planners, architects and engineers, urban design is a relatively new profession. The title ‘urban designer’ was coined over 25 years ago but to date, there is no professional accreditation for this role. It is a curatorial activity that considers and acknowledges the many forces that shape a city.

Good urban design

Urban design should consider the ideal quality of the human experience. It’s proactive in that it delivers a quality master plan that the individual interventions strive to satisfy while supporting a vision. Issues arise when there is an overemphasis on zoning, often creating unnatural environments based on an artificial and arbitrary set of rules that are inherently inflexible, rigid and predetermined.

For urban designers to succeed, they need to be at the table as a primary driver of vision alongside planners. They also need to make sure that when individual interventions are made, they are not in conflict with the mission and values of that vision.

Even when the best process is followed, some results will be unexpected. Such is the nature of the complex and unpredictable system, and for that, we need urban designers.