Impact Assessment of Design

I have been considering the meaning of the word ‘Impact’ lately, in relation to how we design. I have been wondering if, when we design, do we know the impact of our design decisions? We are always asked to maximise the profit or benefit for our clients, so fitting the largest amount of development on the site that can reasonably be constructed and occupied is a given. This may or may not be the best thing for society in the long term, but we have no real methodology for appraising whether it is or not, and it isn’t clear where a designers responsibility to society begins and ends. The short term impact for the immediate project team may be positive, and planning policy may approve it, but have the impacts been considered in the longer term, over 20-40-60-100 years? Where the impacts have been considered, have they been considered in terms of social, economic and environmental benefits/damage.

It is interesting to note that the Governments ‘Better Regulation Framework‘ guidance on Impact Assessment states:

For each option, an assessment should be made of the likely impacts that are likely to result, monetised where possible and proportionate. The impact assessment should consider the full range of possible impacts, including economic, social and environmental impacts, not just impacts to business. Risks and assumptions should be clearly stated.

Naturally, even Government Consultations don’t always follow these rules, so what chance would a design team have, while under pressure from a client to submit an application? It must become part of everyday practice that designers ask themselves that question at every turn. Is this design idea/change likely to lead to environmental, social and economic benefits? If the answer is no to all three, then it must be a bad idea to begin with. If only designers knew the answers to these questions. Designers know very little about the social or economic impact of their designs, as they get little feedback from their end users, and rarely visit their buildings after completing them, so how could they know?

The difference between long-term and short term impacts are even more difficult to assess and predict. How can we predict the future, and assess how our buildings will function one or two generations from now? What we can do is take an approach that considers the future in social, economic and environmental terms.

For example we can design ‘in’ sufficient flexibility so that a number of possible future outcomes are possible, such as a building capable of supporting a variety of uses. We can design very efficient fabric so that the environmental performance is ‘locked in’ to the building and not dependant on mechanical systems. We can design economic buildings that are cheap to build but which are made of robust materials that will last a long time, thus passing on an economic benefit to the next generations.

Again, when we build on green field land, do we consider anywhere in the process that the loss of arable land represents a cost to future generations? That land will never be able to produce food for us again, and since we already import a large proportion of our food, this kind of action condemns us to increase that activity in perpetuity. With rising oil prices, this may be a cost that our descendants are not grateful for.

When we build new homes do we consider the impact of future energy price rises on their inhabitants? Designing in greater energy efficiency is cheap and cost effective, but we don’t see any benefit in doing so, despite the fact that there are positive social and economic benefits, just not the short term benefits to the developer. Future generations will be condemned to higher fuel bills than could otherwise be the case, resulting in a lower economic benefit over the lifetime of the building to set off against the short term economic benefit to the developer of building more cheaply.

We need to continue the process of educating ourselves about the impacts of the buildings and places that we create, and how to maximise them. The market is helpful in the short term but is useless in the long term. By considering these impacts over the lifetime of our work we can take those steps in the right direction.

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