Design still matters: government architects and economic stimulus

Posted August 04, 2020

SGS Economics and Planning Emily Hobbs

Safeguarding the design of public infrastructure is more important than ever

Governments across Australia and globally are looking to the construction sector to help stabilise the economy in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But fast-tracking infrastructure projects can compromise design quality and forfeit many of the associated public benefits. With state-managed construction stimulus and infrastructure programs worth billions, it is more important than ever for government architects to safeguard the design quality of public infrastructure assets.

Fast-track stimulus projects, but don’t compromise on good design

During unprecedented economic uncertainty, governments around the world are looking to the construction sector to direct stimulus funding, help stabilise the economy and support recovery. A recent example is the Victorian Government’s Building Works package of $2.7 billion dollars for fast-tracked public infrastructure projects, including:

  • refurbishing 23,000 public housing units and 168 new homes
  • spending $1.2 billion on new schools and school upgrades, and
  • directing $382 million towards tourism infrastructure.

Investment in the construction sector helps secure significant but short term economic benefits through direct employment and indirect flows to many other parts of the economy. However, fast-tracking infrastructure project delivery risks compromising design quality for the sake of getting “shovels in the ground - and boots in the mud – within a matter of weeks and months."[1]

— SGS Consultant Emily Hobbs

Design quality needs to be managed throughout all stages of the project development cycle, from the early design development and review phase, through to approvals, procurement, and construction. Fast-tracking processes – including expedited planning approvals pathways – has the potential to circumvent or truncate the considered, and typically iterative, approach to developing design quality.

SGS Economics and Planning Peter Mac Callum Buidling
Government Architect reviewed project - Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Victoria

Good design contributes value to communities

Once complete, these various infrastructure projects will form part of the urban fabric for many decades to come. The quality design of these long-lived assets is vital for supporting the realisation of a range of benefits.

It is important to remember that good design encompasses much more than aesthetics alone. It establishes an overarching vision for a place, considers its current and future context, and creates a solution to achieve this vision.

“Good design comes in many forms and is defined by more than how it looks. Good design is defined by how it works, the benefits and value it brings and its ability to effect how people feel and behave … It adds value to create inspiring places, cultural symbols and a shared identity.” - Office of the Victorian Government Architect.

All buildings and infrastructure have an impact on the urban realm and those who occupy it. There is an abundance of evidence demonstrating the importance of design on the functioning and wellbeing of people and places. From increased activity in the public realm to saved costs to the health care and justice systems; design consideration can have wide-reaching benefits.

"No building exists only for the people who paid for it or who use it. Everybody has to live with it."- Richard Simmons Chief Executive, CABE

Government Architect reviewed project - Tanderrum Bridge by John Wardle Architects

Good design can reduce risk, streamline delivery and lower whole-of-life costs

Many in the construction industry will assert that design improvements increase project costs and extend timeframes, but good design outcomes also have the potential to generate financial savings, streamline project delivery and reduce long-term operating expenses.

Proper consideration of design quality and scope at the start and throughout a project can help to avoid costly and lengthy changes during project execution, increase project predictability and reduce overall project risk. Given project delivery risks are generally priced into construction costs, reducing project risk margins through design quality reviews can reduce upfront outlay.

Good design in public projects further benefits the community by reducing long-term building expenditures. Indicatively shown in the figure below, the operating and maintenance expenses of a building project account for most costs across a project’s lifetime. While design costs are minute in comparison, quality design has a significant influence on the successful function of a project across its lifespan, and the costs associated with this. An understanding of whole-of-life costs suggests that investing in good design at the outset of a project can have long-term financial benefits to governments.

SGS Economics and Planning building and maintenence costs image jpg
Source: OVGA (August 2013). Government as ‘Smart Client’.

Government architects have a critical role in promoting quality design

The core purpose of government architect offices is to encourage the delivery of high-quality buildings and public spaces and embed expectations of design quality in projects of state significance. They do this through:

  • advocating for good design within government and across the private sector
  • formal review of designs of state significant buildings and infrastructure projects. e.g. such as the Design Review Panel in Victoria, and
  • maintaining a voice for good design as projects progress down the delivery path, i.e. through business case development and subsequent procurement processes.

Recent research by SGS found that the Office of the Victorian Government Architect (OVGA) provides value to its clients and projects through a range of means. These include values generated in:

  • providing an objective, independent and expert view on project design
  • supporting project progression
  • supporting good decision-making across multiple levels of government
  • building cooperation and partnership in complex and long-running delivery processes, and
  • building the skills of individuals and institutions through knowledge-sharing.

Most importantly, government architects ensure that as large projects progress, the design aspiration is not lost or sacrificed in favour of cost-management or merely through the design apathy of the broader project team.

OVGA client surveys indicate that over the past two years, the OVGA has ‘greatly progressed’ or ‘greatly improved the design quality’ of projects with construction costs of approximately $30 billion.

Recent OVGA clients strongly endorse the OVGA’s contributions to project outcomes. The majority of recent clients (>80%) believed that the OVGA’s services either:

  • ‘Moderately’ or ‘greatly’ improved design quality
  • ‘Moderately’ or ‘greatly’ progressed the project.

Governments could avoid accelerating poor outcomes in the built environment by investing in project design quality reviews throughout the various stages of the project development cycle. These reviews don't need to take a long time. In fact, government architect offices often conduct design reviews expeditiously to ensure design quality is promoted.

Why is this not standard practice? Governments undertake gateway reviews of project development even when economic stimulus requires speed, so why not include design reviews as part of this process?

Ensuring design quality is as important as ever as state and federal governments continue to direct stimulus monies towards the construction sector. It would be ill-fated to sacrifice design quality in favour of ambitions to achieve project time and cost savings. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive objectives. Government architects have and will continue to play an important role in securing quality, long-lived assets that make significant, positive contributions to the fabric of our cities.

— SGS Consultant Emily Hobbs

[1] Quote attributable to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews. 18 May 2020.

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