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How building projects can make a difference where it matters most

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I expect many project professionals have been spending more time at home recently. Along with our fellow Britons, either through choice (for those lucky enough to be able to work from home with relative ease) or necessity, many have been reflecting more deeply on the nature of ‘home’.

But the sad fact is that an estimated 10 million people in the UK are living in 4.3 million poor-quality homes, which result in poor health and a reduced quality of life. The estimated cost of non-decent, poor-quality homes in England to the NHS is around £1.4 billion per annum.

Although many new homes are being delivered, too many are built without people’s health and wellbeing in mind, resulting in developments that are of poor quality, badly designed or built in the wrong place.

To help address this, the Quality of Life Foundation (Foundation) has published a Framework to explore how we can create homes and communities that improve people’s quality of life.

Our Framework, written in conjunction with Urbanism Environment Design and based on nationwide research, gets under the skin of how the built environment affects our wellbeing. It sets a benchmark for how highly we must value wellbeing when we think about planning and design, and highlights best practice examples from across the UK.

The Framework has been designed to be practical and achievable and we also intend to update it over time: I hope you find it interesting.

The themes in the Framework relate more broadly to construction and placemaking – because of course, our homes play only one part in our lived experience of the built environment. We spend a huge amount of time within and around elements of economic infrastructure too. Our road journeys are annotated with familiar markings and signage, our coastal walks punctuated by sea defences, and rail trips bookended by train stations.

However beautiful and well-designed our homes can be, we also need our road network, cycle routes and reservoirs to reflect our ambitions for fostering strong local identity and improving quality of life across the country.

This is a subject in which the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) takes a real interest. Two years ago, the NIC formed an independent group of leaders in architecture, landscape transport and engineering, to help develop and share good practice in infrastructure design, with an explicit focus on improving what matters most, quality of life and wellbeing.

The NIC Design Group published the UK’s first ever Design Principles for National Infrastructure last year, and we are delighted that the government endorsed these principles in its National Infrastructure Strategy.

The design principles seek to embed four key considerations – climate, people, places and value – into every stage of the planning and delivery of infrastructure projects.

Firstly, we believe infrastructure must play a full part in helping the UK achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 or sooner – as well as being capable of adapting to climate change. Secondly, projects should be built on a human scale, be instinctive to use and seek opportunities to improve the quality of life for people who live and work nearby. 

Similarly, schemes should provide a sense of identity for communities, supporting the natural and built environment, promoting biodiversity and enhancing local ecosystems. Finally, projects should add value beyond their headline purpose, seeking to solve multiple problems and make the best possible use of public money.

As project professionals will be all too aware, the UK is embarking on a period of significant infrastructure development. The promised infrastructure revolution needs to be a well-designed one and it can be.

That’s why I’m glad to see the government agree that all major national infrastructure projects should have a board level design champion, supported by a design panel. These experts will make sure good design is prioritised from the early stages of a project, provide a continual emphasis on that design vision throughout, and hold board members and project management to account for delivering those objectives. The UK government has also agreed that this approach should be embedded in the delivery support and assurance regime – overseen by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority – for scrutiny throughout the project life cycle.

The Commission’s Design Group, along with the Quality of Life Foundation, stands ready to assist design champions, sharing good practice and offering opportunities to network.

As a first step, the new Framework, alongside the Design Group’s four principles, can help everyone involved in building to consider the challenges of tackling climate change and enriching the environment, while taking care to maximise value from public (or private) money.

But above all, they can help us put heart into new homes, the communities they make up, and the shared spaces which underpin them and help drive our economy. Together, we can make a difference where it matters most.

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