If we put people at the centre, then the trade-offs that inevitably emerge during the design process - between, for example, the building’s energy use and people’s comfort and wellbeing - become open discussions rather than ‘hidden’ choices made quietly without an exploration of alternatives. When we put ‘people first’ it’s natural for debates to take place within the design team about how to find the ‘sweet spots’ between, say, big windows and more comfortable spaces, between controllability and simplicity, between caution and adventure. At the recently-completed Simon Sainsbury Centre in the University of Cambridge, the new building fronts onto a road that is sometimes busy. Instead of a design with sealed windows, we gave occupants the choice of opening the windows when they feel it’s right.
We know that putting people first enhances the long-term viability of assets. A building that is loved and embraced by all will be more successful, more used, and better looked after. This is what long term ‘social value’ means for the design of the built environment. We can measure these benefits of design using methods like Social Return on Investment - and what is so heartening is that social returns are often much larger than building designers, operators and owners imagine.
The social benefits of a well-designed and maintained built environment are wide and varied, and include greater health and wellbeing, social cohesion, community resilience, productivity and performance, and educational attainment. Considering social value at the early stage of the design process and embedding it throughout adds real value, not cost, to a scheme. In the design of the Msheireb masterplan in central Doha, we put climatic constraints on the table first to drive street orientation and an approach to buildings that encouraged walkability and comfortable spaces as a priority for a successful piece of city.
If we consider future people too, then ‘people first’ design must consider unknown future demands, such as changing population size and shape, new and volatile climatic patterns, revolutions in transport and energy infrastructure. And design must be circular too, as the resources of the planet that support us are finite. At Broadgate Estate in the City of London, we have played a key role in updating the inward-looking 1980s development to provide destinations people want to be in, using engineering solutions to avoid knocking it all down.
Not much to disagree with? So how do we do ‘people first’ design with every project, rather than simply for those projects with a generous budget or an obvious social purpose? We start by overtly committing to designing for all people, not just ourselves. This means we begin with people-focused disciplines first whose work will ‘deepen’ the brief. This will mean more early-stage consultation, sustained consideration of social value, and examination of operational logistics, health impacts and environmental design. This is a recipe for the emergence of a non-traditional approach to building design, where we embrace continuous collaboration as key to realising opportunities, reducing risk and improving outcomes for all.