Debate 9 - Paper 3

Designing Tomorrow’s Designers

Sonny Masero, ABS consulting & Sponge

There are many things to be said about how we cultivate the future of building design and of designers in the UK. It would help for a start if we could define what a “designer” is, or does. As this is easier said than done I plan instead to suggest how our future designers may be formed, based on own experience.

My present role at ABS consulting includes working on projects such as the design of the proposed Victoria House refurbishment, with the architects Alsop & St’rmer, in the competition for the building to house the new mayor, and at the other end provide strategic advice for Tesco’s property department.

Headline News - Education, Opportunity, Reward

On the front page of the Guardian on Monday 6 March my old secondary school was featured as a comparison to the very successful Roedean private girls school in Brighton.

In 1995 Stanley Deason High School, also in Brighton and within a mile or two of Roedean, was struggling with poverty. “Some 45% of its pupils were poor enough to claim free school meals, and almost all of them were white.” Only 10% of year seven children (i.e. the first year of secondary school) had a reading age of 11.

A number of events preceded the school’s closure in 1998, these included:

  • the school being rebranded as Marina High;
  • six girls having to leave the school due to pregnancy;
  • a 17-year old former student was found murdered on the rubbish tip next to the school; and
  • the headmistress’ purse had been stolen by a year eight girl (i.e. about 12-13 years old), who had then given the purse to her sister, a prostitute, who used the credit cards in the purse and was traced by the police to her flat where she was found dead with her boyfriend from a heroin overdose.

So what did I get out of Stanley Deason? Suprisingly, three things. First the determination to succeed so that I would never end up living somewhere like the estate in which the school was based. Second, from a few very supportive teachers an ability to realise creative ideas through drawing and design, combined with a keen interest in science, maths and sociology. And the final contribution that the school made to my career progression was an uninspiring one week work placement in a local architects’ practice.

Moving on from Stanley Deason, where the career advice had suggested a future as an architectural technician or a librarian, I kept my options open and studied 3 A-levels in Maths, Physics and Art & Design.

When it came to university I didn’t really know what to look for, I didn’t have a frame of reference as neither of my parents had been to university. I knew that I wanted to do something design related, but I wasn’t sure what. There were three choices at this point, to go to art college in Brighton, to study ‘Industrial Design Engineering’ at Brunel or to join a new degree course at City University in London called ‘Management and Design in Engineering’

Lateral Thinking

The course at City University was the brainchild of Mike Barnes, who some of you may know is now teaching at Bath University. Mike perceived a communication gap between architects, engineers and clients. The course combined a broad engineering education, including a basis in engineering mathematics and thermodynamics, with MBA level management training and design workshops.

The course was not recognised by any of the related engineering institutions. Mike moved on to Bath during the second year of my time at City and the course closed the year after my finals. My contemporaries moved on to a variety of careers in the City, in defence technology, e-commerce, construction and management consultancy. These may seem unrelated, but they have all successfully used the skills they learnt on the course to fill the gaps between traditional professions.

What I have ended up doing in my career is probably the closest to what Mike had originally envisaged. By working with property developers, corporate clients, architects, building services engineers, cost consultants and structural engineers I am helping to deliver design solutions that supports the client’s business. I am not delivering an architectural vision or a detailed engineering design solution, but as a member of a variety of teams I am helping to produce high quality building solutions.

Kids Today!

Children at school in the twenty-first century are picking careers that they believe influence peoples’ lives. They want to do something that they perceive is valued by society: a sports personality, an entertainer or pop star, and of course the Internet or E-business.

Building designers do have the opportunity to influence people’s lives and yet quite often we don’t. On average, we spend 90% of our lives in buildings, and a large proportion of the rest of the time travelling between them. Often the design solution is driven by cost restraints. Even when we have the chance to produce a major new public building such as the Dome or the new Wembley Stadium it becomes embroiled by political controversy rather than constructive debate about how we could get the design right for the people that will use the building.

This leaves a difficult question, but one that we must address: Why become a designer when you can have more influence over a building design if you are a politician or a corporate client?

The answer I suggest is not to ignore the whims of the client, but to involve the end users in the design process. This may sound idealistic and obviously not always practical, but the majority of buildings and urban spaces have always been designed for people. We must find a way to reconcile the regular, often quarterly, demands of shareholders with the needs of the building occupants and, to some extent, their neighbours and broader society.

Leadership and Aspiration

The particular area of specialism, if you can call it that, that runs through all the work I am involved with is sustainable development, that is the balance of economic, environmental and social concerns over the long term. You have probably heard more that enough views on what is sustainable development so I will not throw in any more definitions. What I would like to say on this subject is that sustainable development has given me something personal to aspire to, I don’t expect it to be the leading factor in the rest of my career, but I do believe it will underlie whatever I do in the future. It is that aspiration to improve our quality of life that continues to be important to me.

After university, a fast-track professional development course run by Forum for the Future allowed me to develop my understanding of sustainable development and its influence on buildings, the built environment and the construction process. Dave Hampton, Director and Head of Environment & Sustainability, at ABS consulting then provided me with the open door to the construction industry. He provided me with opportunities to get involved with a variety of projects as well as with industry bodies such as CRISP and the CIC. He sat me in front of clients and gave me responsibility to develop news areas of business. He continues to help me to realise my ideas guided by what the company is aiming to achieve in the future.

Realising Our Potential

I believe that much of the creativity is construction is never fully realised in the main because of the professional hierarchy within construction and the resultant lack of understanding of other professions. Architects have a glamorous image of being the flamboyant princes of construction, more valuable to the design process than clients, engineers and the people that actually use the buildings. Don’t get me wrong, there are many reasons why architects should be valued highly within the industry, including the wealth of historical knowledge, breadth of understanding and conceptual visioning. But I think the attitude towards architects that prevails at present is damaging the industry.

I am not saying architects are to blame for the industry failing to realise its full potential, as they are most definitely not. What I am saying is that we need to generate greater cohesion between the professions to realise the industry’s potential, to provide better solutions for clients and hence to maintain the industry’s public reputation. These end results are all key to attracting future generations to our industry.

Working together successfully in teams (or partnerships) is something that has been promoted by Latham and Egan amongst others, but we also need co-operation between companies to promote the industry and its future.

A Revolution for Future Generations

Through an industry group, with which I am involved, called Sponge I know of over two hundred young professionals who would like to see construction become more inclusive, more innovative and less hierarchical. They all want to make a mark; a contribution to society. There is also a good chance that this ambition will be lost after another five years of working in the construction industry. Only a few seem to retain it.

Sponge aims to encourage new ideas and fresh thinking, to engage young professionals in shaping the future of the industry. This initiative has come from young professionals and, I must say, is being supported enthusiastically by established leading professionals from within the industry. The group is not age-ist as a number of people seem to get hung up on, but we are trying to create a dynamism that can not always be associated with professionals that have the baggage of several years working in the conservative industry that is construction.

Involving young professionals like myself in the Edge debates is a sign of postive leadership and something that should be encouraged within the industry if we want a better future for designers and for construction. There are some firms within the industry, such as the WSP Group, Whitby Bird & Partners and ABS consulting, that are actively involved in initiatives to develop their young professionals and encourage them to look beyond traditional professional boundaries. We need others to follow suit, to invest in the future of the industry; in partnership and not just alone. We all need something to aspire to.

Diversity and Unpredictability

In conclusion, we do need a good sound professional base for the industry and the institutions will continue to play a key role in maintaining high quality professional development, but we also need diversity and innovation. Predictability is good in the short term for a constant return on the bottom line, but it can also lead to low margins as well as a lack of passion, creative stimulus and reward in the long term. That is one of the reasons why we are starting to see a trend where construction companies are drafting in talent from other sectors.

I am not suggesting that my educational background is the model for the future of training “designer”. But I do suggest that we must look beyond how we have designed designers in the past, not to erase this heritage, but to keep pace with an increasing rate of change.

We must expect that ‘tomorrow’s designers’ may not be products of SARTOR or RIBA accreditation. This should not be seen as a threat to the industry, but a veritable success in attracting the best design talent to one of the most exciting, thriving and sustainable industries there could be.

Ten Guiding Principles for Sustainable Companies in Construction

  1. respect people (i.e. colleagues, neighbours and employees)
  2. remain profitable in a global economy
  3. use resources productively
  4. promote quality in design
  5. invest in the future of the industry
  6. honour past generations, and how they have shaped the built environment
  7. value the Industry, and its contribution to society
  8. reduce liabilities now and for future generations
  9. do not damage the natural ecological systems on which the built environment depends
  10. improve our quality of life and enjoy life in construction

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