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Toolkit helps architects communicate the true meaning of social value

Words:
Claire Mantle and Tom White

ADP Architecture has created the SBE Toolkit, which assesses any architectural project against a wide range of criteria, from water use to emotional value

The SBE Toolkit has closely informed the design of these engineering buildings at Oxford Brookes University, recently submitted for planning.
The SBE Toolkit has closely informed the design of these engineering buildings at Oxford Brookes University, recently submitted for planning.

What does it mean to build back better? The government’s Build Back Better plan for growth, published in March of last year, is characteristically focused on financial value, and built around the pillars of infrastructure, skills and innovation. Tellingly, the report includes no mention of architecture; the problems it identifies with construction are more about the process – skills shortages and lack of productivity – than the final product. But building back better can and should mean more than this. It’s laudable to improve our processes and there’s much that can be done here – but it’s equally important to measure the results of such improvements and to use those results as a basis for better designs in future.

At ADP Architecture we’ve long wrestled with the challenge of measuring how the buildings we design impact their users. In 2020, we created the SBE (Sustainability, Belonging and Engagement) Toolkit – a bespoke tool that assesses any architectural project against a wide range of criteria, from water use to emotional value. Informed by case studies and research including the RIBA Social Value Toolkit, the tool provides a context for design decisions by linking them to specific features proven to add social or environmental value. In that regard, it’s as much a communication tool as a design tool, helping clients and stakeholders to see the spaces they’re helping to create from a social architect’s perspective.

The process begins at the feasibility stage when the client and design teams work through a series of questions covering every element of a design brief. The toolkit converts the responses into a roundel graphic, illustrating strengths and weaknesses across 15 criteria. Applying the toolkit to multiple options gives clients an easy way to compare those options in terms of the real value they create for users. The toolkit can then be reapplied at key stages as the design develops, telling an evolving story while providing a clear, readable way for stakeholders to engage with the project's social and environmental value. Given that many building users won’t even have heard the term 'social value', that’s no small feat.

Our residential director, Adrian Bower, is currently using the SBE Toolkit on the designs for Diamond Place, a major new mixed-use neighbourhood in north Oxford. He described the toolkit as a useful way to build and test the project brief with a client at the early stages of development – one that holistically assesses the overall benefits of decisions, rather than just focusing on sustainability targets.

At Diamond Place, it’s helped to explain how restricting vehicle access could create higher-quality public realm, which in turn contributes to a strong sense of place and identity. These seemingly intangible benefits have a cascading effect on long-term health and productivity so that social, financial and environmental benefits reinforce one another.

Taking this wider view is essential and helps to add meaning and context to approaches like BREEAM, ensuring that certification isn’t simply targeted for its own sake. Glen Moses, project associate for a collection of new engineering buildings at Oxford Brookes University, has used the toolkit in this way. Far from being a rigid structure imposed on a project from outside, the SBE Toolkit serves the function of a 'boundary object' – a bridge between different ways of approaching a problem, allowing architects, engineers, users and clients to collaborate meaningfully.

The graphics are central to this. Architects excel at finding clear ways to present complex systems – and few systems are more complex than the way places create value. One result of this is the way clients have interpreted the Social Value Act, which requires public sector clients to evaluate social value when they award a contract. For construction firms, this usually means showing how the construction work will benefit the local economy since it’s easier to count apprentices hired than to demonstrate how a building itself might create social value for its users. The SBE Toolkit tries to refocus clients on the 60-plus years the building will be in use, rather than simply considering the comparatively short period of its construction – and it does this by converting research-informed measurements into graphics that anyone can understand.

  • ADP uses the SBE Toolkit to compare different options at feasibility stage – as shown here on the Diamond Place regeneration project.
    ADP uses the SBE Toolkit to compare different options at feasibility stage – as shown here on the Diamond Place regeneration project.
  • The SBE Toolkit can produce a range of graphics to communicate with stakeholders, including 'maps' of sustainable design features.
    The SBE Toolkit can produce a range of graphics to communicate with stakeholders, including 'maps' of sustainable design features.
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This makes it internationally relevant, in a way that approaches like TOMs (themes, outcomes and measures – which ties benefits to British public sector expenditure) are not. Natalie Stylianou is director of our studio in Nicosia, Cyprus, where the sustainability agenda is lagging behind the UK. In this context, the toolkit becomes a way to make the case for doing things differently. In the case of a healthcare project we’re working on with Lardis, it’s helped transform the brief from a standalone, fenced project, serving only its users, to a new public place for the immediate neighbourhood.

This is what building back better ought to be about. The pandemic has shown just how little we’ve learned from the economic crash of 2008; inequality is still baked into our society, and our built environment is doing little to help. Mechanisms like the SBE Toolkit can help reset the agenda by focusing clients and stakeholders on what they want their projects to achieve rather than on meeting someone else’s rigid definition of what a sustainable project looks like. More and more clients understand that good architecture isn’t a matter of aesthetics, it’s a matter of creating a building that respects and meets the needs of people. This is exactly what the SBE Toolkit sets out to do.

Claire Mantle co-created ADP Architecture's SBE Toolkit. She sits on ADP’s board and leads its education sector. Tom White leads ADP’s approach to social value, including community engagement and impact management

 

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