It pays to show social commitment

The social value your practice can offer will enhance your chance of winning public work – and could reap benefits in meeting the skills shortage

Since 2013 public bodies have had a statu­tory duty to squeeze extra value from suppliers of goods, works and services – including architects – under the Public Services (Social Value) Act. Bidders on public tenders must demonstrate how they will improve the social, environmental and economic wellbeing of the local area.

The Act requires local authorities to demand more benefits from suppliers in return for taxpayers’ money. Getting more for less has been the mantra since 2007, and so anything that makes it easier to negotiate better value for the communities local authorities serve is good news. While the Act underpins the information asked for in planning applications and frames Section 106 agreements, it often goes further. At Westminster City Council, for example, the social value element in tender documents can account for up to 10 per cent of the final score.

For over 10 years, Centrepoint supporters have been swapping their beds for sleeping bags in Sleep Out, an event to raise money for and awareness of homeless young people. Hawkins\Brown says it believes in the significance of architecture as an agent of social change, and has raised up to £10,000 for Sleep Out since 2016.
For over 10 years, Centrepoint supporters have been swapping their beds for sleeping bags in Sleep Out, an event to raise money for and awareness of homeless young people. Hawkins\Brown says it believes in the significance of architecture as an agent of social change, and has raised up to £10,000 for Sleep Out since 2016.

Convincing evidence takes the form of future commitments backed up by past performance, sometimes for things that might only benefit the project indirectly, if at all. For example, Hawkins\Brown Architects is involved in numerous local charities including the Centrepoint Sleep Out, and does more than its fair bit when it comes to offering work experience and visiting schools.

Put bluntly, this does nothing to improve the quality of the project. Looked at in the round, though, and you might say that it improves the background conditions that support architects generally, a kind of karmic hedging bet against future skills shortages. For Roger Hawkins, founding partner at Hawkins\Brown, it’s all about the people who will use and be affected by the buildings they design. ‘We engage with people at every level. If I hear a member of staff referring to a project as “mine”, it’s a yellow card. It’s never “my” building – it’s the client’s building for other people to enjoy and use.’

On the supply side, deploying the Act has served as a lens for big businesses’ corporate social responsibility efforts. While the public pressure to be seen to be ethical and invested in the circular economy has been around for a long time, the Act gave it a focus that until then had been missing. The threat of losing out on plentiful public contracts has been enough to shift the market towards more responsible practice. Put another way, ‘doing’ more social value gives you a competitive advantage.

The MacEwen Award New Wortley Community Centre in Leeds demonstrates clear social value in its delivery,  providing a home for drugs rehabilitation, IT and skills classes and ex-offenders programme. How can architects embed these sort of positive outcomes into every day practice so that it is recognised by clients?
The MacEwen Award New Wortley Community Centre in Leeds demonstrates clear social value in its delivery, providing a home for drugs rehabilitation, IT and skills classes and ex-offenders programme. How can architects embed these sort of positive outcomes into every day practice so that it is recognised by clients?

For architectural firms, however, especially smaller or micro-businesses, the Act is a bit of a head-scratcher. Adding social value is the very essence of architects’ constitution, a fundamental pillar of the pact that affords them their professional status in society. As Robert Wilson, director at small practice Granit Architects, puts it, ‘We’d like to think that everything we do has social value. I can’t imagine us ever looking at a scheme without thinking, “How does this improve the larger picture?”’ That being so, the request to demonstrate how you add social value is like asking a confectioner to demonstrate that she makes sweets. Bewildering.

A recent breakfast seminar organised by David Miller Architects (DMA) and Westminster Business Council, and sponsored by Landsec, explored the issue. With particular emphasis on boosting training and employment opportunities for young and disadvantaged people, the event brought together a high-calibre cross-sectoral panel of experts from the worlds of property, construction, architecture, education and the third sector to share their experiences.

There are no barriers to getting involved in creating social value. It need not be a drain on resources

Its theme blurred the process of demonstrating social value on the one hand and encouraging a larger number of people into the construction industry on the other, to the point where the two seemed synonymous. While this is not necessarily wrong, it is not the whole picture.

Social value has many other facets – for example, improving social amenity, air quality and access to water and trees, and reducing crime and fuel poverty.

Nonetheless, the theme could hardly be more relevant to architects wanting to work on public contracts. Slotting neatly alongside the RIBA’s new core curriculum topic, Architecture for Social Purpose, and the Architecture Trailblazer Group’s efforts to formulate an apprenticeship route to professional qualification, it connects the dots back to the quest for diversity and gender equality. And with the construction sector facing a labour and skills crisis at all levels, the business imperative is clear cut.

Caspar Rodgers’ London-based micro practice Alma-nac is one of those that wants to work on public contracts. He and his colleagues are very focused on social value as a goal, linking up with community groups on bids whenever they can. However, they appear not, as he puts it, to be ‘firing on all cylinders’ when it comes to how they measure and communicate their activities. ‘How do you articulate something that is non-quantifiable in a way that is concise, authoritative and believable? What’s to differentiate it from the slick of snake oil out there?’

DMA’s practice manager Fiona Clark has some answers. Speaking from experience that dates back to 2012 when the Public Procurement (Social Value) Act was published, DMA is living proof that CSR is not just for the big boys. As she says, ‘There are no barriers to getting involved in creating social value. It need not be a drain on resources.’

This is truer now than it has ever been. Clark name-checks non-profit organisation Heart of the City, which offers free advice, tools, resources and mentorship to SMEs grappling with how to capture and communicate social value. She also mentions the CIOB’s industry partnership Supply Chain School, which offers free training to suppliers to contractors and Tier 1 clients.

DMA set up its strategy before the advent of this kind of comprehensive help. Impressively for a practice with only 20 employees, it has provided at least 16 week-long work experience placements a year to school students since 2014, and last year participated in British Science Week, leading schoolchildren in the design of an office space.

Aerial view of the New Wortley Community Centre in Leeds.
Aerial view of the New Wortley Community Centre in Leeds.

Clark believes the strategy has reaped tangible commercial dividends. Six work experience students have joined full-time, saving the practice recruitment time and cost. Less obviously, junior employees take the work experience students – all digital natives – under their wing, learning valuable skills in the process.

‘It’s a brilliant way to get them to develop their own management abilities: setting deadlines, giving clear briefs, looking after the students’ welfare, teaching them things, all in a very safe environment,’ she says. 
And of course, recording, measuring and communicating the outcomes gives them a distinct advantage when bidding for publicly funded work.

Architects already contribute hugely to the circular economy. Their designs add commercial value for their clients and untold social value to the communities they sit in. And that’s the problem: until they quantify their social value and can shake these contributions out like so many bonbons from the confectioner’s jar, their efforts will remain unrecognised, and they will lose work to those who can. For the good of not only themselves and the profession, but for all of society, it’s time to put that right.

What is corporate social responsibility?

It can involve a range of activities such as:
• Working in partnership with local communities
• Socially responsible investment (SRI)
• Developing relationships with employees and customers
• Environmental protection and sustainability

Source: University of Edinburgh