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How can architects bring social value to projects?

Eleanor Young

Two practices explain how they think about, and create, a positive impact for their clients and communities, and how to make it viable

Office S&M worked with the community and artist Anna Nicolo on the mural for Pride in Bruce Grove.
Office S&M worked with the community and artist Anna Nicolo on the mural for Pride in Bruce Grove. Credit: Luke O'Donovan

‘A minimum weighting of 10% of the total score for social value should be applied in the procurement.’ So reads the 2020 government procurement policy note which emphasises the importance it places on the inclusion of social value in bids – creating a positive impact beyond profit. The figure of at least 10% is considered to be enough for social value scores to be meaningful against other factors, such as cost. In local authority and social housing projects social value is regularly part of the procurement, using tools such as National Themes, Outcomes and Measures (TOMs) to compute good deeds as a cash value. Charity HACT’s social value tools are well known in social housing. And in big business, corporate social responsibility is something that clients may seek help from their architects to deliver. 

Nice to do?

Of course social value covers a lot of nice-to-do things: volunteering for charities, taking architecture into schools and universities, offering work placements and donating architectural expertise to much needed social infrastructure schemes overseas. Some of these also help the team to grow in practice. Some bond that team, others may even offer opportunities for projects. But ultimately, in a tough financial climate they are a cost to the practice. So how do you focus your social value activities? 

A student with her project work, completed during a week’s work experience at the Buttress studio.
A student with her project work, completed during a week’s work experience at the Buttress studio. Credit: Buttress

Quantify your practice activities

This is one of the factors Chithra Marsh of Manchester-based Buttress is working through. In recent years the practice has formulated its own purpose statement: ‘Architecture for an equitable tomorrow.’ The property industry’s UKREiiF recognised it in 2022 as the social value company of the year. Marsh co-ordinates on social value initiatives, champions equality and diversity and, as seems natural, leads on a stream of community work that has included several high street projects. With a growing practice (it now has a team of 83) Marsh understands the important role of visits to schools, for example, for younger team members. The practice has a positive culture, with the default answer to requests being ‘yes’.

However, the balance between profit and social value is a thin line to tread. ‘You can’t bump up your fees to cover social value, you have to build it into your business structure,’ Marsh says. She attempted to quantify it in a spreadsheet. But it was the move to become registered as a B Corp and the rigour that entails that led it to work towards Planet Mark certification, which measures and verifies data on environmental and social value. Planet Mark put the firm’s activities through the National TOMs framework to assess and quantify their value. On the firm’s turnover of £6.6 million, its social value equates to half a million pounds. This is also helpful when conveying its cash value to clients. ‘In our hearts we know money is not a true display of good social value,’ says Marsh. However, it has made Buttress ask questions about what it is doing, like how to focus on schools in areas where the community will benefit most. 

Embed social value in project methodology

In a way, creating a menu of social value for a project bid can be simpler, although it is unlikely that you’ll know the community beforehand, points out Marsh. And the matrices on delivering social value can seem set up for large contractors to promise something they wouldn’t usually deliver. 

Small practice Office S&M prefers to write its social value work into the methodology – part of the process rather than a simple ‘outcome’. Its website refers to ‘deep listening’ to articulate this to potential clients: ‘Building Social Value by creating participatory co-design and co-production that empowers and invests in a place.’

Bid by bid

Office S&M is one of three architectural practices working on Shape Newham, making imaginative public spaces on 18 sites. As part of the bid the practice made a commitment to bring community members into the studio. It tried to make these opportunities as engaging as possible. ‘Yes, you can have someone in the studio playing with SketchUp but we really wanted to involve them with the project,’ says co-founder Hugh McEwen. So one young person helped finish a slogan on a talking bin and do a poster design, while two others collected post-occupancy survey evaluations. 

Mosaic workshop held by Office S&M with young people for its Bruce Grove project.
Mosaic workshop held by Office S&M with young people for its Bruce Grove project. Credit: Office S&M

Through co-design

In Haringey’s Bruce Grove, public realm projects were developed through co-design with Office S&M. Interactive workshops with 13-18 year olds allow them to be involved and get excited about the project. They worked with ‘graffiti paint and shapes’. Notes on the stories and drawings mapped who said what, so those involved could pinpoint their own impact on the project. There was also collaborative mosaic-making (with extra pieces to take away and do at home).

The co-design and co-making of this project helped build skills – and community wealth. Pride in Bruce Grove was shortlisted for the social value category of the Thornton Education Trust’s 2023 Inspire Future Generations Awards.

You can’t bump up your fees to cover social value, you have to build it into your business structure

Newham. Credit: Luke O'Donovan

Through spreading the word

Spreading the word on how you go about building social value can act as a nudge to others, be positive marketing and in some cases an additional stream of work. Many larger practices’ news pages are populated with the good deeds they are doing, but communicating it in a way that gets the detail across is harder. Office S&M was lucky enough to be commissioned by the Creative Land Trust (funded by the Greater London Authority’s High Streets for All programme) to create a workbook on the process of activating high streets by identifying spaces and bringing them together with potential users. It looks at opportunities, partnerships and ways of funding them. The practice created an open source document, The Local Social Workbook, focused on Stratford but applicable to high streets through the UK, to guide future work. 

Whether your social value focuses on giving skills to individuals, building a community and a sense of ownership through co-design or sharing expertise more widely, it is a chance to make a real impact, ideally sanctioned and encouraged by your own clients. But the greatest social value of all is likely to come from your completed building.

For more on social value see the RIBA Social Value Toolkit for Architecture (2020) and the UKGBC’s A Guide for Delivering Social Value on Built Environment Projects (2022)
Learn more about social value with RIBA Academy: An essential guide to community engagement and social value



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