Guidance on How The Design Review Panel Evaluates Quality in Architecture & Urban Design

Many thanks to Chartered Architect and Design Review Panel member Arthur Tatchell (BSc Hons; BArch; DipNLP; DipFS; MBA; ARB; RIBA) for compiling the below guidance on how The Design Review Panel evaluates quality in architecture and urban design:-

“Design is a creative activity, and definitions of quality in design are elusive. It cannot be reduced to codes and prescriptions; and even in those areas where there appear to be codes - such as classical architecture – the best examples often break or transcend the rules. It is possible, however, to distinguish good design from bad design.

By good design we mean design that is fit for purpose, sustainable, efficient, coherent, flexible, responsive to context, good looking and a clear expression of the requirements of the brief”.

Project Framework

To evaluate a project, it is necessary to understand the nature of the client and the design team, and how the project is being organised.

The Brief

  • Is there a clear brief for the project?

  • Does the brief set clear aims and objectives for the project?

  • Have a budget and a programme been established?

  • Is the brief realistic in relation to the budget available?

  • Is the brief realistic in relation to the site?

Evaluating Designs - Understanding the Context

One of the keys to a successful project is to achieve an understanding of its physical context through an urban design analysis; it is unwise to try to change a place without first understanding it.

The following aspects of form should be considered in carrying out an urban design analysis:

  • Urban structure - the framework of routes and spaces.

  • Urban grain - the pattern of blocks, plots and buildings.

  • Landscape - shape, form, ecology and natural features.

  • Density and mix - the amount of development and the range of uses.

  • Scale - height and massing.

  • Appearance - details and material.

These aspects, taken together, create the physical character of an area. It is important for the analysis to deal with dynamic as well as static aspects of character, with patterns of movement of people and vehicles, with routes and linkages, as much as the physical characteristics of the project’s setting.

Key Questions - Understanding the Context

  • Is there an urban design analysis? Is there evidence that the nature of the site’s context has been investigated and understood?

  • Does this deal with patterns of movement as well as physical characteristics?

Evaluating Designs – The Project in its Context.

“By Design” suggests the following as the objectives of urban design:

  • Character - a place with its own identity.

  • Continuity and enclosure - a place where public and private spaces are clearly distinguished.

  • Quality of the public realm - a place with attractive and successful outdoor areas (that is, areas which are valued by people who use them or pass through them).

  • Ease of movement - a place that is easy to get to and move through.

  • Legibility - a place that has a clear image and is easy to understand.

  • Adaptability - a place that can change easily.

  • Diversity - a place with variety and choice.

The above objectives should be thought of in relation to people and activities as much as built form.

“We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us.” This quote by Winston Churchill is said in a speech in the House of Commons on 28th October 1944.

The meaning of the quote itself is, first of all, a building is a result of the design of the architect’s ideas, but over time after the building was occupied, people who live and work in it take the quality of the buildings they live in.

Key Questions – The Project in its Context

  • Have the important characteristics of the site been identified?

  • Has the urban design analysis informed the design?

  • Does the design have a considered relationship with the character of the context?

  • Does the project make a positive contribution to the public realm?

  • What effect will it have on people’s lives? Will it participate in the life of the city?

  • Is there a clear distinction between public and private spaces?

  • Does the project make a positive contribution to the way people move around a place and the way they are able to understand it?

  • Does it provide convenient access for all to the site and buildings?

  • Does it open up options for moving through the wider area?

  • Is there good access to public transport? Can the project contribute to improving public transport links?

Evaluating Designs – Planning the Site

It is increasingly common for major projects to be developed by way of a master-plan. Master plans are successful when they strike the difficult balance between providing a coherent framework for planning the site while allowing for the design of individual buildings, responding to changes in needs, uses and technologies which may occur over the period of a master plan.

Master plans cannot be considered separately from landscape design, and it is a characteristic of good projects that landscape has been an integral part of the design thinking from the beginning of the project.

The following aspects of site planning also need to be considered: -

  • Movement hierarchy - people first, cars second.

  • Parking provision - is it well-planned and convenient to use?

  • Service access - is it carefully considered so that it does not cause conflict with other functions and is not visually intrusive?

  • Have refuse storage and collection been dealt with satisfactorily?

  • Vehicle movements and service provision do not cause inconvenience.

  • Boundary treatments.

Planning the Site – Key Questions

  • Is the chosen site appropriate for the aspirations of the project? Is it suitable for the size, intensity and nature of the uses proposed?

  • In the case of masterplans for large projects, does the plan work if only part of it is executed?

  • Does the design allow for piecemeal redevelopment in the future?

  • Does the site planning make sense in relation to future development nearby?

  • Does it leave options open or close them down?

  • Does the project occupy the site in a way which makes sense in relation to neighbouring sites?

  • Does it propose more development than the site can reasonably take?

  • Does the layout take account of solar orientation so that internal and external spaces benefit?

  • Is landscape design recognised as an important and integral part of the project, and at an early enough stage?

  • Does the landscape design make sense as response to the nature of the site and its context?

  • Are the maintenance implications of planting schemes plausible?

  • Are roads, parking areas and so on dealt with as part of an overall vision for landscape design?

Vitruvius - suggested that the principal qualities of well-designed buildings are ‘commodity, firmness and delight’. These three criteria remain as sound a basis for judging architecture now as when they were conceived.

What Makes a Good Project – Key Questions

  • Will the accommodation proposed meet the functional requirements of the brief?

  • Is it likely that the building’s users - of all kinds - will be satisfied with the design?

  • Is the design likely to enhance the efficiency of the operations to be contained in the building?

  • Can a stranger or visitor find the entrance and then find their way around the building? Is orientation clear enough not to need signs or maps?

  • Are the plans, sections, elevations and details of a building all of a piece, visibly related to each other and to underlying design ideas?

  • Does the design demonstrate that thinking about the requirements of building structure and construction and environmental services has been an integral part of the design process?

  • Is there evidence that the different design disciplines are working as a team?

  • Will the building be easy to adapt or extend when the requirements of the building's users change?

  • Are the floorplates suitable for other uses in the future?

  • Does the design take into account whole-life costs?

  • What will the project look like in different conditions: in sun and rain; at night; over the seasons?

  • Will it age gracefully?

  • Can one imagine the building becoming a cherished part of its setting?

Evaluating Designs – Architecture & the Historic Environment

Designing in the context of a sensitive historic environment does introduce additional challenges. The more sensitive the site, the greater these challenges can be expected to be, and the higher the expectations of everyone involved.

Architecture & the Historic Environment – Key Questions

  • Has the design considered the challenges set by the nature of the historic context?

  • Has it succeeded in rising to these challenges?

  • Does the design measure up to the quality of its context?

  • Key questions about client, design team and procurement.

  • Is there evidence of a commitment to excellence on the part of the client?

  • Has the client succeeded in communicating a commitment to excellence?

  • What measures are in place to ensure this commitment is realised?

  • Is the client committed to sustainable development, both in the long and short term?

  • Is the budget realistic?

  • Is the project programme realistic?

  • How was the professional team chosen?

  • Where appropriate, was there a competitive process?

  • Does the professional team have the appropriate range and level of skills for the demands of the project?

  • Is the client’s management structure for the project able to support a commitment to excellence?

  • Is the client committed to value rather than lowest cost, to the importance of whole-life costs, and to taking into account the needs of all the building’s users?

  • Does the client recognise that good design can contribute to efficiency for the building’s users?

  • How will the building be procured? Will the procurement process ensure that the design intentions are carried through to the finished project?

  • Key questions about the brief

  • Is there a clear brief for the project?

  • Does the brief set clear aims and objectives for the project?

  • Have a budget and a programme been established?

  • Is the brief realistic in relation to the budget available?

  • Is the brief realistic in relation to the site?

  • Key questions about understanding the context

  • Is there an urban design analysis?

  • Is there evidence that the nature of the site’s context has been investigated and understood?

  • Does this deal with patterns of movement as well as physical characteristics?

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