Good enough? A client's guide to proportionate design

Good Enough? A Client’s Guide to Proportionate Design

Good Enough? A Client’s Guide to Proportionate Design


I have a hand whisk in my kitchen drawer that works perfectly well and can beat eggs to firm peaks in less than a minute. It used to belong to my wife’s Gran and is probably at least 40 years old. It doesn’t require batteries, charging, or a power supply of any form. It’s not web access enabled, contains no harmful materials or anything that couldn’t be readily recycled at end of life. It hence does everything I require of it without the need for it to be ‘better’.


As Christmas comes knocking at the door, we become even more aware of the dazzling array of potential items and services available to us. This can provide the consumer with a confusing plethora of options when it comes to specifying the materials, systems, finishes and fitout for a building. Where do you start and how do you stay on budget? What is ‘good enough’ and how do we determine that?


These questions will be answered differently by each and every client because we all place a different significance upon the various aspects of our lives. If you are a domestic client and avid cook, you’ll be much more likely to allocate a significant amount of your budget on your new kitchen than other aspects of the build. If you are a manufacturer of high precision components, you’ll be fully aware of the need to spend a fair proportion of your budget on clean rooms and air handling. Conversely you may not be interested in expending budget on an impressive or expensive building façade, you may even want your building to look anonymous.


There are processes that will largely mitigate inappropriate specification and we find that following a process will generally lead to reasoned conclusions.


Agree and interrogate the brief
The first step lies in agreeing the brief. The initial aspiration should set the scene for what the design drivers will be, providing the architect and designers with the overview to suggest appropriate design responses for the various elements. It may set out and suggest specific items of equipment and how they are to be incorporated. The design team might input into this document, adding commentary about high cost elements or complex items that may have been derived due to site constraints, planning policy or technical requirements.


Appoint the right team
The skill within the design team is in their inherent knowledge of how to make reasoned judgements in the specification of systems and finishes, so that the resultant building is neither over nor under specified in any particular aspect. This takes teamwork, professional skill, and collaboration with specialist providers. This can all feel a bit like witchcraft to the client team and does require both collaboration and trust. What this highlights is the need to appoint an appropriate team who can properly advise the client and process.


Review the proposals as you design
Value engineering’ (VE) is a phrase that strikes fear into the hearts of many designers. The process requires the interrogation of the apportionment of cost to each element of a proposed build. For architects it is often thought of as the process where all the ‘good stuff’ is removed from their design, boooo!. But there’s mitigation for this, it requires the ongoing review of proposals from the outset. If designs are interrogated as they are proposed, what remains is essentially what is required and should be fully justifiable.


This is much like the hand whisk analogy above, and we often help the client by providing a ‘shopping list’ of design items, from ‘necessities’ to ‘luxuries.’ In this manner, clients can determine what significance they place on each of these items and make appropriate allowance. We suggest that a Quantity Survey is employed to review cost plans prior to planning submission, to avoid those nasty surprises.


Make wise decisions, expend the budget where it counts
Some design elements can be robustly supported if they do more than the sum of their parts. For instance, an atrium space may provide natural lighting, ventilation, break-out spaces and efficient access, meaning that although carrying a cost, it may be the ‘right’ design decision and provide proven value for money.


Budget expended on the fabric of the building is usually money well spent. We generally advise that as much insulation as practicable be incorporated, this will save money on the heating system and reduce energy bills. We also advise that windows, doors and roofs are similarly specified proportionately and as highly as the budget will support. These types of items represent a significant investment, will have an impact on the enjoyment of the building, its security and energy use and are expensive and difficult to upgrade or replace in the future.


Similar consideration should be given to items that are in constant use and could be difficult (operationally and physically) to replace and upgrade, such as doors, flooring, kitchens and sanitary provisions. An emphasis on robustness, practicality and ease of maintenance will make the most of any restrictive budget.


Decide what is important to you and the building users
Some projects go from ‘good’ to ‘special’ because of one design element that has been envisaged and carried through to completion. This might be, for instance, an entrance foyer that draws people into a building, an open-plan arrangement that creates that one flexible and functional space or maybe an area of glazing that capitalises on a view. These items may look expensive in isolation, but their benefits may be wholly justifiable when considered against increased revenue, future flexibility or maximised end value. To remove these features may result in a project not quite reaching its potential, and in the worst case, failing to deliver the brief. Don’t be tempted to simply ‘slash and burn’ your design if it’s over budget.


The trick lies in identifying what that special design element is and incorporating it into both the proposals and cost plan from the outset, making decisions on the surrounding elements of the project accordingly so that the aspiration is never lost. It might have to be modified or realised in a different way, but importantly it should still have the desired impact.


Consider the options
For example, the incorporation of a large, glazed opening into a wall. At the lower end of the spectrum this might be a simple window. It’ll give you access to light, ventilation and a view and may be the right solution. Next up might be French Doors. These will largely do the same but also provide a good sized opening to an external space. Next might be a bi-folding glazing system. Again, this will provide these benefits but also a wide, unencumbered form of access to an outside area – great when open but presenting a lot more frame compared to glass when closed. Finally you could consider a large slimline sliding system. Similar to the bi-folds but creating better views when closed, albeit at the loss of some clear opening width.


So how would you choose? As mentioned, this will depend on what is important to you and the project as a whole. If the project driver is the provision of a very large inside/outside space and you entertain a lot, the bi-fold system may be the answer, despite the cost uplift over a window or French doors. If you rarely use the outside space and don’t need access, a good sized window may be good enough. If you are after a blend of the two, a large pair of French Doors might deliver what you need in an affordable and functional package.


By considering options in this way an appropriate response can be developed. This relies on good communication with your design team.


In summary, this type of process takes thought and time to deliver effectively, and you may not get it completely right the first time. Decide and agree what is important, not to be sacrificed. Consider options for some of the other important items and work with the design team to achieve your aspirations whilst remaining realistic about what your budget can allow.

Dale's experience spans a wide range of project sectors, sizes and stages and has particular interests in environmental design and earth-sheltered construction. His favourite projects reuse and breathe new life into under-loved existing buildings.