Hayball’s Eilish Barry shares five ways to measure the impact of design on people and communities

Eilish Barry.

There is increasing demand globally for infrastructure projects to demonstrate their environmental, social and governance (ESG) credentials, from ensuring that projects use sustainable energy sources to procuring ethical goods and services. However, the ‘s’ in ESG has often been forgotten.

It’s currently common practice to leap ahead to quantitative data—such as the economic and environmental value created or the social considerations of a business or developer—rather than the social value of the project itself.

But in recent years, there has been increased recognition that there also needs to be a focus on the social aspects of design in any project, understanding that infrastructure and its design has significant impact on communities. Ultimately, good design is required to holistically benefit not only the wellbeing of the people who use buildings, but also the environments where they exist.

The social value that can result from good design initiatives can have far-reaching effects—both in the short and long term—and they play a key part in demonstrating the impact we can make on people through the built environment. The urgent and unanswered question in our industry, however, is how do we track and measure social value?

CRT+YRD by Hayball. Image by Tom Ross.

As architects, we know that our design decisions have a fundamental impact on an inhabitant’s wellbeing. Indeed, social value has been explored for nearly a century. Earlier architectural sociologists have already acknowledged the negative physical and social effects of urbanisation on communities across the globe, whereby situations of poverty and inequality were associated with poor decisions made regarding infrastructure and urban planning.

The practice of architecture covers a complex mix of considerations—not simply design. Architects are required to apply strategic thinking and in-depth research to understand the communities they are designing for, and the broader societal implications of both the design and the project itself. Their main purpose is to optimise human occupancy of space, and its connection to the broader environment.

As such, architects play a vital part in designing for societies. Generating social value should be considered at every stage of a project, from co-design with the community, designing for carbon zero, or advocating for an increased percentage of social and affordable housing.

However, Australian architectural practices do not have an established method to measure social value. There is a risk that if we continue not to define and measure the societal impact of design, it will be further deprioritised as the cost of construction continues to rise. To understand how our design decisions influence the wellbeing of people and communities, architects need empirical data.

The UK Green Building Council defines that “social value is created when buildings, places, and infrastructure support environmental, economic, and social wellbeing, and in doing so improve people’s quality of life”.

With an increased focus in this space, pleasingly there are now existing methodologies we can utilise to help us understand and demonstrate social value in qualitative, quantitative, and monetised terms.

Hayball's Little Hall Lincoln Square. Image by Tom Roe.
Hayball's Little Hall Lincoln Square. Image by Tom Roe.

Outside of Australia, social value has often been monetised to communicate design in a way that aligns with others such as government or developers. Existing methods use project data and surveys (pre- and post-occupancy) in a cost benefit analysis or social return on investment calculations. These calculations seek to determine the value of social outcomes by using the wellbeing valuation methodology; that is, the amount of income needed to bring about an equivalent change in wellbeing.

These calculations are powerful tools. They can be used to forecast the potential social value created by a development in the early project stages and to confirm if this has been achieved after completion. This approach allows designers, developers, and policymakers to quantify and compare the impact of design. By doing this, we can make a stronger case for socially driven projects.

This approach can also provide evidence for allocating resources to where they will create the most positive impact on people’s wellbeing. For example, it can identify the design elements that should be incorporated or removed, depending on the social value that it creates.

Generating social value is not only useful for designers and developers but for potential future residents. The measurement gives transparency to ensure that the developments are liveable, socially responsible, and desirable places to live. Ultimately, tracking and measuring social value fosters a more sustainable and socially impactful industry, ensuring a positive impact on future occupants and the environment.

There is an opportunity for Australian architects to develop a standard framework and methodology to specifically measure social value in design for everyone to use. By doing this, it will enable consistency, benchmarking, and evidence of social value across all projects and sectors.

The success of the social value toolkit released by the Royal Institute of British Architects in the UK in 2020 is a case in point.

Hayball's Trinity College Student Accommodation. Image by Tom Roe.

We know there is still much work to be done on refining this process, so we have outlined five recommendations for the industry:

1. Knowledge sharing is vital. Firstly, we should learn from First Nations designers and architects who have been valuing wellbeing since time immemorial and implementing this into design. In addition, we should continue to build on the global lessons learned, particularly in the UK. Sharing resources, ideas, and best practices with architects and the wider industry will also speed up and improve how we measure social value.

2. We need a common language. There is currently a lack of consistency around definitions and methodologies of social value. There is a significant need for an industry body or the government to drive standardisation for everyone to adhere to. This could naturally follow on from the recently released government wellbeing framework and would avoid abortive work, confusion, and lack of trust in the measurement of social value.

3. Social value should be considered as part of the design process. The social outcomes should be established at the start of the project, tracked throughout the project duration, and measured following completion. It offers points of reflection, learning and a focus of resources throughout the project. This cyclical process enables us to be open and honest about what we are aiming for, how we are achieving the outcomes and what we do better so we can create better places for people in the future.

4. Methodologies need to be flexible. Not every architecture practice can conduct extensive social value measurements. The framework should allow for scalability of measurement depending on the project size, construction cost, and project sector. All architects should start to define the social outcomes they want to create and measure their impact now. Measuring a little is better than measuring nothing at all.

5. There is an opportunity for collaboration. There need to be additional values added to the ASVB that align with the social and environmental outcomes created through design. This is an opportunity for the building industry and government to collaborate on developing the required values for everyone to use.

We know that designing places with people’s wellbeing at the centre delivers incredible rewards to the community and society. Global precedents show that when social value is properly considered and tracked from the outset of projects, it has the potential to produce places that are better for communities. They can be safer, more embedded in the local community, more socially cohesive, and more sustainable.

The building industry, particularly architecture and design, has a crucial role to play in the success of places and the quality of people’s lives. By collaborating to create a standardised system to track and measure social value, we can create better places for all.

This article was first published in The Fifth Estate’s Spinifex column.