In conversation with
Professor Sadie Morgan is a founding director of architects dRMM, founder of the Quality of Life Foundation and board member of the National Infrastructure Commission. In our guest edit of the IEMA Journal, she explains why we need to embed good design to prioritise the health and well-being of people and planet. LDA Design’s Infrastructure lead, Alister Kratt, asks the questions.
Why does good design matter to you?
I had an unusual upbringing, brought up on a commune started by my grandfather. It taught me the importance of looking after others and about creating environments where that can happen well. Right from the beginning, I noticed how design could transform lives.
We need major infrastructure designed in a way that takes full account of people’s needs, place and climate. When I arrived at the National Infrastructure Commission in 2015, there wasn’t enough talk about design, about how people might react to major new infrastructure, or even about how design could be more closely tied to environmental management.
Design needs to be planned for, invested in, and thought through. It has to be about more than how things look. I set up the Quality of Life Foundation to move the conversation on from just the aesthetic. How can the process work to get the best results? If we design things well, asking the right questions from the start and staying focused on what we want to achieve, then we can improve people’s every day.
We need to develop a better approach to infrastructure, housing and development, with a higher profile for EIA. They are key to supporting the drive towards wider regenerative outcomes. In terms of planning strategically, at a national scale, there needs to be stronger leadership and a shift in values, and more understanding of what building sustainably means and the opportunities that it brings.
What new approaches are needed to achieve better design?
Repositioning EIA to be outcomes-focused does mean new mindsets, especially more spatial thinking around projects. That’s the way to ensure that new development is always part of the bigger picture and is anchored in a proper sense of place.
One of the main reasons I set up the HS2 Design Review Panel was to help professionals see the value in thinking beyond the red line. Large-scale projects present extraordinary opportunities to secure wider benefits, but whatever the scale, project team members all need to be encouraged to focus on what could be achieved. By thinking more broadly, you also keep options open for positive moves later in the life of a project.
Design and EIA process should be rooted in community engagement. Local people often need more clarity about the benefits of a project for them and their community. They need to know how climate change will be managed and how the local environment will be protected.
When stress testing the impact of a scheme, EIAs generally engage with stakeholders around mitigation. But what if the EIA process was more focused on what communities want and need to get out of change in their area? How will the local community or local environment benefit from a wind farm or a solar farm? These are the wider questions we need to be asking ourselves. This requires in-depth consultation to get information which is qualitative rather than just quantitative.
Always remember, people need a sense of control over what is happening. They are looking to feel better connected to nature and to be able to move around more easily. They want to live in healthy homes in affordable places where there is a sense of community. They need to feel genuinely embedded in the process of change, and never excluded.
“In an increasingly complicated world, we need to seek to live more simply, and every footprint on the environment must be as small as possible. Although people are now recognising sustainable development as providing everyone with a better return over time, old habits are strong.”
Professor Sadie Morgan
How do we start having better conversations around design and outcomes?
There are typically 12+ technical disciplines contributing to the EIA process. Each brings its individual expertise, but it is shared experience and collaboration which matters when it comes to problem solving, and in the case of EIA, minimising adverse impacts and maximising positive outcomes. An interdisciplinary consultant team can have the most fruitful conversations.
I can think of an interesting example from HS2—a viaduct over a river. Complex and energy intensive engineering solutions were being explored to address crossing the river in the most ‘efficient’ manner. Then the conversation widened to include the project environmental planner and landscape architect. They suggested a local realignment of the river. This turned out to be a better solution, but it only happened through having a diversity of perspectives.
Although design needs to be guided by good creative leadership, really it is everyone’s responsibility, and the biggest efficiency is always made through coming together to gain a fuller, collective understanding.
Design requires rigour and process, and good outcomes never come out of haphazard thinking. To deliver sustainable places, somebody has to be thinking about materiality, somebody has to be thinking about the environment, somebody has to think about behaviours and how users will interact with what is there.
What does the future look like?
In an increasingly complicated world, we need to seek to live more simply, and every footprint on the environment must be as small as possible. Although people are now recognising sustainable development as providing everyone with a better return over time, old habits are strong. We will all need to constantly revisit our use of resources, thinking about how we could pare back. Increasingly, starting again will not be the answer.
The design principles developed by the NIC Design Group provide a foundation for the governance of design through the life of a project. We want to see these used more and more in large-scale projects. I hope that through a stronger focus on the long term, making delivery as good as we can, we can build trust so that people welcome and celebrate new infrastructure and places.
I remember when at dRMM we were appointed to advise on a school with ‘reverse truancy’ issues—pupils coming in but just for lunch. The building was earmarked for demolition, but we argued for a major overhaul instead. That school went on to be the best performing school in the borough. Of course, there were lots of reasons, but I believe that looking at what was already there and making it better, rather than starting again, was part of that success. The approach signalled hope in what was there, and in the pupils themselves.