An unwelcome addition to the neighbourhood altered the course of my career, says Flora Samuel


Flora Samuel


It was one building – a library at the end of my street in Cardiff­ – that caused me to change my entire modus operandi from that of a historian, chucking out books on the delights of modernism that nobody really bothered to read, to helping architects to demonstrate their value, working deep within the profession.

Two things happened to me on the journey to this building, which is in a conservation area, on a magnificent corner of a park, next to both a playground and a river, with all the ingredients to make an amazing public space. Firstly I was part of the ‘consultation’ about its design, which consisted of some barely intelligible plans pinned on the wall of the previous library. The second was a response I received to my complaint about the consultation, and indeed the building, from the architect who told me “good design costs money”, something that I fundamentally refute. Good design saves money, but these savings have to be expressed in something better than archispeak assertions.

Talking about the library with my non-architect friends I was disturbed to discover that they weren’t overly troubled by its design. I decided to explore this further by undertaking a research project on the reasons why people up the hill in a comfortably middle class area of Cardiff – who could easily afford an architect – rarely chose to employ one for their house extensions, and found that they had very little idea of the value an architect might add to the affair.

This series of events brought two things into relief for me. First, that we have to distinguish between good and bad architecture in a way that makes sense to lay people. A primary villain in this story is the awards system that favours imageability above all else (I am very pleased that the RIBA is overhauling its own awards system). Secondly, we have to distinguish between good and bad architects.

To be a professional is to be ethical in the use of cutting-edge knowledge and informed judgement to produce the best quality environment for people and the planet. The RIBA has a Royal Charter as it is supposed to be working for the public good, but I fear that many architects are operating way below that bar.

Sometimes architects say to me that they have to take whatever work they get because they have to do everything possible to keep their staff on the payroll. I don’t think this is good enough, as time and time again I see that the most successful practices – ones that get paid properly and look after their staff well – are the ones that take research, innovation, business planning and even ethics very seriously indeed. They have a distinct offer that chimes with an increasingly progressive client base. In my recent book ‘Why Architects Matter: Evidencing and Communicating the Value of Architects’. I set out a range of good practice in this area.

Social value and environmental value are now taking their rightful place next to economic value in government procurement, evidenced by recent changes to the Treasury Green Book. If, as a recent literature review by the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE) suggests, design value equals social value, environmental value and economic value, we will soon be in a position to make sure design value – the value of architects – takes its place alongside other forms of value in cost benefit analyses.

I am currently working with HTA Design, Assael Architects, Atkins Global, the New Economics Foundation and the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government and others on the development of a ‘Social Value Toolkit’ for architects, a necessary step for fulfilling this equation. This way we might be able to change the flawed economic models which are spawning so many wasteful buildings across this country and across the globe, including the unfortunate library on my own street.