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Mapping Survey of Non-Technical Research on the Social Value and Benefits of Good Architectural Design - Education Department Research Findings 1

DescriptionFindings of a study of non-technical research on the built environment carried out in Scotland since 1997 and relevant work in the UK and EU.
Official Print Publication Date
Website Publication DateNovember 03, 2003


    Research Findings
    Education Research Programme

    Social Value and Benefits of Good Architectural Design
    Mapping Survey of Non-Technical Research on the

    Martin Edge, Tony Craig, Anna Conniff, Richard Laing, Robin Webster, Anne-Marie Davies, Paul Spicker
    The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen

    This document is also available in pdf format (126k)

    This summary presents the findings of a study commissioned by the Scottish Executive to determine the extent and focus of non-technical research on built environment issues carried out in Scotland since 1997 and to identify and assess similar relevant work carried out elsewhere in the UK and EU during this period. The principal aim was to establish the nature of existing research available to inform the Scottish Executive's future policy priorities for architecture. It was driven by a desire to support policy - in particular the policies on architecture and sustainability _ with information derived from the appropriate level and type of research. The main aim was to explore what research information was available in order to help set agendas for both research and the implementation of architecture policy. The main product has been an on-line database focusing in particular on Scottish research but including data on the rest of the UK and the EU.

    Main Findings
    • The main output from the research consists of a resource of information on relevant research carried out in Scotland and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the UK and Europe. In the form of a prototype searchable database, this information can be accessed and added to on-line at http://www.scottisharchitecture.com/education-content/resources/research
    • 141 relevant research projects were identified during the course of the research and are on the database. Their geographical spread (49 projects in Scotland, 75 elsewhere in the UK and 17 in other European countries) reflects the focus and aims of the study. The database is a resource to be maintained, added to and used for reference in the future. It does not constitute exhaustive data from which statistical inferences can be drawn.
    • The largest concentrations of research identified are related to Housing (34 projects), Urban and Landscape Issues (26 projects) and Inclusive Design (24 projects). That researchers in these topics have identified their own projects as being of relevance to 'good architectural design' does not however necessarily mean that they actually form the majority of relevant projects carried out.
    • Whilst there is a large amount of interest in the idea of research on the social value and benefits of good design and a lot of social science research which touches on the built environment, there is a relative dearth of research tackling such issues directly.
    • The research community in the area of the social value of design is small and scattered and must compete for funds with larger centres focusing on process rather than product, physical science and the construction industry.
    • Relatively little socially oriented research in the UK is carried out in departments of architecture. In well funded university departments representing built environment professions, most social science research is concerned with aspects of the procurement process rather than with design and the end user.
    • The construction industry and designers are increasingly being encouraged by Government and others to concentrate on the realisation of objective, process-driven assessment criteria. Such criteria extend to defining design quality in terms of social objectives in, for example, the Policy on Architecture.
    • Public participation and research on participation are neither popular in mainstream architecture nor particularly encouraged by institutional systems in the UK compared to case study countries in Scandinavia and the Netherlands.
    Aims and Objectives

    The principal aim of this project was : " to establish the extent and quality of research carried out since 1997 (both completed and ongoing) available to the Scottish Executive to inform its future policy priorities in architecture." Its objectives were:

    • To identify the extent and focus of non-technical research carried out in Scotland by schools of architecture, related educational institutions and others over the last 5 years.
    • To evaluate and comment on the quality of non-technical research carried out in Scotland.
    • To identify and assess similar work carried out elsewhere in the UK and in the EU, which has direct relevance to Scottish conditions.
    • To analyse and identify gaps in the scope of existing research and to comment on the factors likely to influence the quality of, capacity for and focus of research on architecture in Scotland over the next five years.

    The web-based data collection methods agreed with the Executive led to an additional aim: the creation of an ongoing database of research projects which can be refined and maintained over time and to which researchers can continue to add details of projects.


    This Mapping project was led by an interdisciplinary team at the Scott Sutherland School, the Robert Gordon University and included input from the Centre for Public Policy and Management.

    In carrying out this review the following process was followed:

    • Initially, a small Steering Group was established.
    • The criteria for inclusion of projects in the database were decided upon. These criteria were to include research which:
    • Was primarily focused on aspects of quality in the built environment.
    • Sought to investigate the relationship between people and the process or product of architectural design.
    • Used measurable criteria to evaluate architecture and built environments.
    • Whilst projects which fit all these criteria were the central focus of this review, it was acknowledged from the outset that there are other, perhaps more peripheral projects which may only match one criterion.
    • A database of key contacts was compiled, which resulted in letters of enquiry and emails being sent out to 162 individuals.
    • Internet searches of academic departments throughout the UK were carried out.
    • Moderators of relevant UK-based Internet mailing and discussion lists were asked to forward our request for information if they felt it to be relevant.
    • A database was created using MySQL into which project details were entered on-line.
    • Selected focused and comparative literature-based reviews of the nature of architectural research in various European countries and contexts were also conducted. More detail of these reviews is available from the authors and in the full research report.
    • The on-line database remains an interactive resource and researchers, practitioners and others are invited to continue to add details of projects.
    The Scope of Current Research

    Details of 141 projects have been entered into the project online database, which forms the principal output from the research commission.

    The projects were grouped into ten themes. The three themes under which the most projects are listed are: Housing (34), Urban and Landscape Design (26) and Inclusive Design (24). While some of the projects (for example in the housing section) could be described as peripheral to the central theme of this review, they have been included where the project was identified as being relevant by the person carrying out the research. The strength of these particular themes probably has more to do with the strength of policy-based disciplines in housing, health and planning than the focus of built environment disciplines on these areas.

    The way in which the database could evolve in the future is currently being looked at. It is hoped to be able to support its further development. Other sources of information are also important and it would be of benefit in the future if resources such as the SHEFC supported http://www.scottishresearch.com / were expanded to include, for example, funding details for listed projects.

    Research Beyond the UK

    The project included reviews both of approaches to research on architecture and sustainability policy in other northern European countries. On most accepted criteria, Scandinavian countries perform well against measurable indices of sustainability and a comparison was made of policy in these countries. Finland is perhaps the highest rated country in the world on sustainability issues. It also has a population the same size as Scotland's and was the subject of a discrete study within the project. The Netherlands has a relatively well-established policy on architecture and much new architecture has a very positive public image there. It was therefore the subject of another review.

    Historical institutional set-ups in Scandinavia and traditional attitudes to participation in the Netherlands, for example, create more favourable conditions for this kind of activity than in the UK. The low level of interest in participation in decision-making about sustainability issues is mirrored in the general approach to building design amongst professionals here in the UK.

    The focus of Scandinavia and the Netherlands in both implementing policy on sustainability and conducting and disseminating architectural research at university level appears to be different to that of Scotland. There tends to be a greater concentration on a smaller number of agencies to encourage research, demonstration and dissemination than in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

    The focus of this project was on the extent and quality of research available to the Executive. A large amount of research of relevance to Scottish conditions is not necessarily being carried out within Scotland, for example the work being commissioned by CABE in England. In carrying out this review, we have not included research originating from outwith the EU, but given the generalisable nature of much research it is inevitable that there will be a large body of work available to the Executive, regardless of its geographical origin.

    Gaps and the Need for Research

    By agreement with the Executive, a number of focused literature reviews were carried out to compare approaches to relevant research in a number of different European countries and contexts.

    The Research Team has not attempted a comprehensive review of all the gaps in research in the area of the social value and benefits of good architectural design. To have attempted to do so would have required the anticipation of all the interesting questions which might arise in a whole range of different disciplines from time to time.

    A particular aspect of research on the social value and benefit of architecture of interest to the Executive was an exploration of issues related to sustainability in architecture. This was addressed by a brief comparative review of approaches to sustainability in the UK and Scandinavia.

    Sustainability has become a major focus of research relevant to architecture in Scotland and elsewhere in Europe. Although originating in a concern for physical and ecological systems, it is widely recognised that social, economic and cultural issues play a large part in sustainability. It is increasingly hard to separate physical from social issues in practice and research.

    Policies on sustainability and architecture are currently being brought together in a Scottish Executive initiative to encourage sustainable thinking in architecture. It is crucial for the success of sustainability policy in the Scottish built environment that these two arms of policy work together. Central to thinking about sustainability is the idea of holism and good design as an amalgamation of technical, functional, user-focused and aesthetic criteria. It is important that architecture is not seen as an aesthetic luxury whilst we legislate for strict technical standards which make little allowance for design.

    Architects and building designers, with their focus on delivering practical projects, have always had to be more 'holistic' in their thinking than most scientists, with their emphasis on individual disciplines and a usually more narrow focus of enquiry. In practice, however, the majority of our new buildings and the very large majority of our existing building stock do not exhibit good sustainability credentials.

    As discussed below in the section on 'Measuring Value in Architecture', the subject of public participation in decision-making is much more ingrained in planning and design processes elsewhere in Europe than the UK, despite legislative moves to give it more importance. Arguably this is an area in which there are considerable gaps in research, both in terms of the basic research and the more consultancy-based practice of participation in individual developments.

    The same can be said of methods of assessment across the board in architecture, for example as regards the subject of aesthetics.

    Where methods of assessment have been developed, for example in post-occupancy evaluation and life-cycle studies, their application in the practical context of actual buildings has been limited.

    As well as gaps in the research carried out, there are gaps in communication between different academic disciplines, between academics and practitioners and in information feedback on the practical results of design.

    Factors Influencing Research Quality

    The researchers, in consultation with the client, sought to explore some of the issues which influence the general nature and quality of research activities in the field. These issues provide the context in which research on architecture is carried out and create an environment which differs from that of other fields. The contextual issues reported on here relate to the nature of architecture as a profession and its relationship with science and academic research, the measurement of value in architecture and the construction industry and the evolving policy context.

    It was not the role of this project to measure empirically the 'quality' of individual research projects carried out by our peers. To have done so would have either been extremely presumptuous or involved a degree of peer review way beyond the scope of a single commission.

    Research and the Architect

    Before 1958 the education of architects was not considered by many universities to be a genuinely academic subject. Much of the excitement of an architectural school is in the imaginative and creative disciplines. Architectural education often does not encourage students to think of themselves as scientists. There is little incentive for architects to carry out time-consuming user-related studies to develop the design brief, unless this is specifically required by the client.

    The profession of architecture in the UK may be more resistant to specialism than in some other countries. The lack of scientific specialism is sometimes justified by reference to a fine art view of creative process which perhaps further explains the lack of research in the profession. Where there have been challenges to the high art view of the profession, they have often tended to come from technology and the physical sciences, rather than from the social sciences. In recent years many academic disciplines, often encouraged by funding bodies, have been trying to change their focus towards a more interdisciplinary one which reflects the complexity of 'real-world' problems. This approach may more closely match the project-based activities of architects and other designers.

    There is a need, implicit in the Policy for Architecture and elsewhere, to encourage architects and other stakeholders to address social issues. Arguably they need to address them through engagement with relevant research. Good social research and its dissemination into practice can be seen as prerequisites for successful achievement of policy on architecture.

    In the scientific paradigm, whether the approach is a very quantitative one or not, issues require precise definition but it is usually possible to generalise from situations. Architects, on the other hand, have to deal with all the issues involved in bringing a practical project to fruition. The social scientist deals with more abstract concepts which are tested by reference to concrete data. The architect produces 'concrete' products which may be arrived at partly by considering abstract concepts. There is an argument for trying to encourage designers and social scientists to work together to meet the needs of the widest range of building users.

    Measuring Value in Architecture

    Following the publication of documents on a number of government-led construction industry initiatives, including Sir John Egan's report to the Construction Task Force, "Rethinking Construction", architects have been forced to reassess their role and the place for "design quality" in an industry forced to concentrate on the realisation of objective, process-driven assessment criteria.

    An overemphasis on finance in the evaluation of architecture ignores obvious and strong links with other aspects of value (e.g. resource need, long term non-financial implications, visual impact). Previous research in a wide range of academic fields has shown that value assessment can and should be far more inclusive than has been typical within built environment to date.

    Research developed within disciplines including environmental economics, environmental psychology, retail studies, environmental resource management and planning has combined to produce a rich collection of methodologies. In addition, the research has generated a large amount of data concerning aesthetic preference, links between finance and other aspects of value, and the contribution of the built heritage to communities.

    The subject of public participation in planning has become a major topic for both researchers and practitioners. Legislation has increasingly moved towards the inclusion of communities in decision making, through either consultation or wider participation. There has been a similar move by researchers to establish effective methods whereby communities can be consulted or participate in such a way that the resultant exchange of information is meaningful and has a genuine impact.

    The subject of 'aesthetics' has been repeatedly excluded from a consideration of building evaluation and the application of such methodologies would begin to address this issue.

    Policy Issues

    A number of important issues form the context in which this project has taken place. Chief amongst these is the Policy on Architecture for Scotland, but also of crucial importance are other aspects of the Executive's policy agenda of relevance to architecture, such as policy on sustainability. The place of architecture within Government and the need for good communication between government agencies, between researchers in different academic disciplines and between academe and the practice of design in the built environment are also key issues.

    The Policy on Architecture for Scotland was launched in October 2001, and is fundamentally concerned with issues of quality with regard to the built environment. How such quality is to be defined remains open to interpretation and debate, but social and economic indicators of development figure large in the text of the policy. This focus on 'quality' within the overarching socio-economic agenda provides an opportunity to look at architecture in the holistic manner necessary for such a wide-ranging discipline.

    Other policy instruments in Scotland and the UK are also relevant. Policies on sustainability are clearly closely linked to architecture and the built environment. In Scotland policy on sustainability is closely linked to social and economic issues. This gives sustainability research a particular relevance to the current project, with its concern for the social value and benefits of good architectural design. Closely tied to the sustainability agenda are issues such as climate change, which are currently absorbing a great deal of research effort in the built environment. The recent Planning Advice Note for Housing (PAN67), published in February 2003, also for the first time makes extensive reference to the quality of architectural design.

    Architecture has long occupied a somewhat ambivalent position within academe, generally being part of the art school establishment. As such it has a poor research record. Conversely, many researchers in social science departments have been slow to recognise the relevance of their research to design and communicate their results to practitioners. The construction industry has a bad record of investment in R&D compared to other industries of comparable size. There are communication problems throughout the built environment field.


    As a mapping survey, as opposed to an empirical study involving statistical analysis, the main 'conclusion' of this study is the on-line database. This 'prototype' product is at least as important an output from the project as written reports.

    Although there has been a fair amount of research worldwide on matters concerning the social value and benefits of good architectural design from the 1970s onwards, what is remarkable is the lack of take-up of these findings by architecture practices. In commissioning this piece of research, the Scottish Executive is sending out a valuable signal to the research community (both at home and abroad) that research of this kind is not only relevant, but will be utilised in the future formulation of policy priorities regarding architecture.


    There is a need for open conduits of communication between government agencies, to link architecture with social objectives like the development of communities, social inclusion and social justice. Interdisciplinarity and communication are the keys to useful research which can deliver practical solutions to problems in built environment.

    A research agenda which aims to produce objective information on social issues in the built environment is an important part of the delivery of a successful policy on architecture. Difficulties in acquiring funding for relevant research mean that the delivery of this agenda could be helped by bringing together larger groupings of researchers.

    The architectural profession, in industry and academe, could do more to address the issue of encouraging students and practitioners to think of themselves as, or at least to respect the findings of, scientists. In this way the architectural profession may become more open to developing methods for the assessment of concepts like 'design quality'. Key to the dissemination of successful research into practice are interdisciplinarity and a willingness to develop measures of the success of initiatives in the built environment, including subjective concepts like 'design quality'.

    Research can learn from some of the strengths of the 'holistic', project-based approach of practitioners. Arguably practitioners are often ill-equipped by education and the place of architecture as an arts-based, cultural phenomenon to benefit fully from research in either the physical or social sciences. While architecture may have a basis in a cultural, arts-based and aesthetic discipline, it is crucial that it is seen to be much more than this by Government, the profession, and the public at large.

    Further information on this research project is available from:

    The Architecture Policy Unit
    Scottish Executive
    Victoria Quay
    Edinburgh EH6 6QQ

    (Tel: 0131 244 7461)

    This document and the full report of the 'Mapping Survey of Non-Technical Research on the Social Value and Benefits of Good Architectural Design' can be viewed on the internet at http://www.scotland.gov.uk/insight

    A demonstration version of the database of projects is at http://www.scottisharchitecture.com/education-content/resources/research This resource is intended to continue to reflect current research on the social value and benefits of good architectural design and researchers and others are encouraged to add the details of projects as directed on this website.

    For further details contact the Research Team ( http://www.rgu.ac.uk/sss /)

    Education Department Research Findings are published by the Research, Economic and Corporate Strategy Unit. All of our publications can be viewed at www.scotland.gov.uk/insight