In the first part of her article on public sector building after Covid-19, director Jane Embury looked at some of the financial pressures the country faces. Here she weighs up construction costs with whole-life costs.
Earlier this week, I outlined my worry that the new austerity brought on by COVID-19 may lead to new public buildings being built on least-cost principles.
With the country’s finances in difficulty, it would be tempting to see the lowest-cost option as the best option.
But going down that route would mean compromising on the kind of inspirational architecture that is so important.
The fact is that public buildings can revitalise or depress, creating towns that we want to live in or move away from.
The importance of public sector expenditure cannot be underestimated. It makes up well over 30% of the UK’s expenditure on construction.
I would like to see the government commit to a bold vision of what the next generation of schools, libraries, or hospitals should aspire to be.
As part of that, I would like the government to pledge its commitment to the highest standards of architectural quality.
Because what the public sector builds today will be with us for a generation or more – long after Covid-19 has passed into history.
The simple fact is that increasing the initial cost of a building’s envelope has a small impact on lifetime costs.
Not only that but by, for example, making energy efficiencies can deliver long-term savings. Combating climate change is, after all, a priority for all of us.
That lifecycle approach is now accepted by HM Treasury and the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government.
Both recognise, or did recognise, the value of adopting a whole life cost perspective whenever appropriate.
However, costs are never simple. For example, the operating costs of a hospital can equal the value of its capital cost every two to three years.
That same equation is the same is true for a school, whose operating costs can equal capital cost every four years or so.
I’m reminded of a ministerial forward to the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework which applies in England. It said, baldly, that “our standards of design can be so much higher. We are a nation renowned worldwide for creative excellence, yet, at home, confidence in development itself has been eroded by the too frequent experience of mediocrity.”
While things have improved since then, I worry that Covid-19 will once again focus minds on construction costs alone. That, inevitably, will lead to more mediocrity.
A former president of RIBA said: “In stringent times, there is a danger that short-term money-saving decisions will be made on new buildings which result in poor solutions that are effectively false economies.
“Good design is an investment that pays for itself over a building’s lifetime; bad architecture will always cost more; invest now, or pay later.”
Whole-life costs are generally considered a better way of assessing value for money. Construction costs may seem attractive, but can be offset by higher ongoing costs.
The maths are compelling. Only about 30% of a building’s cost lies in its construction.
The remaining 70% is taken up in maintaining that building over its lifetime. That cost can be reduced by increasing initial design investment – for example, energy-saving strategies.
Determining that cost balance is what a life cycle costing analysis does. This beyond ROI to factor in long-term costs.
The lifespan of a building consists of five main stages: concept planning, design, construction, operations, and replacement or disposal.
I would like to see greater thought being given to concept planning and design. Now more than ever, we need good architecture.
We need to reinvigorate our public spaces and use public buildings to refresh and renew a sense of shared optimism.
What we don’t want is a return to the public architecture of the past – soulless and bland.
Because it’s worth reminding ourselves that civic architecture is about more than bricks and mortar.
It’s about the communities in which we live and work, and how to build better for a better future.