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What value good design?

I knew my dad shrank in his later years but this is ridiculous. The photo is at The Willow Tea Rooms in Glasgow. The furniture and interior design is by the renowned Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, from a time when Scots were taller. I say renowned but I admit I knew very little about him before my Glasgow visit in February.

In my former life as a structural engineer, I was privileged to work with many architects. While we engineers do the number crunching, the architects are dreaming the big picture. Architects have to balance ‘form’ (what it looks and feels like) with ‘function’ (how it works). The really clever ones can translate magical ideas into thoroughly practical buildings.

The Royal Institute of British Architects says qualifying to be an architect typically involves five years at university and completing a minimum of two years practical experience. Yes, seven years in all – a hard slog indeed.

A while ago my son was renting a room in a small house in Swindon, one of the millions of two-up-two-down terraced houses in the UK, this one about 120 years old. It had been extended at the rear to provide a modern kitchen and bathroom, something never imagined in the original design. On the plus side, this little house provides warm, hygienic accommodation for three young, single people. But that’s about it.

On so many aspects of form and function, it’s a failure. And not for lack of investment. It seemed extraordinary to me that there is no table for residents to sit, eat a meal and socialise. Nowhere to hang laundry and very little storage. And the extension simply didn’t work because money was spent on glossy finishes that are unsuitable for renting to young people in a high churn area. No one had thought, before investing tens of thousands, how residents would use the spaces or how they might behave.

So many building projects seem to be designed on the back of an envelope. Yet engaging an architect (even for a humble house extension) will more than repay the modest investment in a building that does what is needed for a long time.

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