Architecture as an Economic Driver

It's not just a beauty contest!

John Stephenson, OAA, MRAIC,
Managing Partner, FORM Architecture Engineering
Senior Vice President & Treasurer, Ontario Association of Architects

(Remarks made as part of a September 30th, 2015 panel discussion co-hosted in Thunder Bay by the Ontario Association of Architects and the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce)

In talking about architecture as an economic driver I think it's important to focus on some fundamentals and not to be distracted pretty pictures of beautiful buildings. That's not to say that aesthetics are unimportant but rather to recognize that sometimes the final appearance of a building is often more like the icing on the cake. No amount of sugary goodness on the outside can save a cake that is dry and tasteless on the inside.

While there's no doubt that beautiful cities that include attractive buildings and engaging urban environments are appealing, what really makes a city compelling as a place for people to live and work is how healthy the built environment is and about how well it actually works when tested against a wide variety of important criteria.

In other words... It's not just a beauty contest

To quote from healthy cities literature: "a healthy city is one that is continually creating and improving those physical and social environments and strengthening those community resources which enable people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions of life and achieving their maximum potential".

A healthy city is also a sustainable city, sustainable in the broadest sense. It is clear that positive urban landscapes, sustainable environments and economic development are closely linked as economic drivers. Thus achieving urban regeneration, environmental sustainability at a large scale and economic growth requires the engagement and commitment of not only the architect but also the client... political leaders... and society at large.

The quality of the built environment can be seen as either helping to meet this overarching goal or as an impediment. That there is an economic benefit to be released from the achievement of such potential can be without doubt.

As said so eloquently by Fred W. Clarke of Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects at City Connect (2012):

"From an Architect's perspective, it must be said at the outset that issues as complex and far-reaching as these are impacted first by choices made long before a project reaches an architect's office. These are basic choices, like where a developer chooses to build. They are choices a city government makes when it implements policies that encourage particular types of development. Most importantly, however, they are the choices a society makes about the ways it wants to grow, and the legacy it wants to leave for future generations. In this context it must be admitted that the individual architect has limited power – the architect doesn't typically choose the site, nor does he or she make the laws. To produce a sustainable project, an architect must be part of a larger team committed to sustainable goals. It's been said many times: great architecture requires great clients. In fact, sustainable design requires much more than that. It requires the attention of all of us – architects, developers, politicians, tenants and the public at large."

He went on to say:

"To be successful, a sustainable project must address its social and economic contexts – in other words, a project must be socially sustainable and economically sustainable. A sustainable project must resonate with its [community] providing an environment that attracts and inspires. And a sustainable project must make economic sense – it doesn't matter how green a building is if it fails in the marketplace."

In a general economic sense one could argue that there are three key contributors to economic growth.

  1. Human capital
  2. Financial capital
  3. Environmental capital

Well-designed buildings and well considered urban environments that result from the nexus of good urban planning & design and good architecture build capital in all three of these important areas.

They help to build environmental capital by being designed and constructed in a sustainable way that respects and preserves our environment for future generations. If we think of the environment as an asset, it is our most important asset and our obligation to protect and preserve the value of this asset, one which we don't own but only borrow from our children, is compelling. It is clear that buildings and the infrastructure that supports them are a huge potential contributor to environmental degradation. It is also clear that the appropriate design of new buildings and the retrofit of existing buildings can help in a very significant way to move us towards a better and more sustainable way of existing as a species on this planet. The pressing need to address climate change through building renovation and upgrading and through the construction of new higher performance buildings is in and of itself a significant economic driver due to the economic benefit if such capital expenditures.

Architecture helps to build financial capital by putting it to work constructing assets that are not only beautiful and inspiring but are also durable and adaptable enough to retain their value over a long time. It also does this by producing buildings that consume increasingly scarce energy resources efficiently. In fact, in the best cases good architecture can be net zero or even net positive in energy terms... In other words, they can produce more energy than they consume.

And... Good architecture helps to attract and build human capital by providing environments that lift the human spirit and engage and empower communities to achieve their maximum potential.

Economists agree that the quality of human capital enjoyed by any enterprise is very closely related to the potential for economic growth. The role of the built environment in attracting a highly educated population with the skills and training required to meet the needs of existing and new businesses that depend on such capital is well documented.

The relationship between good design and good business is a symbiotic relationship.

A well designed work environment that provides employees and owners with plentiful daylight, interesting views, fresh air and socially engaging work spaces that promote collaboration and team work has been proven through research to bring significant positive benefits to productivity and creative output and thus to promote economic growth. This benefits both workers and business owners directly but it also benefits the community in which they work.

A well designed building that supports established work patterns and which is adaptable to changing work cultures driven by demographics can help a business to be successful. Well-designed work environments help to attract, support and retain the calibre of human capital required to achieve a positive bottom line.

So... Is architecture an economic driver????? Absolutely!!!!

Good architecture helps to attract and build human capital

Good architecture helps to build and preserve financial capital

Good architecture protects and sustains environmental capital

The thing you need to know about architecture is that it is everywhere... It is all around you... Every building has an architect!!!! Someone who made conscious decisions around its design.

But... what do we mean by good architecture?

It is not just buildings that are constructed to meet an immediate need in the most expedient way

It is: buildings that are consciously designed with the big picture in mind,

It is: buildings that empower and enable those that use them to live and work in a healthy way,

It is: buildings that through their careful consideration of the daily rituals of life, lift the human spirit,

It is: buildings that connect their occupants to the natural environment in every possible and practical way instead of separating them from it,

It is: buildings that through their planning and design energize the public spaces they abut and which contribute to the social wellbeing of their neighborhoods and communities,

It is: buildings that are confident, beautiful and inspiring expressions of the culture and environments that they serve.

Architects are skilled building designers who are trained and conditioned to see the bigger picture and respond to it... we get it! Architects are and always have been at the forefront of emerging best practices in building technology and in environmentally sustainable and responsive design and in the design of healthy buildings and communities.

Architecture is a cultural industry that contributes positively to the feeling of well-being in Thunder Bay and as a local industry deserves to be supported. Creative cities are appealing cities that attract both financial and human capital. The tangible manifestation of creativity at an urban scale is the public art and architecture that populates the urban spaces of these cities.

To create such cities requires investment... An investment in good architecture and the architects that produce. It is an investment that returns dividends: Environmental, Social and Economic dividends.

Good architecture is a powerful economic driver!