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We need a radical shift in how we collaborate for the sake of the planet

3 December 2018 – We have the power to change, take collective ownership and shift the built environment towards sustainable development, argues Dr Kayla Friedman, Course Director for the Master’s and Postgraduate Certificate in Interdisciplinary Design for the Built Environment. We just need to seize it.

The recent IPCC special report, Global Warming of 1.5°C, makes it resoundingly clear that the built environment has a crucial role to play in meeting carbon targets. We also know that the built environment sector has been very slow to act, and that our designs have long-lasting consequences.

We cannot keep working in the way we have been working and imagine things are going to change on their own. The built environment sector needs a radical shift towards more sustainable development. This starts at the very beginning: the strategic definition of our projects, the development of the brief, concept design and developed design.

When I explain to people that I am the Course Director for the Interdisciplinary Design for the Built Environment (IDBE) they nearly always start to talk to me about architectural design or engineering design. Occasionally someone will talk to me about specialist design – for example, lighting design, sound design, waterproofing.

What no one ever talks to me about is the finished product, that piece of built environment now operational and in use, as a holistic design.

Writer and educator John Heskett in his 2005 book, Design: A Very Short Introduction, presented the design community with the seminal sentence: “Design is to design a design to produce a design.”

He considers the challenges of using the word design because of its various meanings depending on who is using it, who’s listening and the context. In short, the four definitions he highlights are: design as an industry; design as a process; design as a proposal; and design as a finished product.

When a built environment project goes well everyone is eager to claim the finished design as their own. However, even then some cracks start to appear:

“It’s great isn’t it? That? The architect insisted.” [rolls eyes]

“Yes, this is ours. Of course that bit, that wasn’t us, that was the engineer.”

“It’s great isn’t it? Well, except that – the contractor value-engineered that part.”

“We built this. Oh no, I wouldn’t have done it that way myself, but the client insisted.”

In truth, it is very hard to get any built environment professional to claim ownership or responsibility for the completed project as a whole, in its entirety.

On one hand this makes sense as built environment projects are the result of the inputs of multiple specialists. How can one specialist lay claim to the work of the others?

There are also liability reasons for wanting to be absolutely clear on what you may have done or contributed versus someone else. Although anyone who has been involved in a built environment claim will know that, in the first instance, everyone gets listed as potentially liable.

The problem with this way of thinking about what we do is that therefore no one takes ownership or responsibility for the thing we have collectively made, which is now part of the fabric of society for potentially a very long time.

As long as professionals continue to caveat their ownership and blame other disciplines for failings, they remain blind to how their involvement in the built environment design process resulted in a less-than-ideal outcome.

The ultimate problem with this way of thinking is that what you do not believe you are responsible for, you do not believe you have the power to change.

And yet the beauty of design as a process, again from John Heskett, is that it draws on “…the human capacity to shape and make our environment in ways without precedent in nature, to serve our needs and give meaning to our lives.”

Humans are all creative problem solvers. Understanding the needs and success metrics of your diverse team members does not lessen your input. If addressed properly, adapting to the challenges presented by the views of different disciplines strengthens and improves your own contribution, just as your contribution is strengthened and supported by the other disciplines responding to your needs.

I’m sure many readers will be thinking: “But of course I respond to the other disciplines! This is not about me!”

However, I would ask that you think very carefully and honestly about how you respond to the other disciplines.

This is one of the core distinctions between multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary practice. If your contribution to a built environment project only responds enough to adjust to fit within the parameters of the other contributors, you are working in a multi-disciplinary way.

We can only work in an interdisciplinary way when we take the time to really understand what is driving the client, the architect, the engineer, the quantity surveyor, the contractor and anyone else who is involved in the project. What are their goals and targets? What are they trying to achieve? What constraints do they need to conform to? Equally, does the rest of the team really understand your goals and targets? What are you trying to achieve? What constraints do you need to conform to?

The problem with this type of sharing and understanding is that it sometimes feels we barely speak the same language. How much do project architects and engineers really understand income capitalisation or regression analysis? Do clients and architects really understand systems efficiency? On top of which, is anyone on the team willing to talk about their budgets truthfully?

It is only through collective, collaborative and truly interdisciplinary design that we will get to where we need to be.

We need a new professionalism. We need to revitalise and invigorate our practices. We need to take responsibility for the designs we help to deliver, we need to do it better and we need to do it urgently. I am honoured to work with our students, our alumni, our contributors and our tutors who believe change is needed and are working diligently to be the difference our industry so desperately needs.

Learn more about the part-time two-year Master’s and 10-month Postgraduate Certificate in Interdisciplinary Design for the Built Environment.


 This article first appeared in BDOnline, 23 November 2018.

About the author

Kayla Friedman

Dr Kayla Friedman is the Course Director for the Master’s and Postgraduate Certificate in Interdisciplinary Design for the Built Environment (IDBE). She teaches research methods across all of CISL’s graduate programmes, and is particularly interested in how continuing education for working professionals can enhance and enrich their professional practice. Kayla is a US licensed architect with 10 years of professional experience; including exploring the challenges of improving sustainability in the built environment at multiple scales, and engaging diverse stakeholders in vision creation and implementation in both the US and UK.  Her PhD is from the University of Cambridge, looking at how English planning impacts the thermal improvement of conservation properties. 

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Articles on the blog written by employees of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.