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Place: a shared responsibility? Think piece #3

Posted on 1 February 2016

Written by:

Guest Author

By Dr Andrew King

A call for collaboration and sustainable relationships

I find myself immediately drawn towards the topic of working better together. Individuals and communities pulling together, working with a range of organisations involved in the natural and built environment, to create and maintain spaces and places. This is not just a nice idea either. In my work as an academic teaching the next generation of construction professionals (in the shape of Quantity Surveyors, Construction Managers and Project Managers), I see an increasing desire from students to work in more socially aware collaborative ways. It’s not just our students who want to engage with the wider world and recognise their place-shaping role.

Communities and their needs are increasingly being seen as a resource to actively include in construction and infrastructure projects. This can take many forms such as stakeholder engagement in developing project drivers through to participative design where communities are, as the name suggests, involved in developing project designs. These approaches are not yet the norm; they need nurturing to develop and grow, collaborating is one thing, doing it successfully is quite another. Further positive examples include commercial construction enterprises providing training and sustainable employment for individuals from deprived communities, as is the case with organisations such as BESTBuild. The construction industry is arguably better at doing good work in this area than it is talking about it.

Such approaches have, on the face of it, been bolstered in the UK by the government introducing the Public Services (Social Value) Act in early 2012, now making it a mandatory requirement for all English and Welsh public bodies to specifically consider improving economic, environmental and social wellbeing through the services they procure. The reality is often quite different with bureaucratic tender processes and a lack of contract compliance confusing and frustrating efforts. This is an area we at NTU are trying to improve through working with a range of organisations.

The Chartered Association of Building Engineers (CABE), in recognising the way the built environment contributes to quality of life and delivers value to society, has produced a range of guides to help construction professionals make sense of the difficult to define aspects of non-commercial social values. Yet at the same time, the construction industry is slow to change and adapt and is still assessing satisfaction with their products through the use of broad measures based around traditional economic notions of value, such as product quality, incorporated in Post-Occupancy Evaluations. This situation is far from ideal, especially when one considers the impact that architecture has on physical and mental health (CABE, 2006). The Glass-House and their work with the Open University stand out here for practically approaching the problem and seeking to open up ways for communities to work with developers.

Rights and responsibilities for space and place are a particularly opaque debate topic. From the perspective of a construction professional, societal notions around rights and responsibilities are trumped by consideration of legal issues. The world is waking up to the impact of environmental change; space and place will become more important in years to come. Add to this the increasingly skewed distribution of wealth impacting on ownership and responsibility and we have a cocktail for social unrest. Let us push forward with developing more mature and nuanced understandings of responsibility that take account of wider society, particularly individuals and communities whose voice is either too weak, misdirected or indeed missing from the conversation. Let us also try and do this in ways that encourage activity in this area rather than tying everyone in knots. The opportunity to develop more robust and consensual approaches to creating and managing space and place will enable it to meet and sustain more ambitious goals for the wider community.


Dr Andrew King is a Senior Lecturer in the Construction Management group in the School of Architecture, Design and the Built Environment at Nottingham Trent University. He researches in Modern Slavery in the Construction Industry in addition to the field of Construction Social Value.

Place: a shared responsibility? The Glass-House Nottingham Debate takes place on Wednesday 3 February 2016 6-7.30pm.