Design in Public Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:59 pm on 29th January 2003.

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Photo of Lord Bhatia Lord Bhatia Crossbench 4:59 pm, 29th January 2003

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, for initiating this debate and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foster, on an illuminating maiden speech.

I am no expert on design, but as a layman who is constantly the end-user of products and of public services, I want to share my views on good and bad design. I should like to talk about our built environment. Whether housing or office space, it affects our quality of life and output. A badly designed house or office has an adverse effect on our behaviour, work and well-being. About 20 years ago, I was involved in the development of an institutional building in the centre of London, and have been fortunate to be able to build a small house for my family to the west of London. Perhaps I may share some of my experiences with your Lordships.

The institutional building required office space, conference and meeting facilities and a community hall. We had a sensitive owner and architect, both conscious of the need for a building that would cater for a large number of people using its facilities, taking into account movement from one space to another and providing sufficient lighting and good, well-designed furniture. Above all, the building would have to stand up to constant use by a large number of people.

Many believe that architects and builders are the decision-makers. My experience is that unless end-users are brought in from the beginning and their views sought at the planning stage, the whole development will be a disaster. We shared the architect's initial drawings with the end-users and, indeed, with the neighbours. We asked whether they liked the plant and facilities and whether they wanted anything added or deleted. Photomontages were produced to show how the new building would sit with the existing, neighbouring buildings.

Although that process was painful, time-consuming and expensive, it enabled us to develop a building that truly reflected the needs of end-users. My point is that good design of a building is not the sole domain of the architect, but needs involvement from the owner, user, builder, building material supplier and craftsmen. We spent much time on the building materials and quality of workmanship. We searched for and found the most suitable materials and the best workmen to execute the final product.

A plaster ceiling in one part of the building won an award, but the most fascinating incident involved a teak wood bench designed and placed in one circulation area near a glass window. I found myself with the carpenter who had made the bench and the designer. They were arguing about who was the creator of that beautiful product. The bench, under the window with the sun pouring through, cast a beautiful shadow on the marble floor below. The bench was beautiful and so was the shadow. They finally settled on the compromise that the design was that of the designer but the shadow belonged to the carpenter. The pride in the design of that simple bench and of the craftsman who had built it with loving hands was evident.

I have been watching the people who use the building for a long time to see whether such a well-designed and built work space has any effect on the quality of their lives and output. Surprisingly, I constantly notice the huge change in the way people use the building and how a well-designed space affects the quality and output of their work. Working in a good environment automatically makes them conscious of the stationery they use, the publications they produce and the manner in which they organise social and other events. I often find them arguing about whether the kind of event they are planning will match the beautiful building in which they are located. Working out the most minute detail of such events reflects the detail of the way in which the building was built and is maintained. As a whole, I can say that that well-designed building raises standards of output and presentation and reflects on the people who use the building. There seems to be a direct relationship between a well-built environment and the quality of the work carried out in that space.

We all see the huge number of new office buildings being constructed in London. We hear about modern buildings of all shapes and sizes being built to attract and accommodate new businesses and investments. Some of those new developments are unattractive and unpleasant to look at. I do not understand why planning authorities allow such buildings to be constructed. I am often told that such structures are built to last for no more than 25 or 30 years because the land value is so large that the developers can knock the building down in 30 years and build yet another atrocity in its place to meet the demand for office space. So good design—external and internal—is sacrificed on the altar of more space for a short-term gain. Some of the new buildings in the City of London today bear witness to that phenomenon.

About 12 years ago, I was fortunate enough to build a small house for my family in the west of London. Being able to build something from the ground up in London had been only a dream. The best I had hoped for was converting an existing building to my needs—never the best solution. However, I found a piece of ground on which I could build something to suit my needs. I made contact with a local architect, who said, "Yes, I can design two nice bedrooms upstairs and a living/dining room space downstairs". It took me some time and effort to explain to him that I knew what I wanted. I sketched it for him on a piece of paper. He sat there looking at me in disbelief and said: "This is probably the first time I have met a client who knows what he wants". It was obvious to me that he had never asked what the client wanted.

We got on splendidly well thereafter until we started to talk about the internal finishing and designing. It soon became obvious to him that he was designing a house for a person from a different culture. Fortunately, a lucky event saved us both a lot of trouble. I happened to be travelling to India for some work and invited the architect to come with me to see some of my cultural heritage. We agreed that he was not to copy anything that he saw but was going there simply to understand his client's cultural background.

It was one of the best things that happened to him and to me. On our return, his words were, "I think that I understand you better". From thereon he completed the design of the house, which was reviewed in the Financial Times, House and Garden and a couple of other arts and architecture magazines. I have now lived in the house for the past 12 years. I consider it a well-designed space—of course, I would say so—in which I feel comfortable because it is built to meet my needs.