Design - Does it need a Policy?

Peter Barda , 21 August 2014

Peter Barda considers what kinds of policy might enable good design to flourish.

When the Australian Construction Industry Forum (ACIF) began its refresh of industry policy last year, each of our members was asked to suggest priority areas for overarching industry policy to be developed and adopted. Right across the board there were issues that a majority of ACIF members agreed needed attention – and policy responses – to improve efficiency or equity. No surprises – procurement, liability, workplace health and safety, technology, regulation, housing affordability, and workplace relations all scored highly.

What about design, I hear you cry? Yes, there were some suggestions, ranging from the eminently practical (“Encourage the take up of BIM technology and realise its productivity benefits”), through the provocative (“Promote adaptive re-use of buildings”) and on to matters outside the remit of ACIF (“Support the Venice Biennale” and “Support funding for a Gallery of Australian Design”.)

One further suggestion made me pause. I just didn’t get it. I wondered what it was that I was missing.

This suggestion was that we should encourage the Federal Government to develop a national architecture policy. I couldn’t see how any government policy could help to deliver the function that the designer of a structure must provide the client.

Why do I say this? Well, governments don’t tend to be grand designers. Regulation is their go. Indeed, since the late 1980s they have been assiduous in stripping out the few remaining design talents they had in favour of outsourcing. To be fair to governments, while this was in large measure part of the economic rationalist fetish of that decade, it was also enthusiastically fuelled by the private sector, which saw outsourcing as a short-term benefit. Governments now have virtually no inhouse design or project management capability. How will a national architecture policy change anything on the ground, without inhouse skills to drive it?

Some very fine, focused and articulate work from the Australian Design Alliance succinctly explains the importance of design.

Good design is invisible. Good design works and makes sense to everyone. Good design understands the human condition and enhances lives. Ignoring design is expensive, wasteful and disrespectful.

We lay observers may not know that much about design, but we do know good and bad when we see it. Some examples we’d all no doubt wish away – ugly residential boxes without merit, two-storey, fence-to-fence finials on fifth-of-an-acre blocks, tall buildings that disrespect their neighbours, teapots that won’t pour without dripping. But many pieces of wonderful design are on view or in use all day, every day for those who want to enjoy and learn from them – iPhone touch screen technology, the modem, 1956 VW beetles, Harry Seidler’s best work, Glenn Murcutt’s corro.

While governments may not be able to legislate for good design, they can provide environments within which good design can flourish. ACIF’s policy for Design and Construction for a Sustainable Industry points the way – encourage innovation in procurement practices, encourage the adoption and use of BIM to facilitate collaborative working, and support comprehensive briefing guidelines to assist clients brief their designers with their functional needs efficiently and accurately. And we encourage governments to engage the skills needed to make sure that these initiatives happen and are maintained. That’s a policy for design that makes sense.

Peter Barda is the Executive Director of the Australian Construction Industry Forum. The views expressed above are his, not those of ACIF.