The Art of VE

No design survives unchanged.  How do we ensure the outcome is the best it can be?

No architect is unfamiliar with procurement practices that involve value engineering.  Indeed, the concept of value engineering in itself is no bad thing and has become an integral part of the construction process.  But effective value engineering is concerned with maintaining the integrity of the building’s intention and it is my firm belief that the person best placed to undertake this maintenance is a good architect.

Architectural quality is achieved when form, function and building techniques are brought together and synthesised into an artistic idea.  It’s the quality that stops something being just a building and makes it architecture.  This quality is highly desirable, it stimulates positive emotions, so that each person who sees or uses the building does so with a sensation of delight and belonging.  It is a quality that enhances our culture, rather than demeans it.  And in commercial terms, it provides the best possible form of advertising in ensuring a reputation of the highest regard.

However, it’s clear that there are circumstances in which the render that seduced the client in the first instance doesn’t translate into the quality of which I speak once it’s constructed.  There can be many factors that lead to this unfortunate occurrence, but first and foremost, we must consider the initial concept. 

A pure concept brings enhanced value to the project, creating an addition to the environment that communicates the best architectural qualities.  The best design brings innovative solutions that create architecture of distinction within budget.  This talent for early thinking is the one that makes all the difference.  It doesn’t distract with gimmicks or fads and never makes promises it can’t deliver.  And, to some extent, a pure concept is already pre-value engineered.  The process has been undertaken before the tenders come back, integral to the design from day one, thus creating the optimum opportunity for the original vision to be carried through to the end result.  The better the architect, the stronger the concept.  The stronger the concept, the less need there will be to substantially value engineer and disappoint everyone concerned.

When value engineering solutions are inevitably called for in the true sense of the term, they can be welcomed as a rational, ongoing process.  But when they are, there is a legitimate question as to where those solutions should originate.  The architect sees the project in a holistic way and through their determination to ensure quality, they not only protect the intention of the design, but the wishes of the client.  Of course, there are times when costs must be cut for any number of reasons, such as a global increase in materials’ prices, inflation, or even a reduced client budget.  In these circumstances, the talented and experienced architect who understands the synthesis of many levels in design, has a profound sense of when and where to value engineer without compromising the integrity of the project. Working in this way can ensure that the design becomes the architecture it was intended to be.  This process need not be a battle, but a collaborative endeavour with the most positive aims.

Some current procurement practices, most notably in the area of design and build are not always helpful to this approach.  Whilst value engineering seeks to reduce cost but retain value, cheapening is a cost-cutting exercise where value is also reduced. Routine attempts to cheapen everything that can be cheapened without sufficient reference to the architect and the integrity of the project do not ultimately serve quality or longevity.  Cheapening may be a fact of life, but even in those inauspicious circumstances, it is the architect who is best placed to mitigate the damage.

Under a positive procurement method, the architect is uniquely qualified to make changes without losing the soul of the project. This can also be seen when architects take on developer roles, as bypassing procurement and committee issues have in no way led to inefficiency and greater expense, but rather its opposite.  Whether as value engineer, cheapener or developer, in all circumstances, the good architect can provide a pragmatic and unifying vision that not only serves commercial and practical, but aesthetic needs, thus providing a win-win situation for everyone concerned, not least the end user.  In short, from first vision to end process, no-one is better placed to ensure the project has the best possible outcome.