The Whys, Whats and Hows of Design Quality

We took part in an HEDQF talk event in July this year, and the topic under discussion was the relationship between designing for Quality and designing for Sustainability. As you may imagine, we are advocates of the complete dependence of one with the other. But, what we needed to do first was understand what it is we mean when we say ‘Quality’. Consider it yourselves for one moment before you read further; it is a word that we use quite casually in society and the design and construction industry but seldom take a moment to see if we use the word to mean the same with the person receiving it.

Everyone can think of a building they dislike, a place that really makes them feel depressed or a product they bought that was ‘a waste of money’. So why are we still surrounded by bad design when the problems it creates are impossible to miss?

The UK culture seems to have become one of bargains, that in the majority wants to pay as little as possible, as late as possible, whatever it buys. Many project managers are told their role is to achieve a balance between time, cost and quality, but I have often seen how time and cost overrule the measurement of quality, as it is, well, a qualitative assessment of the result. But quality is essential if the client is to achieve good and fair value and we are to create things that benefit our lives overall.

What does quality actually mean, though? Quality is somewhat subjective and is understood differently by people. In general, quality can be defined as the degree of product excellence: a quality item has the ability to perform satisfactorily in service and is suitable for its intended purpose.

What is Quality

But how do I know when I have quality? Quality is a design result, so how much does bad quality design cost?

It shows how little work is done around this field as the available research and case studies looking into this are dated from 2006 and 2009. They are good starting points but we highly encourage a current conversation to ignite, as it is core to delivering a sustainable result;

Case study: A 1970s housing estate at Holly Street in East London was so badly designed that it had to be demolished and rebuilt only 20 years into its intended 60-year design life at a total cost of £92 million. The design lead to anti-social behaviour, higher crime and drug abuse rates, increased unemployment and health problems amongst tenants. Some 80 per cent had applied to leave the estate (CABE, 2006).

‘We let a lot of people off the hook if we don’t talk about the cost of bad design.’  Dr Jake Desyllas

Good quality design is an integral part of any sustainable development. Achieving good design is about creating buildings, spaces or products that serve their purpose and perform well, are also aesthetically pleasing and will adapt to the needs of future generations. Good design thinking creates spaces that respond in a practical and creative way to both the function and identity of a place and always considers users. Regulation, of course, has a role in all of this by defeating its own purpose; aiming to provide quality, it spoon feeds standard practice with the result of an uninformed society on principle reasons behind design as a process.

Good quality is integral to a sustainable result and that is where the business case is made. There’s also increasing awareness that, in fact, sustainability-focused companies are able to outperform their peers. They do so not only by running more efficiently, reducing waste and cutting costs, but also by enjoying greater appeal and loyalty from consumers who value a more sustainable company’s good quality output, whether that is a product or the overall quality of service.

“Our research shows that sustainability is a mother lode of organizational and technological innovations that yield both bottom-line and top-line returns. Becoming environment-friendly lowers costs because companies end up reducing the inputs they use. In addition, the process generates additional revenues from better products or enables companies to create new businesses. In fact, because those are the goals of corporate innovation, we find that smart companies now treat sustainability as innovation’s new frontier.”

Nidumolu R., Prahalad C.K., and Rangaswami M.R., Harvard Business Review, 2009

If you would like to discuss this subject with us in more detail or would like to ensure your commercial space is designed with Quality & Sustainability in mind, get in touch: or +44 20 7580 0611.


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