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Gregg Barton, Partnership Director SpaceZero


Why good design and FFE consultancy matter in an age of austerity

Working for an interior architect and FFE consultancy, I am of course biased when it comes to trying to make people see the benefits of dedicating time to specialised and bespoke design. Perhaps that’s because throughout my career working for contractors, consultancies and clients there has been one consistent thread: if the interiors and FFE are designed and coordinated with the use of the space in mind – with the architect, contractor, client and users all collaborating to achieve the same end goal and objectives – the experience of how that space works is enhanced, which leads to higher user satisfaction. The interior is just one component of the design and creation of a building, but is absolutely integral to its success – not only in terms of its function, but also in relation to the cost and management of the project.

Functionality over budget

All consultants have had to innovate to make spaces intelligent in their use – and although we’re out of the recession, which saw the construction market hit particularly hard, we’re still in a time of austerity with most of us in the industry still heavily focussed on budget. The exteriors of schools, hospitals and new civic buildings may not have the grandeur of the recent past but there has been an increase in thought around how such buildings will perform in terms of maximising the use of the space, the facilities management implications and the flexibility of the building to ensure it can adapt for different purposes and work well into the future.

Consider schools; while there are many beautiful state-funded school buildings still to spring up, you only need to look at Burntwood School in London and Holywell School in Flintshire, as well as a whole host of others, to gain an insight into how using a space to perform a function improves learning outcomes.

For example does the pedagogy require multiple teaching points? Alternatively, students studying certain subjects might have to carry out both practical and theory-based activities, as well as work on their own or in different-sized groups – does the space allow for this, and if not, how will it be tackled? The challenge is that architects are often designing buildings to a tighter budget and restricted floor area so the interiors have to work harder to generate the best outcome for the users.

However, time and time again we encounter a catalogue based solution with schools picking what they want from a glossy book or a pdf, or worse, a schedule of furniture on a spreadsheet with prices. All too often, the cheapest offer wins and there is no opportunity for designers to suggest intelligent solutions that offer agility and flexibility.

Such a way of working is not only outdated but more importantly it most certainly isn’t the cheapest way to design and create interiors when you consider the whole-life cost of the project. While this process may be a quick and cheap way to tick boxes and get products into a space, it doesn’t allow for creative, flexible and sustainable solutions for schools.

The same can be said of the ‘design for free’ market, which sees FFE manufacturers and suppliers promising to add value to the sale of products with ‘free’ or a heavily subsidised design service.  It might seem a cheaper option at first but in fact works out more expensive as organisations are likely to add design to the overall product costs. What’s more, the quality, attention to detail and creativity is likely to be compromised and won’t receive the same level of skill, experience and time as if you employed a dedicated design consultancy.

Collaboration is key

Whether your focus is on educational, healthcare, leisure or commercial design, importance must be placed on collaborative working. Genuine time and money can be saved by developing the interiors and FFE strategy in line with the architecture, MEP and ICT strategies, and the benefits of a fully co-ordinated solution is self-evident.

Furthermore, time is saved in rework on site if the specification and procurement of products takes place earlier and this can be supported by adopting a BIM workflow. This allows changes to be made faster and more effectively with all variations tracked allowing for an easier sign-off process giving all stakeholders more time in the important pre-construction phase. Genuine BIM Level 2 is hard to find within the interior architecture and FFE sector but it is also the sector which can deliver huge benefits with its use.

The need for considered and co-ordinated interior solutions remains paramount and interiors and  FFE are often seen as the last element to consider but are critical in terms delivering  the best and most cost effective solution for the client.

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