Design Excellence: what does it mean?

Originally published in OAA Perspectives Summer 2015 on page 8.

The busy awards season is now over. Our Design Excellence Awards were presented at the gala in Hamilton last month and are featured in this issue. Leading up to the OAA Conference, I had the opportunity to speak to the media about our award winners, and onetopic kept cropping up: “design excellence”*. I began to realize, duringthese discussions, that I needed to find a clear definition of design excellence that non-architects can easily understand.

One interviewer asked me why design excellence matters. I was actually stunned for a minute and hoped that there would be a follow-up question, but there wasn’t. So instead, I asked him to describe his office space. As he did so, I heard a change in his tone of voice as he described the natural light, the view of Lake Ontario, and the sounds of his co-workers. He loved his workspace without even realizing it. When I pointed out to him that an architect had designed this space, considering view, natural light, sensation of weather changes, acoustics and so on, and that this space contributed to his wellbeing and his appreciation of architecture, he got it.

Late last month, as a member of the Ontario Library Associationawards jury, I noticed how often the conversation turned to the topicof design excellence. It became apparent that what makes an excellent library is not just “good architecture”, but also a design that works well as a library. In addition to engaging with the community, it must be a comfortable gathering place, a centre for learning and, of course, a repository for books. In libraries, as in other building types, design excellence seems to be the result of excellence in achieving the building’s goals.

Defining excellence is a regular topic of discussions with OAA council and staff and, within the profession, the subject has beencarefully defined. For a comprehensive description, you only need to consult the Design Excellence Award Criteria on the OAA website,* where you will find that it includes creativity, contextual response, sustainability, good business and legacy.

As a profession, we need to find a way to talk about design excellence – why it matters and its importance to the procurement process – because more and more of our work is being sourced through complex procurement strategies that attempt to quantify every task and deliverable. And because design excellence is almost impossible to measure and define, it carries no weight in the selection process. Every buyer wants excellence, but how can it be recognized if it can’t be defined?

The classic Vitruvian definition of design excellence requires that a building be functional, durable and beautiful. Functional? Not everything has to be purely functional; sometimes there is suc- cess in whimsy and playfulness. Functionality must also evolve over time. Durable? Many durable buildings look pretty bleak. Durability involves maintenance and, when preventative maintenance budgets are cut, durability may fail. Beautiful? That’s the traditional criterion for defining design excellence, but beauty can fade, so the elements deemed to be beautiful must be timeless – not an easy standard to meet. There are so many contenders for design excellence, and so few true winners.

There is more to design excellence than these three simple qualities. Excellent design must be contextual: buildings must work in harmonywith their surroundings, and with nature. It should also be challenging – encouraging viewers and users to discover something new about themselves, their surroundings and their interactions with the built environment – and challenging architects to explore new ideas, and new limits. Buildings should inspire a sense of awe and wonder.

Achieving these ideals through our current procurement modelsremains a major challenge. Design excellence must be seen as both thenecessary investment in quality of life and a key factor in the health of our communities. Ontarians deserve a sustainable built environ- ment that reflects our cultural and social values; that supports the local economy; that is functional, durable and beautiful; that lifts the soul. As an integral part of project success, design excellencemust be part of the process, from the start of procurement through to commissioning of the building. And our clients must be as committed to the outcome as we are.

Design excellence may be unquantifiable for a good reason. And maybe that is the message we need to carry back to our clients, to procurement departments and purchasing agents: what we do is unique. We create quality and value through striving for excellence and we won’t know we’ve gotten there until we’re there.

*http://www.oaa.on.ca/the%20oaa/awards/design%20excellence

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