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July 9, 2018

Are we doomed to a future of mediocre public buildings?

 

Toon Dreessen, past president of the Ontario Association of Architects, is a fellow of the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada and president of ArchitectsDCA.

The Globe’s editorial, Why has building new infrastructure become so difficult?inspired an immediate reaction about how we plan, value and build the infrastructure we need. The editorial is right. We are thinking too short term, and lack the vision to achieve excellence.

As a society, we’ve lost the vision for excellence in our built environment. Political leaders have given up on an aspirational goal in favour of risk mitigation. Projects are designed to inhibit innovation, and are so risk-averse that it’s a wonder the project happens at all. No one wants to run the risk that a project might garner attention, be groundbreaking or show leadership in case anything goes wrong; in our politically polarized debates, it’s easy to throw design under the bus.

This speaks to issues I see on a regular basis. Bundling projects together reduces fair competition in the market. When a project call is for the design of a $20-million school, for example, a local firm can compete and win the job. But when that project bundles together a whole series of schools across a broad geography, one small firm cannot deliver that cost effectively, and often can’t staff a job to bring several schools to completion at the same time. This results in schools that all kind of look the same, and are being delivered by one large company, instead of several smaller firms. This means fewer jobs for small- to medium-sized businesses (which in architectural practice are considerably smaller than in other sectors).

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Governments believe public-private partnerships (PPP or P3), will help to mitigate risk, but as reported in The Globe, this model results in mediocre buildings. PPP projects also cost more in the long run, take longer to complete and are not devoid of risk. There’s ample evidence that PPP projects result in lower value; many still end in bankruptcies and lawsuits.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer reported earlier this year that the federal government has only found projects for half of the $14.4-billion they’ve earmarked. Setting aside long-term projects that need sustained funding, and money earmarked but not spent, there is still a large pool of money. Why is that?

Infrastructure is seen largely as roads and bridges, with sewer and water-treatment projects thrown in. While these are fine, there are some issues. Roads offer a diminishing return on investment. Driving costs society $9.20 for every dollar the private sector spends. But a road lets us spend a lot of money quickly and temporarily appeases voters who want a faster commute.

We need a cultural shift in our thinking. We need to recognize that architecture is infrastructure.

Keep reading this article in The Globe and Mail

or contact the author directly

Toon Dreessen, Architect, OAA, FRAIC, AIA, LEED AP

President, Architects DCA

T: 613-725-2294 

www.architectsdca.com