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Square pegs, round holes

Square pillar being pushed into round hole

It's common sense to properly cost proposals before consulting on them and putting applications together, notes Louise Brooke-Smith. So why don't we consistently do that?

So, you’ve been working on a scheme that will set the word alight. A striking scheme that absolutely hits the mark. Impressive without being glitzy and efficient through really clever design features. There have been months of delicate discussions with members of the development team. Community consultations with local councillors and the passionate few speaking for the ambivalent many from the local area have been effective. Careful steps have been taken through environmental and technical statutory regulations, and countless meetings to discuss the subjectivity of all those design codes. 

Then comes the art of putting it all together, like a complicated pavlova. A persuasive planning, design and access statement has been prepared and every possible illustrative plan churned out of the CAD/CAM sausage machine. Then you put the cake into the Planning Portal oven and wait for the statutory determination process to tick away. The odd comments that come back from third parties and statutory consultees who had not wanted to join the party at the pre-submission stage are swiftly dealt with, and the officers’ report is drafted. There is bated breath while it is presented to elected members for the all-important ratification of a positive recommendation, subject of course to a realistic legal agreement and sensible conditions. And you are there – drinks down the pub with the team and a start date sorted, after conditions are discharged and a judicial review is no longer a risk. 

Then silence. The accountants have awakened from their slumbers. Those pesky accountants who somehow failed to do the sums six months ago, or is it because of a turn in the market, or that well-used perennial – Brexit. 

Whatever the reason, the figures don’t now add up. That commuted sum is how much? Are you sure we need a SUDs scheme? That wooden cladding – really? Surely a cheaper concrete panel would do the trick? And how about all that landscaping – it’s a maintenance nightmare. 

"All those months of negotiation and professional dialogue appear to count for nought"

And slowly the scheme that blood was sweated over is refined, is value engineered, is tweaked. And you are left with a scheme with the heart and soul knocked out. The very essence of the project that had all that love and attention poured into it is now a shadow of its former self. 

A series of tactical minor amendments is pursued and a deed of variation drafted and ‘hey presto’, the ‘need’ for the scheme is arguably more vital that the look or feel or spirit. All those months of negotiation and professional dialogue appear to count for nought. 

The building is efficient but will never set the world alight and becomes yet another that addresses functionality, as opposed to shaping the place where it sits and contributing to the community’s environment. 

The finance didn’t fit the goals and aspirations. It’s a common enough scenario but by trying to make something fit all parameters, part of its soul is lost. It’s rather like getting a share peg into a round hole. Yes, it will go in after a bit of a push and having undergone some shaving around the corners. But sometimes those corners are the very things that make that peg stand out as effective. 

The moral of this story is a simple one. Know what you are working towards at the outset. Make sure that everyone sees it the same way and that all the variables have been absolutely thrashed out. Ideally, tweaks aren’t made at all. But if they are unavoidable, then a scheme should have sufficient flexibility built in to allow for eventualities, whether it’s the ongoing Brexit saga, or a shortage of Italian marble for that stunning entrance or the need to include new digital wizardry. 

With a little bit of forethought and vision, square pegs into round holes can work if the hole is big enough to accommodate the whole peg and those inevitable tweaks can then still take place. A stunning scheme can then still emerge, at the end of the day, and all is good with the world.

Dr Louise Brooke-Smith is a development and strategic planning consultant and a built environment non-executive director


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