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Hassell and GBCA on measuring social value in the built environment

Hassell and GBCA on measuring social value in the built environment


Australian Design Review speaks to international design practice Hassell and the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) about their new joint discussion paper ‘Social Value in the Built Environment’.

‘Social value’ has come to the fore of discussions about how we evaluate the impact of the built environment on people’s quality of life. But how do we go about defining and measuring this value?

A new discussion paper from Hassell and GBCA offers a working definition of social value and seeks to help readers navigate existing measurement systems, laying the groundwork for greater industry collaboration. In launching ‘Social Value in the Built Environment’, Hassell and GBCA aim to move Australia’s built environment sector towards developing a common framework for creating and measuring social value.

Hassell’s managing director Liz Westgarth says there are huge benefits to be gained in getting the measurement right.

“Developing a shared understanding of social value is essential for our industry to ensure we’re accountable for the long-term impacts of our work, can communicate the value of great design and apply what we learn to design better buildings, places and cities,” Westgarth says.

Ahead of Hassell and GBCA’s panel discussion on social value in the built environment in Melbourne this Wednesday, ADR spoke to Brett Pollard, a senior researcher at Hassell, and Helen Bell, who is responsible for research within GBCA, about the framework they are proposing.

ADR: How do Hassell and GBCA define social value? 

Brett Pollard and Helen Bell: We developed a working definition of social value as part of the research: 

“Social value is the net positive change in the social, environmental and economic wellbeing of those directly and indirectly impacted by an initiative, project or organisation. In the built environment, social value is created when local needs are understood, the people most impacted are authentically engaged and where buildings, places and infrastructure improve present and future communities’ quality of life, wellbeing and social cohesion.”

ADR: Are economic and environmental value separate from social value? Is there a hierarchy between the three?

BP and HB: Social, environmental and economic factors are strongly interconnected in shaping people’s quality of life and wellbeing; social value encompasses all of them. For instance, introducing new urban green spaces can boost wellbeing by offering a place for relaxation, stress relief and family gatherings. Such spaces also contribute to biodiversity, mitigate urban heat effects, create job opportunities and skills training during construction and maintenance phases, and attract visitors who support local businesses.

The hierarchy among these three dimensions is context-dependent. In some situations, community engagement might reveal that focusing on environmental improvements or skills development could have the most positive long-term impact. In other cases, authentic engagement and co-design that foster trust and empower stakeholders might be the key to facilitating positive change. However, it’s not a matter of choosing one over the others – all three dimensions are crucial in informing decisions as we strive to design better buildings, places and cities.

ADR: When did the term ‘social value’ first emerge? Why do you think this idea of social value is gaining momentum now?

BP and HB: References to social value have been present in built environment literature since at least the late 1940s. However, many argue that social value has been integral to design and construction since time immemorial. At the start of this century, social value became a focal point in a broader discussion on the value of design in the UK’s built environment sector. Organisations such as the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) and the New Construction Research and Innovation Strategy Panel (nCRISP) published comprehensive guides and reports highlighting the creation of social and other types of value through design and construction.

In 2012, GBCA incorporated social value into Green Star by introducing the Green Star Communities rating tool. In the same year, the UK Government introduced The Public Services (Social Value) Act, which mandated all government agencies to consider social, economic and environmental benefits when procuring goods and services.

In Australia, the recent surge in interest in social value has been partly driven by governments at all levels beginning to focus on wellbeing and other non-economic measures when formulating policies. For instance, the Australian Government’s ‘Measuring What Matters’ framework encompasses five themes: healthy, secure, sustainable, cohesive and prosperous. Naturally, interest in social value is also being driven by issues such as housing affordability, women’s safety, racial intolerance, intergenerational equity and social inclusion.

ADR:  Is ‘social value’ simply a buzzword in architecture? Do you envision that it’ll be a lasting priority?

While casual observers might think that social value has just (re)appeared in the built environment lexicon, many organisations have been actively working over a long time to create and measure social value. For instance, Architects without Frontiers Australia, established in 1998, has partnered with architectural practices to deliver over 60 projects and $40 million worth of pro-bono design services. Other examples include Australian Unity, which partnered with Deakin University in 2001 to launch the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index, and Stockland, which collaborated with EY in 2013 to understand the social value of their retirement living communities.

More broadly, architects and the built environment sector have a social responsibility to contribute positively to society beyond aesthetic, functional and economic considerations. Design can help address social needs and promote human wellbeing. This aligns with the work GBCA is doing in the sustainable transformation of the built environment. We have an opportunity to design buildings, communities and cities where people can thrive. The importance of social value is increasing and the work we are doing is designed to foster that growth. 

ADR: How are architects currently measuring social value? 

BP and HB: Architects, developers and building owners who measure social value are using a variety of tools and approaches. For example, The Fulcrum Agency (TFA) has developed a tool, Social Return on Design Investment (SRODI), to quantify and communicate the social value of design. The SRODI tool can help guide design decisions, empower stakeholders and map and track project outcomes. The RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) has also developed a toolkit specifically for architects to measure social value in their projects. 

In collaboration with PRD and Gehl, Hassell has completed the first stage of a five-year study to measure and evaluate the social, cultural, economic and environmental impacts of the public realm and placemaking initiatives at Wilton Park in Dublin, Ireland. Our client, IPUT Real Estate Dublin, is seeking to understand the social impact of its redevelopment of the Wilton Park estate, which includes a 60,000-square-metre mixed-use development and a one-acre city park. The project’s social impact framework, based on public realm, programming and governance, uses 73 metrics, encompassing a variety of quantitative and qualitative measures such as business activity, footfall, spatial utilisation and visitor experience.

ADR: What is the tool you are proposing to measure social value and what is the benefit of this? 

BP and HB: Instead of creating another tool, we will be developing a practical guide for creating and measuring social value within the Australian built environment sector. This guide will provide the industry with a best practice framework for delivering and measuring social value, while still allowing organisations to use a variety of measurement tools. It is crucial to develop a shared understanding and approach to social value across the built environment sector if we aim to increase uptake and, most importantly, drive further positive impact for the communities in which we live and work.

ADR: Is social value subjective? How do we go about measuring social value for different demographics?

BP and HB: Social value is subjective and highly dependent on context. Our research has highlighted the importance of understanding local needs and engaging meaningfully with stakeholders throughout a project’s lifespan. This is because different communities have varying needs, priorities and cultural norms that shape what they consider valuable. The development of social value goals for a project must consider the specific social, economic, cultural and environmental factors relevant to the local community and context. Only once these goals are identified and agreed upon, can appropriate measures be selected. 

It’s also important to recognise that measures are not an end in themselves but should be used to guide and refine activities and initiatives and to report progress and outcomes back to stakeholders. Measuring social value is not about developing a standard set of measures and trying to fit them to every project.

ADR: Is social value important to clients? Which clients tend to care about social value?

BP and HB: Indeed, creating social value is crucial to many government, not-for-profit and commercial clients. The early adopters have been in sectors where there is the most value to deliver, such as residential communities, particularly social housing, as well as public and social infrastructure. For instance, the Community Housing Industry Association has partnered with Swinburne University, Australian Social Value Bank and Simetrica-Jacobs to develop the SIGMAH tool. This tool calculates community housing projects’ broader social, environmental and economic benefits. 

However, opportunities exist across the built environment, with many commercial organisations testing and implementing social value measurement approaches on individual projects or across their portfolios. One such example is Lendlease, which announced in 2020 that it had set a target of creating $250 million of social value by 2025. By the end of FY23, it reported that it had delivered social value worth $186 million, achieving almost 75 percent of its target.

ADR: Is social value applicable and commonly measured in interior design? 

BP and HB: Most definitely. Social value can be created through interior design projects in numerous ways. There is, of course, the positive impact that well-designed spaces can have on people’s physical and mental wellbeing. This has long been recognised and measured through sustainable building rating tools such as Green Star and WELL. There are also training and job creation opportunities that exist through the construction and operational phases of a project. Social value can also be created through the procurement processes for materials and products, by supporting local, Indigenous and/or for-purpose manufacturers and suppliers. 

Lead image: AMRF First Building, Sydney, Australia (Hassell)

The ‘Social Value in the Built Environment’ panel discussion will take place at 61 Little Collins Street, Melbourne at 5pm on Wednesday 5 June.


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