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You could do better – thoughts on the built environment and its impacts on quality of life

You could do better – thoughts on the built environment and its impacts on quality of life


In this opinion piece, David Constantine discusses what we can expect from an increasingly urbanised environment and how we can make it work for us.

Through my professional practice, I spend a good deal of time considering the opportunities presenting at the intersection of property, the built environment and social impact.

Over recent months I’ve had a number discussions with key ‘actors’ in the built environment/property sector – from government and regulators, to planners and researchers, impact investors, architects and developers.

Their stories are rich and varied; however, it is clear that wellness and quality of life are critical themes for those who wish to lead – be it through policy, planning or product. Our 21st century lives will be expressed through increasingly urbanised, high-density environments.

As consumers of architecture and the built environment we can, and must, demand more; the impact from the personal to the collective is all pervading. Let’s shape our surrounds for good.

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” – Winston Churchill

We innately shape our surrounds to influence and imitate us

The majority of people will never develop an apartment building, design an office tower or plan a suburb-scale subdivision.

Many won’t commission architecture or build a house from the ‘ground up’.

But most will buy the odd pot plant, rearrange the furniture, mow the lawns or peruse the paint chips on a Bunnings pilgrimage for that perfect colour.

Surely the deep sigh of relief sitting down to a freshly tidied desk is universally enjoyed.

In these small ways we acknowledge the impact that our surrounds have on our experience of daily life. Our habitats are a vehicle for expression and aspiration – be that individual or collective.

They say an owner inevitably resembles their pet, perhaps the same is true of their homes? The autobiographical nature of domestic spaces is one of focused and key importance as we design for ageing and care, but it is also a truth we should more broadly acknowledge.

Such documentary behaviour is so engrained as to be subconscious, and yet, so often the desire to shape the backdrop to our lives ends at the front gate. The engagement starts and ends ‘at home’.

“Une maison est une machine-à-habiter. (A house is a machine for living in).” – Le Corbusier

We are all consumers of architecture and design

Often architecture and design is seen as something out of reach – a luxury for those with the means to commission it. And yet this type of engagement represents such a small sample of the modes by which we all ‘live’ architecture and design.

If you live in a multi-residential apartment, if you work in an office, you consume architecture. If you walk to the shops, catch the tram to work, drive out of town on a weekend, you consume design and planning of the public realm.

Brian Reed said, “Everything is designed. Few things are designed well.”

We all have a vested interest in best practice, to demand rigour and foresight in the creation of our environments, as they so innately impact our experience of the world, and expression of the self.

Zooming out: designing the urban fabric for wellness and productivity

In the public realm, governments are exploring ways to better position the human and societal outcomes (happiness, wellness, sustainability, quality of life) at the heart of policy and legislation. Peak bodies like the Property Council are advocating thought leadership. Enterprising developers are embracing quality of life, community integration and affordability as key differentiators in a crowded market. The key trends underpin diverse context and output, they mark the bounds of the new normal.

Connected, local and productive lives

The realities of work and life in the high-density urban future will be intimately connected. No longer is work the domain of the office, and life the domain of the home. Boundaries are fluid, and our spaces must be flexible to accommodate this. Living and working within a local, connected community creates efficiencies and promotes personal productivity. Greater affordability and innovative pathways to ownership help make this a reality.

Well-being, well building

New government guidelines promote individual and corporate well-being, by better design. At a base level, this can be accessibility, sustainability and environmental impact of process and materials. That said, organisations are investing beyond the baseline, as data continues to indicate that a ‘well building’ fosters a happier and more productive workforce. Circadian lighting systems, air filtration and EMR shielding are becoming increasingly commonplace, as too is designing for the needs of a diverse workforce (led by occupational therapists, human factors, ergonomics and behavioural psychology experts).

Planning for impact, selling with purpose

Planners continue to sharpen the focus on fostering cohesive communities, high-quality, sustainable housing stock, bio diversity and green space.

Developers are beginning to realise that there are opportunities for efficiencies and product differentiation if they are willing to fully embrace the planning, measuring and reporting of social impact. In so much as their developments are:

  • better aligned with public policy – reducing regulatory issues or planning delays
  • better integrated with local communities – reducing appeals or complaints and building a community of potential buyers, and
  • better differentiated – sales and marketing narratives are driven from authentic community engagement and best practice in architecture, design and amenity, rather than manufactured based on an image of ‘lifestyle’. The promise is lived through the fabric of the development.

You could do better

We all could. The public, as mass consumers of design and architecture, have the opportunity to actively consider environments, to claim agency in the spaces that hold their life and work.

For those leaders in public and private realms who shape the fabric of our cities, the challenge is clear, and the opportunity for mutual benefit evident. Authentically create buildings and places that foster quality of life, embrace principles of sustainability, generate greater productivity, and take us all positively into the urban future.

Design director at Ellis Jones, David Constantine is a creative leader, with 15-plus years’ experience delivering insights, strategy, brands and communications to the land, property and built environment sector. He is a passionate proponent of the power of places and spaces to deliver positive social impact.


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