Building Resilience in the Built Environment

The next instalment in our Building Resilience in the Built Environment campaign is now available, and this week we have spoken with Rachel Basha-Franklin, the principal director of Basha-Franklin, about the impacts of the recession from the architecture & design perspective, and what lessons that were learnt in 2008 can put to use in 2023.

Tell me what happened to A&D in 2008?

It felt like the world fell off a cliff. London went quiet. Everything stopped. It was a pretty dramatic crash. There was no cash to do projects. Or if there was, those that had cash wanted to hold onto it. As such, there was a mounting sense of fear and I think that panic resulted in a much deeper recession than it needed to be. I knew of architects who were applying for jobs with more than 500 other applicants. Too many talented people were looking for work, wherever they could find it. Those that didn’t lose their jobs just kept their heads down and got on with it. Architects had low expectations at that time. We were just grateful for work and so the projects weren’t always that inspiring. 

I founded Basha-Franklin in 2007, just before the recession. We were lucky because we had secured a number of long-term, funded projects. The winners in the last recession were those with four- or five-year projects on their books, where the funding had already been accounted for and allocated. Lots of other projects just stopped. There was a development in Bishopsgate that remained a building site for years. 

A lot of A&D professionals who are leaders now were deeply affected by the 2008 crash. It took a long time to come out the other side. But as with any crisis, it created opportunities, too. It was a very innovative time and a lot of architects who lost their jobs started their own practices – often from their kitchen tables. There was a boom in start-ups. This, in turn, gave rise to co-working. I imagine because most creative people don’t tend to like working from home on their own. Technology facilitated this start-up decade and enabled new businesses to flourish. 

What do you think will happen this time around? 

There’s a sense of resilience today that wasn’t as prevalent back in 2008. A&D feels like a rubber band that’s been pulled back to such a point where it just needs to be released. We’ve just got back on track after Covid. Everyone’s invigorated and ready for action. That’s how it feels anyway. There are more interesting projects out there, a duty to deliver sustainable buildings and better environments to support human health and wellbeing.

The whole conversation about the built environment accelerated in the right direction and it would be disappointing if we took steps backwards. I’m not sure the momentum will stop, or the hunger to just get on with it. The flight to quality is very strong to bring people back to the office.

That sounds promising. What about the challenges?

Inflation is a bigger worry. If projects are funded, then there’s no more money – you simply need to work within the budget that was defined.  That will demand creative thinking, which isn’t always a bad thing. 

Then there’s the cost of materials. Like everything, it’s all going up, along with the cost of importing and exporting. Typical cost increases have been 10-15%. Urban mining is the massive untapped market of the future. This should bring about a whole new interesting aesthetic, not to mention growth in the product and supply chain. But the government needs to be the real lynchpin to drive it forward. There needs to be more incentive in the industry to adopt a model as seen in the Netherlands where there’s a massive focus on the circular economy – 30% of materials must be re-used in every project. If the UK government could push that agenda forward through policies or even legislation, then we would have a booming remining market which would in turn bolster British industries, helping manufacturers closer to home to respond to market needs. 

There are possibly as many buildings being stripped out as there are buildings being built. Rather than sending materials abroad – and increasing carbon emissions in the process – we need material banks in the London vicinity if we’re to embrace a truly circular economy. Materials could be reused, reimagined, and recycled on our doorstep. That will not only contribute to net zero targets, but will reduce the associated costs, too. 

It’s important to remember that wider socioeconomic factors are in play. There’s a huge demand for housing, for example. We’re in a housing crisis. There is nowhere to rent in London. We can’t afford not to build more housing. This alone should drive the architecture and design industry for the next decade. 

So, yes there are challenges. But if we look at them slightly differently, there are plenty of opportunities, too. 

Environmental sustainability, as you’ve already mentioned, is a hot topic. And for good reason. More firms in the built environment are committing to the cause. Going ‘green’ can be costly; investment is required and although ROI will be reaped in return, it takes time. Do you think the recession could curb or accelerate progress? 

I think that we are 100% moving forward with sustainability. We’ve made such headway and there’s no going back. The trend has been established – it’s the biggest market trend, and it’s not going anywhere. It won’t be long until you won’t be able to buy anything out there that doesn’t carry with it a legitimate and credible green agenda. If you don’t commit to the cause, you’ll risk your own survival. Sustainability shouldn’t be more expensive anyway. It should be cost neutral. But what I think might lose standing is accreditations.

There are so many accreditations that exist to prove an organisation is committing to environmental sustainability and wellness. I think many organisations are questioning their value. I would rather that we don’t have so many private organisations creating new accreditation, but that these standards form part of building regulations. This will have far greater impact on the lives of many. And the focus should be on action, not words. 

What lessons did we learn in the 2008 recession that we can apply to 2023?  

We learned how to be resilient. We’re used to living in difficult times. That’s the norm now. Expect a crisis, plan for the worst, strive for the best. Cash is king. You’ve got to be profitable. Put money away so you’re ready when the highs turn into lows. Those that came out of the other side of Covid will be patting themselves on the back. They got through it. This recession will be a sneeze in comparison. We’ve got this. Bring it on. 

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Jo Sutherland