‘What’s missing is the evidence,’ admits Stephen Hodder

The incoming president of the RIBA has admitted there is no evidence that good design improves people’s lives.

Most of the claims made about the effect buildings have on their occupants are anecdotal, said Stephen Hodder.

On the eve of his inauguration, he has ordered RIBA staff to embark on a major research project on the value of architecture which will provide ministers with the kind of proof they demand.

“We all say good design in schools improves behaviour and in hospitals it aids recovery and in workplaces it improves efficiency, but there’s no evidence,” said Hodder who officially takes over from Angela Brady on Wednesday.

The initiative was welcomed by the writer Toby Young, chairman of the trust that set up the West London Free School who has previously accused architects of “extraordinary arrogance” in claiming buildings improve people’s lives.

“I think it’s a very good idea,” he told BD. “For decades, if not centuries, architects have been attributing magical properties to their buildings and it’s very sensible of Stephen Hodder to want to find out if there’s any evidence to support these claims. I am sceptical but I look forward to seeing the data.”

The three-year project, led by the RIBA’s external affairs team, will tackle the subject in far greater depth than the Farrell Review which is due to report by the end of the year.

Staff will begin by collating any existing studies before considering whether to commission their own research.

“We think there’s probably not a great deal of work out there,” said Hodder who has also put them in touch with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) which is undertaking a similar piece of work.

The project, one of 160 goals in the RIBA’s five-year plan, will build on a short report commissioned by Ruth Reed at the end of her presidency called Good Design: It All Adds Up.

“That was largely anecdotal and I think we need to take it a stage further,” said Hodder.

“I want to add presidential weight to this project because the idea we could engage with politicians using language they understand is very exciting.

“What’s missing is the evidence. If we can demonstrate that architecture can bring economic value or improve performance in workplaces or engender a better sense of community, we can elevate design up the government’s agenda.”

It would allow the RIBA to stand up to ministers such as Michael Gove who axed Labour’s £55 billion school building programme the minute he became education secretary, dismissing any suggestion that good design could improve pupils’ performance.