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Sport by Design

Why thinking about design is important in developing grassroots sports facilities;

Architects.  Often mis-understood, sometimes maligned and occasionally do not help themselves in their perception to others outside their little architectural bubble.  One thing that is true however is that they can be useful when it comes to designing buildings.  Not necessarily critical and many projects are delivered without an architect ever coming close to them.

One perception of architects is that they typically care more about their vision than they do the client’s brief and that their apparent casual approach to budgets just goes to highlight their arrogance at playing god with bricks and mortar.

Another perception is that they bleed the project finances with their high fees for relatively little value.  How difficult is it to draw up a box with some doors in?  Well judging by a lot of boxes that get designed without architects then it seems quite difficult after all.

Of course there will be elements of truth in the above perceptions and there will be some architects who do fit that mould.  Architecture is just like any other professional industry in that there will be good architects and bad architects and many somewhere in between.

However, it is also the nature of the construction industry that can cause a lot of problems and ultimately someone needs to carry the can for any problems that occur.  This could be the quantity surveyor, the builder, the client or the architect.  Usually it is a combination of all plus just some rotten luck.

As already touched upon, it is possible to develop buildings without architects and many buildings in all sectors are delivered up and down the country with very little professional input from architects at any point.  A broad brush stroke analysis would suggest that is maybe a big contributing factor into why so many of the new buildings we do see springing up all over the UK are so bland and to be blunt, crap.

The argument often goes that to include for good design you need higher budgets, and there simply is not the money to spend on pretty design features that offer little in the way of additional value.  Often the companies telling you that are companies like mass housebuilders that make millions of pounds of profit year on year.  Not enough budget you say?  More like profits need to be maximised at all cost in reality.

Just how true is this though?

It is hard to say in reality.  Yes, aluminium framed bi-folds are going to be more expensive than white uPVC double glazed french doors, but architecture is more than simply specifying fancy bits and bobs.

Actual good design starts at the very beginning with critical client analysis.  By that, we simply mean actually listening to what the customer is saying.  Combine what the client wants with some careful analysis of the site and the area surrounding and you are already onto a good start in preparing a design that is going to respond to an actual need and address its own context.

Each site carries a special quality unique unto itself, whether a view, a prominent position along a key travel route, interesting topography and more.  By capturing an element of the uniqueness of the site and addressing it accordingly in the proposed design already the building is going some way to creating a sense of ‘place’ as opposed to just another ‘space’.

Sports projects and sports facilities are no different in this regard.

Over the years it has been possible to see that limited finance has been available for investment in our sports facilities across communities.  This restriction in combination with the nature of sports buildings and facilities to have standard size requirements that are rightly enforced by governing and funding bodies has meant that all too often the process of ‘design’ has been under threat due to the perception of innovation = expensive.

An additional consideration is that these types of projects are typically limited in number per region.  There will be only one sports hall per community for example whilst larger sports hubs are massively expensive and therefore rare.  It has simply been uneconomic for architects to focus on these building types in the main as they focus on locally based projects.  A smaller scale architect will work within their immediate community on a wide range of projects and if lucky might be approached to work on their local new sports project.  If not, it may just be left to a contractor to deliver an off the shelf product, the kind of product they have done a hundred times before that they know ‘works’.  This is how we end up with ‘copy and paste’ facilities so often.  Even if an architect does get involved the results can have limited success as they have no significant experience in the sector and tend to treat the one off build as something as a ‘bonus’ project meaning that we get some ‘nice features’ but that on cost comparison to the standard product cannot compare favourably.

It is our feeling however that now more than ever good design in our sports projects has never been more important.  Projects that can inspire communities, be inclusive for all and create a sense of identity can become truly sustainable socially, economically and environmentally, setting the standards locally for our built environments.

As we emerge from a global pandemic that restricted movement of many people, families and children, the damage to physical and emotional health will be significant.  Investing in infrastructure for sports will help communities recover through promoting healthy lifestyles and establishing pride in a local area.  We need designs that are open, that are inclusive, that respond to the unique needs and setting of each project.  We need designs that work hard to give value and efficiency.  We need designs that really establish a sense of place.

Specialists in design of sports facilities are massively useful. They will already not only understand the spatial requirements that must be met, but have experience and knowledge of the sector that can be translated into evolving projects beyond their restrictive frameworks and instead open up new opportunities.  Small details such as including shelter and outdoor seating can turn a bland brick box used for changing rooms into a spectator stand for sports events with hardly any variation in budget.  This in turn has the ability to become an increased community focal point as more people enjoy the experience and increase their dwell time on site.  It becomes a place to not only watch kids play, but for social interaction and a piece of infrastructure in the community that people can take ownership of.

Sports projects do not need architects.  They need a good design team.  Architects may well be a part of that, but it could also include for contractors, funding partners, project managers and of course clients.  Good design is not the result of architectural genius and vision, it is a result of good teamwork with a carefully considered brief, sufficient funding, knowledge of the sector and a passion to create a true sense of place.

If only every sports project could benefit from such a fortunate setup then we would really see some fantastic designs that can help really make a difference in grassroots sport, helping inspire users, connect communities and establish a basis for sustained sporting success as well as a society with an improved healthy lifestyle.

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