- Planning submissions should be 3D digital models, not just 2D drawings.
- We need to put architects back at the heart of planning.
When it comes to housing policy, there is often a lot of talk on how planning rules need to be changed one way or another, but there is very little conversation about the process of gaining planning permission itself. What gets built and where are important matters to consider, but how this happens is almost never mentioned. To omit this is to make a grave error, as it is precisely in reforming how the system works that we may reap the greatest rewards in housing, in construction, and in productivity.
In 2002 the government launched Planning Portal, the primary website through which planning applications are made. With 90% of all applications now going through the site, it is the intermediary between applicants, local authorities, and the public. The site works well, but technology has now well and truly overtaken it. The problem is that it still operates by applicants uploading dozens of digital versions of paper documents. These can be individual building plans, entire city plans, or detailed reports on anything from traffic impact to biodiversity. At some point a planning officer or committee must sit down and examine the conclusions contained in each of these documents and make a judgement as to the impact of each, and how they might interact with each other. Despite being online it is a wholly analogue system. But why is this a problem?
Many politicians, particularly those with green belt or rural constituencies, will know well the constant struggles against NIMBYs, but recently the tide is beginning to turn. Now more than ever many communities are realising the pressing need to supply affordable housing, not least to ensure their own survival. However, NIMBYism stems from deep roots that lie principally in a lack of comprehension of both the aesthetic impact of building proposals, and also what wider effects there might be on the local area.
People are generally wary of change, hence the default position of opposition, but most people also tend to play down the effects of development once it has been completed, usually saying it’s not as bad as they’d thought, especially if it comes with infrastructural improvements. So how can we aid people’s understanding from the beginning to ease fears and reduce opposition?
The problem with the current system is that most people don’t really understand plans and architectural drawings, and certainly don’t bother reading reports. That may seem like a somewhat patronising comment but unfortunately it is true. Any architect who utilises virtual reality (VR) headsets will attest to seeing the moment of realisation on a client’s face when you put them inside their building and watch as they finally understand fully what was on the confusing, scribbly bits of paper you’ve been showing them for weeks. But how can we bring that level of understanding to every member of the public with an interest in a proposed development?
The answer to that is BIM. This stands for Building Information Modelling, which put simply is the process of creating a 3D digital model of a building project, with all construction data embedded in the 3D model file, and using that as the central source of information, rather than the old 2D ways of doing things with just paper drawings and documents. BIM is currently transforming how the construction industry operates, but has yet to filter down to the smaller scale projects. This is a process that must be accelerated. In a few years it will be the only way of working, no matter what the size of project.
Crucially, what BIM allows for is very easy comprehension of a building project by looking at it in 3D, either on a normal computer screen or in VR. The obvious next question is how do you allow members of the public to see it? Well that’s easy. Instead of just uploading 2D drawings to the Planning Portal site, upload the 3D model as well. The planners can then overlay it within their own 3D model of the entire neighbourhood or even the whole city or region, and see how it relates to its surroundings. People can then open this 3D model themselves at home, and go for a wonder around it in 3D space, as if it was real. Nothing is more easily comprehensible than seeing with your own eyes.
Planners can take whatever information from the 3D file they require, whether it be traffic flows or bat populations or anything else, as all the data is embedded in the model. Eventually very few, if any, other documents would be required at all. Crucially though it would allow all interested parties to better understand the proposed development. Better comprehension reduces fear. Reduced fear means reduced anxiety. Reduced anxiety means reduced opposition. This would go a very long way towards solving NIMBYism.
So to summarise these into two policy proposals:
Policy 1: Integrate BIM into the planning system.
Policy 2: Make BIM compulsory for all built projects that require planning permission by 2022.
There is one more crucial ingredient currently missing within the planning system that must be added. That ingredient is high quality design as the default expectation.
It is currently the case that absolutely anyone can submit a planning application. In many other countries, including most of Western Europe, only qualified architects can submit applications. The trouble with allowing anyone to do it is that the quality of the design and information submitted can be appalling. Planners must often spend hours picking though the badly presented, unclear information, and then even more time requesting all the information that is missing. You wouldn’t perform heart surgery yourself, you wouldn’t represent yourself in court (if you had any sense), so why should you be able to design your own building with no training whatsoever?
There is a reason why it takes 9 years on average to qualify as an architect; far longer incidentally than either medicine or law. There are a vast number of unbelievably complex technical, legal, contractual, and statutory considerations necessary when designing a building; all the things architects are trained to think about. All these things go into even the concept design of a building, let alone the technical design before construction takes place. High quality design must be a requirement, and there is a simple policy change that would go a long way to encouraging that:
Policy 3: Require all planning applications to be submitted by an ARB (Architect’s Registration Board) registered architect.
Requiring someone to be suitably qualified in order to design changes to our built environment that will last many decades if not centuries should seem obvious. This requirement would both protect the public, protect the environment, and ensure our future generations are not saddled with the rectification costs and environmental and psychological penalties of poor design.
Combine and implement these three policies and we will make more progress on planning reform than has happened over the whole last century. This would put booster rockets under the UK’s planning system, and vastly increase the speed at which planning decisions could be made. Planning is an analogue system in a digital age. We mustn’t be afraid to fully digitise it, bringing it up to date, and prepare it for a bright, beautiful, high-tech future.
Bruce Buckland is Director of Buckland Architects.