Associate Director, Chithra Marsh, discusses our approach to social value and how it’s evolved during a period of change.
Our approach to Social Value
At Buttress, we have long recognised the importance of social value and the many forms it can take. We understand that our work, by its very nature, leaves an imprint on the landscape of people’s lives, shaping the places they live, work, and spend their free time.
For us this means that while working on projects, we give equal consideration to the design as we do to its social impact. We approach this through a range of methods, all of which are underpinned by key values that form the basis of our culture and values – creativity, quality, collaborative leadership, and integrity.
The past couple of years have challenged the ways in which we typically connect with people and communities, forcing us to employ new techniques and tools for engagement. However, it’s also created opportunities for us to expand our reach, build new relationships, and make a valuable contribution through responsive design.
Access to opportunities
As a practice, we strongly believe that a diversity in design and architecture will enrich the built environment, creating spaces that are more equitable and that more accurately reflect the richness of world in which we live. However, to encourage diversity in the profession, more needs to be done to allow everyone, irrespective of their background or personal circumstances, to fulfil their potential.
Although the influence of COVID-19 has changed the way we interact with young people, our commitment to creating equal opportunities has sustained.
Over the past year, we have participated in virtual design workshops for aspiring built environment professionals and sponsored a virtual design event that invited students across the global to design a piece of sustainable architecture. In response to the limitations of studio-based work experience posed by COVID-19, we developed a virtual programme delivered during half term break. Over the course of five days, enrolled students were assigned a brief and a Buttress mentor who offered virtual advice, support and guidance as they worked through a number of online tasks.
A culture that cares
We recognise that delivering effective social value needs to be born out of an internal culture that fosters the same values and we have a range of initiatives to help our staff feel valued, supported, and able to fulfil their potential.
Before the pandemic, we developed our ‘B:Well’ initiative, which aimed to look after individual wellness needs and build on existing company wellbeing benefits such as flexible working arrangements, a company-wide enrolment with a health insurance provider, and access to staff trained as Mental Health First Aiders. During the pandemic, our focus on wellness took on new importance and B:Well became central to ensuring that our staff felt supported during this period of change.
Organised by willing volunteers from across the studio, under the B:Well banner, we run have campaigns, delivered a rolling programme of wellbeing activities, and provided access to resources through five pillars: Cultural, Physical, Mental, Social and Occupational. This has included – to name a few - lunchtime Zoom yoga sessions, virtual art activities, CPDs on financial health and access to staff trained as coaches, who have offered virtual, confidential sessions with employees looking for help on issues from managing their workload to pursuing career development opportunities.
Empowerment through engagement
Well-designed buildings and places can encourage activity, create positive emotional responses, and promote health and wellbeing. However, in order to deliver these benefits through design, we need to begin with a clear understanding of who we are designing for.
As a practice, we develop bespoke consultation programmes and work with social enterprise, PLACED, to connect with communities at a grassroots level. As part of this work, we run educational workshops, design reviews, and deliver consultation events with communities that are aimed at reaching the widest range of people at local level.
To ensure that the conversations continued despite lockdowns we, alongside PLACED, adapted to a digital approach delivering virtual workshops, answering questions online, developing videos of proposals to ensure that communities continue to feel engaged and part of the conversation.
Over the past couple of years, we have taken time to reflect and re-examine our approach to sustainability and put steps in place to strengthen our commitment. Earlier in the year, we established an active group within the studio who review and champion sustainability within the practice and across our projects.
Recent progress includes the group trialling carbon calculator tools to embed within the design process, and the development of Passivhaus apartment schemes in Manchester and Salford. We have also become members of the United Kingdom Green Building Council, joining more than 500 organisations across the construction and property sector committed to a better built environment and taking collective action to address our climate crisis.
After this period of change, the country is now making steps towards ‘normality’. However, we have a long road ahead of us. The long term social and economic impact of the pandemic is yet to be known so it’s important that social value remains high on the agenda. For us, this means taking steps towards formalising and strengthening our approach by taking steps towards becoming a small but leading group of firms in the UK built environment sector working towards B Corp certification.
Certified B corporations are businesses that meet the highest standard of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.
We believe that becoming B Corp certification will allow us to build on our existing commitment to social value and sustainability and while providing a framework for continuous improvement and advancement. We look forward to seeing where it will take us.