Architecture – creating the right environment.

Given our long-standing work in the retail sector, we have regular dialogue with clients about ‘customer/ user experience’ – and getting it right. For me, this term defines the creation of a complete environment which is perceived as positive (or negative) for the target audience; the customer/ user. In a retail context, this can include; products on sale, customer service, clear way finding, interior finishes, product displays, lighting and signage. On example might be the way a product is lit; this can have a direct impact on how it is seen and therefore whether a customer chooses to buy it.

My wife recently visited a well-known national retailer in our local Shopping Centre. This store, when first opened about 5 years ago, was modern, but perhaps a bit too stark by normal standards. It had a grey floor throughout and plain walls. It felt bland and it was easy to get lost in. Apparently the store has been refurbished at some point recently and the impact this had on my wife seemed significant. Clearly it wasn’t all about the interior fit out. The product line and service from staff was good too. But the environment did have a tangible impact on the customer. I haven’t seen the store myself, but I’m intrigued to go now – good indirect marketing in itself! Apparently the finishes and overall aesthetic are of a really good quality and it’s easy to navigate around the store. These may seem relatively simple things, but creating the right environment is so important and can transfer directly to sales and income for businesses. The environment, if done correctly, can also be a direct reflection of a Brand. Look at any Audi dealership – they have a theme and reflect key qualities of their products. Likewise Apple stores reflect their brand and products. A visit to any Apple store is always an experience and there is a theme which is consistent wherever you are in the world.

L&H’s work spans many different sectors which includes environments for; retail, workplaces, education, leisure/ entertainment and living. Through all of our work we put a lot of effort into ensuring that the architecture is right and the building has an identity which is aesthetically pleasing. But we also work hard to ensure that the user experience is considered throughout. I don’t think this is something that all architects consider. There seems to be a focus by others which is all about the most design-led ‘look’ with little or no priority given to a) how the building will be used/ experienced on a humanistic level, and b) how the building will wear over time. How often do we see crisp, white modernist boxes which look amazing when first built…but are then tired and worn in just a couple of years – is this creating the right environment? I think not.

I think there are many architects who are perhaps too focused on their own port-folio, creating buildings which can be perceived as showcase or ‘trophy’ architecture. Is this right? Will this architecture last? Who benefits long-term?

I believe Architecture is about creating buildings which are aesthetically pleasing, appropriate to their context AND, perhaps most importantly, creates the right environment for the users. Buildings are for people. In the world of ‘design and build’ led construction and endless ‘value engineering’ at every opportunity, the focus all too often is about finishing the job quickly, easily and for as a little money as possible. Managing these issues are perhaps our greatest challenges now as architects.

This years Stirling Prize winner, the Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge is, in my view, a fantastic building. It exudes design and construction quality in every image you see. Designed by Stanton Williams architects, these guys seem to be a practice who do not seek fame or trophies – but do so from simply creating outstanding architecture – the way it should be. However, it must be noted that this particular building cost £80m! In fact, a lot of high quality contemporary architecture seems to emerge on University campus’ – are these clever people a minority which still appreciate true quality in architecture and impact it can have on its users?

People seem complacent sometimes about architecture. Buildings are permanent. They have an impact on the built environment within which they exist for many decades. They need to be right. It seems that quality architecture is being continually eroded and devalued. More and more people, seemingly regardless of professional experience/ training, have an increasing influence over design and architecture – this is not right. The industry needs to appreciate the value of architecture more and the positive effects it can create, both in terms of human experience of buildings and also longevity of our built environment.

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