The importance, preciousness or regard we bestow on an object, a person or a place, speaks volumes about our notion of value. Value connotes subjectivity, and one value-laden anecdote that puts this into perspective for me is the story of aluminum.
Despite being the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust, aluminum was once one of the priciest commodities on earth. Unlike gold, which is found chemically pure, aluminum is tightly bonded to oxygen in the form of bauxite. And because no one knew of any inexpensive extraction method prior to 1886, aluminum remained the most expensive of metals. The monetary worth was so high that it became the metal of choice for elegant jewellery worn only by royals and monarchs — synonymous with wealth, nobility and power.
In 1884, aluminum was used on the apex of the Washington Monument ostensibly to depict the authority, affluence, clout and coming-of-age of the United States of America. However, in 1886 when Charles Martin Hall invented an inexpensive electrolytic reduction method of extracting aluminum from bauxite, aluminum became ubiquitous. One of the immediate impacts of Hall’s invention was the sharp drop in aluminum’s monetary worth. The usefulness value, however, skyrocketed because its use everywhere was made possible. Aluminum now features prominently as an indispensable material in architecture, engineering, construction, communications, consumer products, technology, transportation and other aspects of our daily lives.
What makes a commodity like aluminum valuable and different (say from gold)? Is it because it’s rare, beautiful or useful? Was aluminum more valuable when it was rare (pre-1886) or when it became ubiquitous (post-1886)? Reminiscent of architecture and design, living in a fast-paced world that’s pathologically gripped by an insatiable craving for instantaneous gratification, it‘s quite easy to ignore how responsible architecture and high quality design enable significant economic, social and environmental value for all.
Knowledgeable building owners rarely need to be persuaded about the competitive advantage that good design provides and no one needs to convince erudite property investors about the positive impact good design has on rental and property values. Paradoxically, notwithstanding the abundant proofs showing how good design enhances our quality of life, should it be a surprise that in the rush to cut costs, the value of architecture and design is increasingly under scrutiny?
I have no doubt in my mind that the importance of responsible architecture and good quality design is widely recognized. However, analogous to what Hall did with aluminum 127 years ago, architects and designers of our generation must take on new roles to invent creative, effective and efficient methods of measuring, proving and demonstrating the value of architecture and design to the public. They must ensure people understand that good design is not just about aesthetics.
It is about the economic value demonstrated in our designs to reduce whole life costs — resulting in improved economic performances, higher property values and market attractiveness.
It is about the social value encapsulated in how we use buildings to fuse social inclusion, sustainable lifestyles, health and wellness into our collective identity and civic pride as a community or nation. It is about the environmental value established through the excellence infused into our built environment by creating buildings with greater energy performance, less pollution and enhanced ecological advantage.
It was Myles Munroe that rightly said “where purpose is unknown, abuse is inevitable.” When architects and designers fail to demonstrate value of good design, we diminish the purpose of architecture and abuse the rights of the public to better health and access to quality lifestyle through responsible architecture.
Samuel Oboh, FRAIC is the RAIC Regional Director, Alberta / Northwest Territories. Send comments or questions to email@example.com.