In April 2016, the Victorian Design Review Panel (VDRP) will have undertaken its 200th design review of significant projects across Victoria. At the same time, the Premier of Victoria has agreed that the Office of the Victorian Government Architect (OVGA) should proceed with refreshing and extending the panel’s expertise to respond to the high demand for design review. This commitment aligns with the significant Government investment in major infrastructure and civic projects; transformational opportunities in urban renewal areas, and strong development activity in central Melbourne and the regional cities. Independent expert peer review of significant projects from the early stages of conceptual development seeks to ensure that opportunities are maximised for the benefit of the public and that best value and high quality is generated through Government investment.
Some of the projects reviewed in the early days of the VDRP have now been realised, and it is gratifying to visit them and see how they better contribute to their context; function internally; are generous in the right areas; integrate sustainability measures to reduce long term running costs; and are loved by those who visit, live or work in these new buildings and places.
The first year of design review was limited to state-funded projects to ensure the process was tried and true before opening more broadly to private sector projects. We saw a variety of projects – cultural and civic; regional projects and masterplans; sporting facilities and tourism strategies; libraries, schools and hospitals; public housing; transport and infrastructure projects and parks. In the second year, the VDRP opened to Local Government and to major private sector developments. We reviewed many strategic masterplans, urban design and development frameworks for areas undergoing major change. In the third year, a fee-for-service regime was introduced. While seeking to retain a balance of public and private projects, charging for design review skewed the types of project reviewed toward private sector projects. Since our return to the Department of Premier and Cabinet in May 2015, we have defined clear and ongoing roles for design review with state departments and local authorities across Victoria.
An evaluation report of the pilot phase of the VDRP process was completed by SGS Economics and Planning in 2013. The evaluation included an analysis of the program and undertook interviews with key stakeholders and participants in the design review process – giving us crucial information about the effectiveness of the VDRP process and important feedback to support the continuous improvement of the design review process.
So looking back on the 200 reviews undertaken, what is it about the process that works well?
THE PANEL HAS A HIGH LEVEL OF EXPERTISE FROM INDUSTRY AND GOVERNMENT
It is essential that panel members be highly regarded in industry to build confidence in the review process. As it is peer review, those presenting appreciate receiving support and being challenged by key people in industry, who have both delivered and influenced real projects on the ground. The ability of the panel to draw from this experience and from specific case studies (both across Australia and internationally) also assists project teams in transferring lessons from elsewhere.
MANY HEADS ARE BETTER THAN ONE
A panel brings a diversity of views that collectively adds more than an individual could bring to a project. We have found that a panel of five is the ‘sweet spot’ for complex projects. Panel members bring different perspectives, backgrounds, and ways of expressing issues, which can unlock new opportunities for a project and broker an improved outcome.
BRINGING FRESH EYES ON A PROJECT
When project teams are in the thick of resolving complex project issues, sometimes important design strategies are lost along the way. A conversation with peers can resurrect them as a priority – we often hear the comment ‘that was an important idea at the outset, where did it go?’ This sends a clear message to the client about the value of good design.
THE PANEL OFFERS A MULTI-DISCIPLINARY VIEW
Ideally, every design review panel consists of experts from across the built environment and design professions including architects, landscape architects, planners and urban designers, so they give an integrated, cross-disciplinary view. Often the panel sees projects where a key area of expertise is missing in the early stages of a project, and through the identification of key issues, can highlight the reason to supplement a project team.
A POSITIVE AND CONSTRUCTIVE CULTURE WITHIN THE REVIEW PROCESS
It is essential that the panel offers review of a project in a positive, constructive and respectful way. The panel is there to help designers and clients realise the full potential of projects, not undermine their position within the project. If the design quality of a project is an unconvincing conceptual response, the panel does need to call it as it is – name the ‘elephant in the room’ in an effort to reframe the project ambition.
A STRUCTURED REVIEW PROCESS
Projects require many meetings with many stakeholders over many months. Design review aims to capture and influence a project at a ‘snapshot-in-time’. It is not a ‘chat’, but a formal presentation of a project with a direct response. Project teams should leave with an understanding of the strengths to keep hold of, and issues that need further resolution. The review session should be brief and to the point to make the best use of people’s time.
SEE PROJECTS EARLY AND AT LEAST TWICE
The VDRP brings most value when projects come to review in the early stages of concept design – when contextual analysis is generating preliminary ideas or options – and then progressively at key stages.
UNDERSTANDING OF THE BACKGROUND AND BRIEF FOR A PROJECT INFORMS REVIEW
Each design review should be informed by a full understanding of the ambition and functional brief for a project, the site and budget constraints, the planning framework as well as the political issues that surround a project. All briefing documents for design reviews are informed by a site visit. The views of key decision-makers are also important to capture. The process supporting the VDRP is led and run by a small team of design professionals who are the primary interface with project teams and prepare them, and the panel, for design review.
ENABLE THE PROJECT TEAM TO EXPLAIN THEIR PROJECT AND DESIGN RATIONALE
Even though the panel has been briefed thoroughly, it is important for the project team to play an active role in the design review session. The structure of the review should enable the client to state their ambition for the project and design teams to describe the project verbally and graphically in a formal presentation. We believe that any project, no matter how complex, should be presented in 20-30 minutes.
FINISHED DRAWINGS ARE NOT NECESSARY
Design review occurs at a snapshot in time, and works best when ideas are forming and fluid, and advice can assist in unlocking further opportunities. We say that a project team need only invest a day in preparation for review, as they will be presenting work they would be preparing for their clients, as they progress toward key project design milestones. We encourage project teams to come to design review at 50-70% of a design stage.
AN ACCOUNTABLE PROCESS
From a public agency perspective, we are keen that the VDRP process raises the design conversation, expedites processes and provides clarity and certainty to all parties toward faster decision-making. All design reviews are captured as written advice from the OVGA, drawing from the panel discussion to clearly define strategic issues to resolve and strengths. The OVGA advice following design review is to support the public agencies to demand high quality design outcomes. Key decisionmakers attend review and contribute their views concisely and openly in the session, which also helps give clarity to project teams. The advice from design review is then utilised by public agencies to champion good design outcomes on behalf of the public of Victoria.
As we embark on the next phase of the VDRP’s evolution, the OVGA looks forward to working with a refreshed panel of highly skilled and passionate built environment professionals to support our role in providing independent and constructive advice to government – to deliver highly functional, integrated and great places for all Victorians.