Design decisions in the building industry, and arguments for backing social housing, often focus on the wrong criteria for success. According to damning new research, this is often why projects fail. 

Researchers at the University of New South Wales Faculty of the Built Environment looked at how 187 senior managers in the sector made their decisions on the design of projects. 

They wanted to find out what sources of evidence are used and trusted in the built environment industry in Australia. How is evidence-based practice understood and practiced, and what drives the adoption of EBP in the industry?

How many of them use EBP – given the notorious discrepancies that often occur between the expected performance of buildings based on what designers think and what actually happens once the buildings are completed?

What they found is a strong need for managers to rethink the way they go about making decisions, especially when there is a culturally-ingrained habit of confirmation bias – which is the case all too frequently.

The 187 practitioners surveyed had been in the industry and average of 18 years, and 18 of them were interviewed.

The most popular form of evidence used was feedback from previous projects: which implies that the practitioners tended not to look outside of their comfort zone.

Many practitioners admitted that their research process was not scientifically rigorous and that they didn’t gather sufficient data.

On the whole, they did quite often look at research data provided by industry bodies, but not by academics – mainly because they found it “incomprehensible” or “out of date” by the time it reached publication.

These views are aligned with a dangerous general cultural growing distrust in academia and scientific research. This is confirmed by the discovery of “major shortcomings and disparities between the professionals’ practice of EBP and the definition in academic literature”.

One architect admitted that “I think the nature of the industry is that it’s not inclined, psychologically, to be quite rigorous in gathering data and analysing”.

Several participants highlighted that decision-makers “cherry pick” evidence to support their opinions, or to legitimise a previously made decision.

“This is the way it’s been done in the past, and no one’s been sued, therefore we’ll stick to this.”

Another said that in the industry the general philosophy is “this is the way it’s been done in the past, and no one’s been sued, therefore we’ll stick to this”.

The primary concerns and factors identified were “a risk averse environment; covering my back; lacking time; and constrained sharing of information”.

Does this sound familiar?

The researchers were encouraged that the industry has taken on board the importance of feedback, but unfortunately it’s not used systematically.

The researchers call for a shift in culture in the industry to bring it up to date. 

“Searching for the best available evidence is an important compass for navigating towards accurate decision-making and away from cognitive biases, fads and outdated beliefs,” they caution.

Decision-making and social housing projects

Oddly enough, a related conceptual discrepancy happens when deciding to invest in social housing.

Decades of underinvestment in social housing within Australia’s housing supply has meant that it is now a provider for only those with the greatest needs, and who have limited employment prospects.

By merely considering, as it does, factors such as well located housing for key and low-paid city workers, this distracts from solving the gross housing deficits seen in the sector.

In Australia, business cases and cost-benefit analysis are conventional features of infrastructure decision-making processes. However, in practice, research by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute shows that funding commitments are regularly made prior to the completion of business cases and CBA. 

This raises the questions: how could they have value as a meaningful part of infrastructure development decisions? And should social housing even be regarded mainly as infrastructure for the purposes of investment?

Social housing is about welfare, not infrastructure

AHURI conclude that the criteria chosen for making decisions are not appropriate for social housing. Social housing is about welfare, whereas they say the criteria chosen are more appropriate for proposals that generate employment outcomes, such as key-worker housing.

So what should we be looking at? Some criteria suggested in the report make reference to the value created by the social housing of avoided costs; the value of the public welfare provided; and consideration of “the proposition that the whole of society values providing for those in need”.

And how about considering factors such as wellbeing, security of tenure, and inclusion too?

It’s even possible that by considering social housing merely as infrastructure risks diverting funding to other areas of intervention rather than increasing funding for providing housing for those in need, the researchers say.

The authors make a plea for project appraisal methodologies to reflect the intent of the project: if its purpose is to increase funding for housing those most in need, then it is likely that considering it merely as infrastructure is missing the point. 

Instead they need to take into account the full range of outcomes that social housing delivers and face up to the fact that not all of these outcomes will be easily quantifiable or monetisable.

The authors point out that a transparent “avoided costs” fiscal method using “health-adjusted life years” (HALY) is already being developed within state agencies and has been well received by Treasuries.

It’s no wonder that in Australia both social housing and the building industry are lagging behind the times.

David Thorpe is the author of the books The ‘One Planet’ Life and the new ‘One Planet’ Cities.

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  1. I wonder if AHURI is aware of the upcoming RIA for “Accessible” Housing (ergo universal design in housing). The ABCB want to look at things from an economic point of view too. These two endeavours have a lot in common. Both should have the aim of social good. And the term “Accessible Housing” was coined by ABCB which has unfortunately taken a disability view as if universal design is just about people with disability. Good to see The Fifth Estate taking an interest in this topic.