Image by Adam Jang

While social value is central to what many in the building industry are trying to achieve, measuring it can be difficult to the point of becoming overlooked. Now, efforts are being made to make social value more tangible and bring focus back to this crucial goal

DESIGN: Women’s Property Initiatives (WPI) in Melbourne deliver inspiring work, providing housing for approximately 200 women and children. 

They use a financial model that allows each tenant to pay no more than 30 per cent of their income in rent. By capping the rent in this way tenants can manage their income beyond survival to include broader opportunities such as study. 

Although the WPI team could see their approach was working they did not have tangible metrics to prove their case. So, in 2014, WPI commissioned a Social Return on Investment (SROI) evaluation to quantify the impact of their work using the framework set out by Social Value UK. 

The results were startling; data revealed that the social situation in most households had improved and that there was less reliance on other forms of Government support (justice, public housing and health). 

However, most of the social value was found in an improvement to emotional wellbeing. Women reported feeling safer and more independent. Children’s lives were improved through increased stability and more positive home lives. In financial terms, the evaluation found that for every dollar invested, $11.07 of social value was created.

Creating a framework to measure impact has continued to gain traction, particularly in the social services. By taking a broader view we can see how programmes can have multiple impacts on education, health and employment in a way that has not previously been visible.  

This creates strong arguments for funding allocation and extends our view into long term returns. Given the immense financial impact of built environment and capital works projects it is surprising that this method of assessment has not been adopted. 

Architects are well trained to consider the economic and environmental impacts of their designs. Project feasibility and business case studies set the economic parameters for a project and most architects incorporate green building standards in their work. The measurement of social impact rarely forms part of the metric to determine project success that we believe it should. 

Over the past year we have been developing methods to communicate the benefit that good design has had on the individuals and communities with whom we’ve been working. It’s tricky work – the links between social outcomes, financial spend and the built environment are not immediately obvious. We’ve pressed on and now see an opportunity to expand what is meant by the term “value for money” to include “benefit to society” or “social value”. 

Quantifying the social value of design

Let’s unpack what this means. Social Value International (SVI) defines social value as the quantification of the importance that people place on the changes they experience in their lives. It can be given a financial value and is measured through a process of consultation, analysis and evaluation. 

SVI have developed a Social Return on Investment (SROI) methodology that can be used to measure the social, economic and environmental outcomes of a project, whilst recognising that value will be very different to different people in different situations and cultures. 

In 2012, the Social Value Act was introduced in the UK (by a Conservative Government no less!), requiring a consideration of social benefit to form part of the procurement process for public projects. Now, almost a decade later, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) is developing a toolkit for the effective evidencing and measurement of the social value outcomes of good design. 

Here in Australia, the absence of legislation has meant that the measurement of social value has been easy to gloss over. Government investment tends to be tied to electoral cycles, with short-term outcomes prioritised over long-term impact. 

To determine Design Value, it is necessary to translate the intangible aspects of a design outcome – for instance, the way a building or place makes you feel – into an established financial value. Social research consultants can help here, working with architects to design questionnaires that enable us to quantify the value of design outcomes in a way that is both accurate and verifiable. 

It’s going to take more than a generation for our economy to recover from the effects of COVID-19. The Government’s current tactic represents a missed opportunity to reframe public spending for the better. What we need is an approach that places impact on people at the forefront of public spending. 

The pandemic crisis has highlighted the latent inequity in our economy. The sudden shift of workers from casual to essential has shone a light on our dependence on people whose work is typically undervalued.

The crisis has also highlighted the plight of people and families living pay cheque to pay cheque, the difficulty in accessing social security and inadequate access to affordable housing. These are the issues that need to be addressed as we work towards rebuilding our economy.

It is imperative to broaden the way we measure the success of a project within the built environment. Social Value must be given equal weight to financial and environmental impact if we are to ever address the underlying inequities within society. By including this in our metrics, we can have one eye on community and one on the individual, ensuring that money spent now will serve us well in the future.

This is where the real value of design lies.

Emma Williamson is a Partner at The Fulcrum Agency and Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at Monash University. Nick Juniper is Perth Principal at The Fulcrum Agency

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  1. Would have loved to have seen this method applied to the proposal for all new homes to have universal design/accessible features made mandatory instead of the current voluntary regime (Livable Housing Design Guidelines). The flawed cost benefit analysis using brick per dollar by ABCB failed to include all the social benefits accruing to 30% of all current Australian households. Yes, 30% of all households have a person with disability. As the population ages it will increase. And no, not all older people want a retirement village even if they could afford it.
    Fortunately VIC, TAS, QLD, NT, ACT have seen the light for the features to be mandated in the NCC in Sept 2022. WA is thinking about it and wants more time. But NSW is bucking the trend saying they have enough accessible housing and will definitely NOT be adopting the standard into the NSW Code according to letters from Minister Anderson. They think ageing and disability is a fringe issue. It’s a family issue – a social issue. Great to see this article. Thank you.