Architect as Developer - Designing places with economic, environmental and social value

Architect as Developer

Designing places with economic, environmental and social value



Pawel Uczciwek




The subject of this essay is Architect as Developer, which touches the topic of how throughout years Architects try to transform our cities, urban spaces and lives for the better. Help to create new employment and revitalise abandoned areas which improve on our health. Architects propose masterplans for our cities and district by understanding people and their response to spaces.  However such approach is not always possible, as other professions, with higher power, stop architects to have an impact on the city, their people and economy.  Developers tend to not use architects to design the urban areas or dismiss them at early stages of work, which results of losing the full potential of the design brilliance. “There is a danger that, in the rush to cut costs, we lose more than money from our building projects. To avoid diminishing the quality of life that good design brings, it is necessary to identify the value created by thoughtful and responsive architecture.”[1]


In most cases even the most talented architects do not tend to touch a routine commission, they wait until they are instructed to execute a particular project. As Architect and Developer John Portman has stated: “...many urban and environmental problems will not be solved until an integrated design-development process-seeking lasting value, not quick profits-becomes the normal means of designing and building cities.” By becoming both, an Architect and Developer the professional will be able to create good value by achieving urban design excellence and economy viability. This gives us a question of: what is a good urban design? And how an Architect as Developer can create it so that it can generate economic and social value.


Urban value mythology

Firstly good design applies in different scales ranging from single building to small or large development of an area of a city.  Good quality of individual buildings is necessary to bring value to urban places, but is not as essential as the spaces between buildings however, the whole area is of a vital importance in building a place with quality. Design should create something beautiful and aesthetically pleasing to the client and the public. With this in mind the design should also be useful, usable, and enjoyable and respond well to the needs of society and the client. “It is no longer enough to consider the costs and value of construction independent of the way client look at buildings. Ultimately the clients are interested not just in the productivity of the building process but in the occupancy cost in relation to their own economics objectives. Clients are now becoming interested in a new and most important concept measuring the productivity of building use through time”[2] However a lot of Architects/Designers have the temptation to start with an image of how the building will look and then manoeuvre the design towards its function and use, which drives the design to be mediocrity at best.  The visual form of a building and landscape should be unknown until clear approach towards the design has been established. The “latest look” or fashion style shouldn’t be a measure of future success of a successful urban design. On the other hand attractive buildings and spaces have a good impact into drawing society into the designed spaces. For example a well designed public leisure outdoor spaces can attract tourists.  Besides improving the quality of life in the city, those design aspects will improve the economy of a city which then leads to improving the economy of the country.  By using the principles of what is a good quality design that gives economical value we can create a short theoretical analysis that will help us to recognise urban design excellence and economy viability. The Methodology will help to assess the value that can be delivered by a building project. There are different types of values that we can look for in a project and they are:

·         Cultural value

·         Environmental value

·         Social value

·         Image value

·         Use value

·         Exchange value

Cultural value in the building environment is a contribution to the culture of the city and country. Buildings and urban spaces designed with cultural value in mind help to recognize time and place in history, connects the city past present and future which gives a sense of national identity. As we build, we create a legacy for the future generations. It is one of our contributions to the culture and shows the sort of society we want to create.[3]

Environmental value in the building environment is focused on how well urban design impact’s on the environment. Construction process and building usage affect climate change by producing waste and using resources such as: gas, oil, electricity and light. Done well, urban development can help us live within the limits of environmental resources and slow down demand for energy and materials through efficiency measures and recycling.[4] These aspects can also have effect on better life quality by constructing a well considered urban design with an ecological footprint. All these elements have capital cost implications but the benefit they provide can be easily compared to the costs.[5]However if the design values are ignored in the project, it can lead to an increase in pollution and broaden social and economic inequalities.

Social value in the building environment is focused and impacts on the people who will use the building and urban space. The social value should improve on the safety of the place and help people to interact with each other by creating a sense of community and civic pride. These design assets will create trust, mutual understanding, co-operation and common interest between the users of the place.

Image value in the building environment can impact on the economy of the whole city or even country. Buildings or urban spaces can become an architectural symbol to a city that has the potential to be recognised around the world. Places such as: Sydney Opera House, Pyramids, London Eye and Oriental Pearl Tower are few examples of such architecture. These places bring tourism to the city, which has an impact on the local economy. Besides its symbolic shapes, image value can be used in materials, details, colour, form etc. Material, for example, used on a building could promote strong identities of a particular business and colour could help to indentify a specific brand. Creating a building or public space that has a wow factor. This has many benefits, from getting press coverage to demonstrating a civic pride.

Use value in the building environment is measured in costs over the life of the building. Initially the use value can be determined by finding how well the design serves its purpose. Such as: good comfort, high-quality air, reduced noise and good privacy, increase use value of urban design.  In commercial buildings use value will impact on productivity, profitability, competitiveness and also with recruiting and keeping staff.

Exchange value in building environment can be measured by the price that the market is willing to pay for the building. Architecture is the only art that is wholly related to economics. The architect can virtually build nothing – and so cannot express his creative art – without incurring define ‘costs’, which have an economic value[6] Owners, users and investors in urban design have interest in exchange value so they can determine their investment and calculate the return/profit. Developers tend to look for a design that will cost low and maximise financial returns. However in most cases developers drive down the cost to a level that makes it almost impossible to deliver good quality design. This is due to the fact that costs are more easily measured than future value. However “According to international architect Norman Foster when considering the average costs of a building over a 25 year period, the physical envelope of the building compromises only 5.5% of the total cost. His experience highlights that a small investment in design quality makes a significant impact on this much larger percentage.”[7]In this case when looking at exchange value we need to look at each asset of the urban design in the project, and determine if it will bring economic value. Authors of a report from Property Council of Australia concluded that: “...while good design does not guarantee a financially successful project, it greatly increases a project’s change of becoming a financial winner.”[8] By looking for those varieties of values in designs we can find evidence of good urban design in various projects.

Architect Masterplan proposal vs. existing development

Creating good urban design to achieve economic value begins with a good design brief and scheme that can create a successful masterplan. Similarly to most successful projects in any professional field, it begins with a masterplan that was used throughout the design process. Lord Richard Rogers and his Partnership are well known for creating masterplans for various cities. In 1998 Rogers became a chairman of the Urban Task Force which focuses on cities design excellence, social well-being, environmental responsibility and environmental responsibility with a feasible economic and legislative structure.

Before that in 1990 Rogers had been commissioned to put forward a masterplan for Shanghai’s new four square kilometre district for future economic growth. Rogers had proposed a mixed use, commercial and residential development, enhanced by a network of parks, public spaces and public transport. Mixed use urban developments reduce crime and vandalism on the street which helps to attract more people to the areas. The mix of commercial and residential buildings decreases car usage which in return has a good impact on health and reduces emission produced by public transport and cars. In addition the time of travelling to work is reduced, giving more personal time. Furthermore, mixed use can provides nearby leisure and retail communities which will increase workforce productivity. These aspects of good urban mixed use development will attract other inventors and create jobs that will help regenerate the area and neighbourhoods of the area. Overall a mixed use development, that is well designed, is a successful inward investment with social and economic values.

The good accessible and close by public transport reduces journey requirements and produces sustainable district. When buildings contribute to the public realm, they encourage people to meet and converse… They humanise the city.[9] Furthermore, in the plan the diagram of public transport, public space and cultural activities have formed the framework of the development. Using the framework, Roger proposed six mixed large communities that will house 80,000 people. Each neighbourhood was focused around transport interchange that was connected to the main domain network. All the public zones were adjacent to each other; each zone was nearby a river and the central park. As Rogers has stated in the Urban Task Force book: “Well designed and maintained public spaces should be at the heart of any community. They are the foundation for public interaction and social integration, and provide the sense of place essential to engender civic pride.”[10] Additionally around the busy metropolitan underground station Roger had placed offices, commercial premises, cultural institutions and shops. Whereas residential premises were placed near the central park or the river, with schools and hospitals close by. Also other community based buildings were within walking distance from residential buildings. These local communities and neighbourhoods would only consume half the energy of what a typical development of similar size consumes. The underground sunken main streets and highway gave space to expand the network of pedestrian biased street, cycle paths, avenues and market places. Also an uninterrupted sustainable park was able to be created.  The green spaces and trees are good for interceptors of solar reflection and radiation from buildings and streets. As we know greenery can also improve air quality by reducing C02 emissions and trees provide carbon storage capacity that can reduce flood problems. All these design assets have added great social value to the proposal.

To maximise the daylight and sunlight that will penetrate to the streets, central park and buildings general guidelines were proposed. The guidelines were computer generated and applied to the scheme as rules of buildings varying height and spaces between them. By doing this, the proposal had ensured of reduction of the need for energy for artificial light. Rogers targeted 50 per cent reduction of energy use which meant that a new power station was not required, which could have been bad for the environment.[11] By applying the height restrictions given by the proposal design scheme buildings will have views towards the city, park and river. Design with aesthetic appeal that is also concerned about its surroundings gives natural light, exterior views, fresh air, near greenery spaces and water, which are all important assets in development. These assets bring property and land values by having positive effect on health and well-being of staff and residents, increase recovery rates in hospitals which lead to people satisfaction. In addition these values improve marketability of property and staff recruitment.



The masterplan proposal for Shanghai district has delivered a good quality design with high possibility to achieve a good economic value. Rogers’s scheme had delivered all various types of design values with focus on community’s everyday needs, including public transport within walking distance, away from the traffic that was mostly sunken underground. Green spaces along with river views and access have produced excellent social value. The social value will increase residential property values and rental income for offices which eventually will increase economic value. Rogers has proven that cities and its districts are like engines of economic growth.


The proposal was rejected by the Chinese government which lead the district being sold to multiple developers. Each developer had built an individual building without any major response to the proposed masterplan, which created a district with a lack of social, environmental and use values. This has headed the Shanghai business district to congestion, pollution and social dissatisfaction which is known as “the classic market”-a driven form of unsustainable development. An example of market-driven development is Canary Wharf in London, which was bankrupted in May 1992. Lord Roger portrays Canary Wharf as:

“...unsustainable development without real civic quality or lasting communal benefit. [it was] an extremely expensive fiasco for the taxpayer, who subsidized big business but had no say in how they money was spent...Instead of gaining a vibrant and humane new borough that would have take its place within the larger framework of the metropolis and enriched the poorer communities in its vicinity, Londoner acquired a chaos of commercial buildings and...footed the bill for one of the most spectacular bankruptcies of the 1990s.” [12]

Despite not building Rogers masterplan proposal in Shanghai, the knowledge he provided to the scheme had value to the actual planning. The proposal was adopted in a more pragmatic and practical way to the local situation by Shanghainese planners. Perhaps this could have been the reason why Shanghai district never bankrupted. Regardless of the business district not being as successful as it could have been due to the direction that was taken, developers along with architects of each building provided some values to the urban district. Buildings such as Jin Mao Tower is an object of Chinese pride due to respect for traditional values in the modern design of the skyscraper. The Tower has brought Image and cultural value to the district.

 However, as referenced previously in this essay, we must understand that the space between buildings is more vital than the building itself. The whole masterplan has to be designed beforehand to create a good urban design with environmental, social and economic values. The new Shanghai business centre development district that was approved by the government primarily  concentrates on economic values with  little regard for social and environmental value.

As a result we could argue that if architects also had the power or skills of a developer, the individual could have a bigger impact on brining the values (which were mentioned earlier) to the district. In addition, this may lead to the architect having some type of control over the land on the district that could lead to them having more authority over their building ideas. In return, the Architect as Developer could create a guidance to other developers, for instances they can advise them on what, where, how tall, how wide they can build etc. This could fulfil the necessary value to make the urban masterplan project in Shanghai suggested by Rogers successful. Rogers stated that: “Shanghai is a modern city, and they are shaped by the same kind of pressure all over the world. It seems that the global forces involved in the local development of Shanghai tended to underestimate the genius loci and the complex network of relationships between global and local.” (Richard Rogers – Olds 2001, p208).  In the end the district was promoted using the original ideas proposed by the architect Lord Rogers. In a sense it can be argued that they ‘branded’ the area by using the architect’s proposal images, diagrams and pictures of the scale model in brochures and on websites.  As a result this had attracted great amounts of global capital into the Shanghai district.

The Architect as Developer delivering value

John Portman’s first major development that included more than one building but rather a neighbourhood of buildings was the Peachtree Centre in Atlanta. Portman designed and built a mixed use development with focus on commercial complex. As summarised  earlier, mixed use developments have an advantage over single use developments. It also brings social, environmental and economical values to the urban design. The urban master plan has covered 14 blocks of Atlanta’s central business district. The development helped to protect the Atlanta downtown area from ‘crumbling’ and becoming an abounded urban space. The Peachtree Centre not only stabilized the downtown area but it became a centrepiece of trade and convention industry which enhanced the city’s economy. Portman’s development expanded the job base which led to the city’s transformation from a simple southern town, to a prosperous international community. The value that Portman has brought with his design didn’t just have an impact on the district but on the whole city. By designing hotels and convention facilities as the major project for the scheme, the Peachtree Centre became a top convention destination in the USA and was seen as the new urban business centre. Just like Lord Roger’s scheme for the Shanghai district, Portman’s main approach to the design of the Peachtree Centre was to enhance human lifestyle by making buildings more environmentally friendly. “The important issue today is the design of the environment. Architect must redirect their energies towards an environment architecture, born of human needs and responding to vital physical, social, and economic circumstances.” [13]

Additionally human response to the space, nature, and the light implement a new life style focused on human/social values. People’s enjoyment became the core value in the scheme. To achieve this Portman designed a complex pedestrian orientated urban landscape, public realm along with street level retail activity. The retail activity was expanded to multiple levels that are linked by pedestrian bridge between the blocks. This is how value is created, by providing usable space over time with associated services. It is these three things: space, time, and services – in association that are needed so consumers can enjoy the intended benefits of the build space.[14]

Nonetheless, the whole complex was not built at once, each building was raised in its own time. However most of the buildings were thought through before the foundation of first building was poured. As a result the Peachtree Centre now consists of seven office buildings, huge Merchandise Mart with nearby Apparel Mart, a multilevel Shopping centre with a dinner theatre placed at the top, and parking garages at the basement level is also part of the Centre. In addition there is a Hyatt Regency Atlanta hotel with spectacular Atrium and rooftop planet like shaped restaurant – The Hyatt Hotel was first successful project by Portman. All of the buildings are linked together in one way or another, from Sky bridges via pedestrian pathways to underground public passes. To connect all the buildings in a smart manner, Portman used a syntax space technique. Syntax space design technique is a multi-level off-grade pedestrian movement distribution. Such a design has a powerful effect on the distribution of movement in high active space and improves the flow of people from one building to another and also removes public congestion at the street level of downtown using such technique for public movement brought great social value to the development of the whole area by making the journey from one space to another a pleasant and enjoyable experience. The experience itself has created a city with in a city. In the development scheme Portman is also trying to improve Atlanta city life, by providing jobs, brining more middle class people to the centre and improving existing traffic network by designing urban commercial complex with liveable environment and the centre of intersection of major high ways and a main underground station. Such a scheme has a great impact on the city’s economics and image.  

Although the whole scheme and its urban design of the Peachtree Centre brought a lot of different values to the city and the development itself, each building has its own aspects of good design. The Hyatt Hotel design scheme for instance concentrated on creating an exceptional vertical journey through the building indoor space. The indoor space, known as Atrium, attracted worldwide attention among tourists, designers and architects. The indoor Atrium is well enjoyed by users and it became a flagship for Hyatt Hotels as it was a successful design. Social value in the Hyatt Hotel project was not the only asset that this design brought. In addition well coordinated units and its position within the building had a great impact on successful revenue of the hotel. The offices of the centre were positioned around public courtyard that served as small shops, cafes and a place to eat, socialise and relax.  The two shopping centres that stretch through the complex under some of the office buildings and hotels are a great addition to social value and image value. The shopping centres along with the indoor lobbies of the buildings have a mix of public use, such as: restaurant, meeting rooms, shops and elevated relaxing areas where you can watch people using the space. The whole complex proved to be a great success. What is special about Peachtree Centre is the grandeur of the architectural spaces, the close coordination of all the elements, and the way in which the centre helps to pull downtown Atlanta together.[15]

John Portman designed a very successful centre by delivering all the important urban design values. The big vision and the scheme created by Portman was realised without resistance, without strain and without reserve, fulfilling the needs of the city of Atlanta. Portman has realised his vision by becoming a hybrid of Architect and Developer. By doing so, he merged two professionals into one person and the traditional disagreement between the client and architect had disappeared. The conflict and misunderstanding between two people is where development does not achieve its top values. The design process for Architects as Developer is to resolve how visionary ideas could be turn into practical and feasible ideas. Also the broad knowledge can be useful for an architect to provide the client with a good design and economic values. For example, to understand what drives the real estate development, Portman and his staff had learnt about economics and took the development into their own hands. That clarifies his incredible power of being able to theoretically turn every idea into reality that can be profitable and bring design value to each project. As a result one can argue that if Rogers had the same amount of power as Portman had, he could have greater influence on the Shanghai scheme and achieve his masterplan vision, ultimately creating an urban design excellence along with economical value. Portman’s identity as an Architect and Developer has maximized the two professions without constraining his creativity. After years of working as a developer and an architect Portman stresses that such a career path should focus on delivering high quality urban design that people want to work, live, invest and rest. He states that: “...Approaching urban design from a complementary direction, using the techniques of real estate development to produce greater amenity for the public, out of conviction, not to comply with regulations.”[16] After the successful development of the Peachtree Centre, Portman went to develop other buildings in the Atlanta downtown area. Some say that he ‘single-handedly’ shaped the downtown area of the city. His instructive lesson about the evolution of the architecture profession shows that becoming both an architect and developer could lead to more successful designs that develop valuable urban spaces to our cities. Portman sees the financing of a building as a means towards a designed environment of value both to the public and to the investor.[17]  Portman’s work is therefore not just to be admired, but to understand how he does it. He has proven that Architects are able to design and build their own work without any restrictions from developers, as he is a developer himself.  

Architect as Developer, small developments


Additionally on a smaller scale, where there is a single user for the development, such as single family house, assets that will bring value to the owner are very important. However those values may appear different to the values in urban development, they are exactly the same but with a focus on one client/user. Jonathan Segal who is a another example of Architect as Developer but in a smaller scale than Portman, designs and builds his architecture.  Segal develops and designs residential architecture in downtown San Diego. Segal begins his designs with finding a site/lot that will deliver value to the client and profit to his company. He buys lots/sites from owners or other developers who believe their ground has no valuable.  The lots, described by Jonathan, in most cases are triangular. He explains that due to the fact he is an Architect and Developer, he has a potential to examine the lot from different perspectives than a simple Developer, which gives him an advantage. As most of his designs are apartments, he focuses to bringing value to the client. These values are brought by creating assets such as: high quality finish, low maintenance cost, low carbon fibre footprint and visually appeal. In the case of “The Union” development, which is a complex of eight apartments on one lot, Jonathan has created green outdoor space between the apartments and entrances off streets. In the scheme there are no public hallways, elevators or parking garages which improve social value and, as Jonathan has stated these spaces are: “uncomfortable spaces”. Furthermore the prices of Segals’ apartments, in comparison to apartments of the same square meter and location are much cheaper and costs of maintenance are lower. This asset could bring more people to San Diego which could increase the economy of the city.

Designing places with economic, environmental and social value.

In conclusion, value in urban design is a major importance to create a successful scheme. Urban neighbourhoods, district, single standing buildings and houses should be vital in delivering safe and beautiful places to live, work and relax. Such an approach is not just a matter of aesthetics and function, but of economics. Such places contribute to people’s well-being and productivity. Good design is a costly investment that gives economic, environmental and social value for money. As the upfront cost might appear high, it needs to be understood that quality design costs less than bad design in the long terms. Architects as Developers understand both professions and know how to achieve and recognise both needs by thinking of architecture economically and real estate architecturally. It comes into view that combination of the two is the only profession in building environment that could simultaneously achieve both: economy feasibility and design excellence and satisfy everybody involved.





















John Portman, The Architect as Developer, (McGraw-Hill Inc.,US, January 1977)

Mike E. Miles, Gayle Berens, Marc Allan Weiss, Real estate development, principles and process, (Urban Land Institute 2000)

Richard Rogers, Rogers,(2007),

Richard Rogers, Cities for Small Planet, (Basic Books 2008)

Urban Task Force, Towards A Strong Urban Renaissance - Final Report,

Sir Stuart Lipton, The Value of Good Design,

Frank Duffy, Design and Economics of Buildings (Taylor & Francis 27 July 1995)

Eric Loe, Jefferies Matthews, The Value of Architecture,

Sebastian Macmillan, The Value Handbook (Commission for Architecture and the Building Environment 2006)




[1] Ruth Reed, RIBA President

[2] Frank Duffy, Design and Economics of Buildings (Taylor & Francis 27 July 1995) p.5

[3] Sebastian Macmillan, The Value Handbook (Commission for Architecture and the Building Environment 2006) p.33

[4] Urban Task Force, Towards A Strong Urban Renaissance - Final Report,, p.4

[5] Sebastian Macmillan, The Value Handbook (Commission for Architecture and the Building Environment 2006) p.29


[6] Eric Loe, Jefferies Matthews, The Value of Architecture,, p.5

[7] Sir Stuart Lipton, The Value of Good Design,, p.7

[8] Property Council of Australia

[9] Richard Rogers, Cities for Small Planet, (Basic Books 2008) p. 42

[10] Urban Task Force, Towards A Strong Urban Renaissance - Final Report,, p.5


[11] Richard Rogers, Cities for Small Planet, (Basic Books 2008) p. 43

[12] Richard Rogers, Rogers,(2007), p.109)

[13] John Portman, The Architect as Developer, (McGraw-Hill Inc.,US, January 1977), p.6

[14]  Mike E. Miles, Gayle Berens, Marc Allan Weiss, Real estate development, principles and process, (Urban Land Institute 2000), p.4

[15] John Portman, The Architect as Developer, (McGraw-Hill Inc.,US, January 1977), p.12

[16] John Portman, The Architect as Developer, (McGraw-Hill Inc.,US, January 1977), p.11

[17] John Portman, The Architect as Developer, (McGraw-Hill Inc.,US, January 1977), p.11