The term ‘value engineering’ repeatedly appears in my inbox, “the project is undergoing ‘value engineering’”. The term sounds enticing. As if it could positively transform a social project (with which my work concerns) with wondrous pragmatic results. It is a technique that is used in many environments within industry, healthcare and government services. However I question whether this WWII production tool that has since gone global is an appropriate way of determining the value and quality in the design of public space today.
‘Value engineering’ or ‘value analysis’ is a technique that was created and implemented in 1947 by Lawrence D. Miles working for General Electric Company in the USA during World War II. As a result of the war there were shortages of materials and particular finishes to products. High demands within the manufacturing industry meant that new ideas were required to increase production. Miles was responsible for purchasing raw materials and came up with the idea that if he was unable to attain a particular material, then it would necessary to find a replacement material which performed the same function.
Value, here is defined as the ratio of function to cost. Value can therefore be increased by either improving the function or reducing the cost. A fundamental principle of value engineering is that basic functions are preserved, not reduced as a consequence of pursuing ‘value improvements’. Value engineering was also built upon the idea of marketers expecting a product to have a relatively short lifecycle. Products therefore are designed only to last that length of time. This encourages the replacement of high-grade materials or components to reduce unnecessary costs on the manufacturer, and the overall client. The technique has grown to be used worldwide and largely in the construction industry.
This form of engineering is unarguably an advantageous tool in many different production lines. In the cases I am experiencing, primarily city streets and large housing scheme it can also be extremely effective. Developers can control their spending whilst ensuring they obtain the largest possible profit from their project (for example, in sourcing the concrete for the foundations, to the suppliers of their fitted kitchens) and the buyer hopefully gets a better price for their prospective new house. The finish of the apartments will of course also be determined by the client wishes regarding ‘value engineering’ to ensure the project attracts a suitable market of buyers.
On the other hand, private investors prerogative for profit means that the public space between and around such a development becomes a victim of value engineering; choosing the short term solution to satisfy the investor's profit margins. Should they be deciding what percentage of the project funds are spent on public space? Should there be more people involved (putting the cost consultants aside) in making decisions that effect their community? Instead of satisfying the minimum requirements, should there be a percentage of these project budgets dedicated to art, for example, as was frequently implemented in the modernisation and rebuilding of cities in 1960s Germany. I would argue that building projects with public space have a lot more to prove concerning their commitment to the city they are built in. They should be supporting the city's ambitions, respecting its inhabitants daily lives and modern needs, and most importantly ensuring their public value.