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The New Balance: An interview with Sadie Morgan OBE on the Quality of Life Foundation

The Quality of Life Foundation was established to make wellbeing central to the way we create and care for our homes and communities. As part of our Design Update #4 Wellness Issue we spoke to founder Sadie Morgan, also the Founding Director of Stirling Prize winning architecture practice dRMM, about how they aim to improve quality of life through built environments.



You established the Foundation with the aim of improving quality of life by focusing on built environments. Can you talk a bit about the Foundation’s aims, and what led you to set it up?


I'm passionate about improving quality of life, and I also believe that great design can transform lives. It’s about asking, when we talk about our homes in particular, what exactly is it that can improve quality of life? We hope to encourage the building industry and developers to understand  – from the point of view of residents and communities – what really matters. It might not be the fact that a building has a pitched roof or a flat roof, is traditional or modern; but other things might turn out to be super important.


One of the first things we did was a literature review and found that access to green space, freedom of movement, a sense of belonging, fun and wonder were the things most vital to people and communities.



How does the Foundation define wellbeing? Is it more about physical health or psychological wellbeing?


We’re trying to achieve balance, and to ensure human emotions are in the mix. We’re asking questions like: How does your environment make you feel? Do you feel connected with your neighbours and community? Do you feel safe and secure? And we’re tying that back into the built environment  – although there's a lot of research around it, I don’t believe we’re fully making those connections yet. We're not really thinking about how and why we build with those glasses on.


Is there perhaps a missing link between the research community and the people who are practising as architects?


It's not all down to the architects; projects are the result of the full community of people behind them, and good architecture has always had a deep sense of responsibility to the people who live, work, and play in buildings.

I think we're all looking for a bit of a shift. We all want to learn from lockdown, in thinking about work-life balance for example. These kinds of things are part of a wider story – a framework. And if we can make that gentle shift in the way we think about, plan and deliver our housing and homes, then I believe we’ll see big improvements.



There’s an emphasis on long-term thinking and on caring for, as well as creating, new homes and communities. Is this addressing a gap in understanding about what built fabric needs in terms of nurture over time?


Absolutely. If you have an interest or a stake in something over the long term, you care more than if you build and leave. It’s a sort of master developer role – looking after property and nurturing communities over time. It’s about engendering long-term trust, pride in the built environment, communities looking after their spaces, people knowing their neighbours – to create strong and resilient places.


So time is an important factor…


I think so, yes. We can build something that looks fabulous and ticks boxes. But we need to go back and ask difficult questions: Has this worked? What's the reality like? The industry tends not to ask because they might not get the answers they want.

If post-occupancy evaluation happens not just within the first 6 months but over, say, 10 years, we could start to collect a very valuable national database. It might show us that shiny, new and wonderful buildings have gone wrong because of x and y. It might show us that buildings that haven’t won any prizes are incredibly successful because of x and y.



Has the Covid-19 crisis affected the focus of the Foundation?


I think it's highlighted the kinds of questions we need to be asking, and the need for conversations that aren't just about built form. We need to be talking about things like work-life balance and a sense of hygiene and cleanliness – which at the moment is very much tied in with feeling safe and secure.


What are the next steps for the Foundation?


We've gone out for a nationwide piece of research and we’re putting together a quality of life framework. We’re asking how we can articulate the things that matter in a way that developers and communities can pick up.


What do you feel is likely to be the biggest impact of Covid-19?


Encouraging people to take risk again will be a challenge. But there are also positives; feelings of gratefulness and lessons about looking after one another. Being caring, thankful to others, clapping on a Thursday night. That sense of togetherness and goodwill, I believe, will get us through.


Design Update #4 focuses on the theme of Wellness, a subject that has remained top of the agenda following the outbreak of Covid-19. Contributors including Sadie Morgan OBE and Charles Holland share their thoughts on incorporating wellness into architecture and product design. Read the full publication here or watch the full video interview with Sadie Morgan here.