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Can diversity in construction improve the wellbeing of its users?

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The best-selling book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, by Caroline Criado Perez, has highlighted how bias and discriminations are ingrained in our day-to-day lives, causing gender inequality everywhere from our homes and workplaces to public spaces and transport.

And it’s just one resource in recent years that has sparked a debate around the importance of diversity in design. Here, I explore some of the issues and research, as well as look at whether more diversity in design and construction could help people’s wellbeing and strengthen the industry.

The importance of diversity in design and construction

A 2019 report from the BBC triggered new and much-needed debate on a topic that hasn’t before had the airtime it deserves.

"Cities are supposed to be built for all of us, but they aren't built by all of us,"1 declared the documentary. It is just one of a handful of times there has been such an overt question raised about the propensity of construction industry leaders – typically white, middle-aged men – to base designs for homes, shared spaces and community buildings on the needs of more than just people who look like they do.

It’s no secret there is a lack of diversity in the construction sector. The number of women in UK architecture firms is falling2, reducing from 28 per cent to 21 per cent between 2009 and 20113, while just 14 per cent of UK engineering and technology students are female4. The Construction Industry Training Board says the industry average for ethnic diversity is around 13 per cent5, while data from the GMB trade union says just 5.4 per cent of workers at the end of 2018 were black, Asian or other ethnicities6.

This lack of representation isn’t just influencing the makeup of the spaces we live, socialise and work in; it’s contributing to the ever-increasing skills gap. Data from last year shows that only 9 per cent of young people would consider a career in construction, with 40 per cent of those saying they’re put off as they think they wouldn’t be able to do a good job7. Is a lack of diversity and rarity of construction leaders from different backgrounds leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy amongst young people?

Diversity in the built environment and wellbeing

It’s long been argued that a lack of representation in the construction industry is causing the design of houses, offices, leisure and public facilities to lead to spaces that aren’t accessible or functional in a way that reflects the needs of the general public and its demographic. And as a result, these missing elements are having a negative impact on the wellbeing of those who use them.

The Royal Society for Public Health has campaigned for new laws on public toilets, suggesting the UK needs two female toilets to every one male toilet8 in order to address the imbalance in toilet queue times and grant women the space required for parts of life they are biologically and anatomically assigned to – such as periods, or breastfeeding.

Then there are the elements of traditional building design that aren’t catered for the likes of children or those with disabilities. For example, why are dangerous, open plug sockets typically placed at a height that is accessible to children, while safe, functional light switches remain out of reach for young adults and those in wheelchairs?

The impact on the future workforce

The built environment has consequences. As well as impacting our wellbeing, it tells us where we sit in society and intimates how relevant we are in a building’s intended purpose. It tells us even more about the attitudes and values of the people that designed them in the first place, and those attitudes are simply not aligned to welcome or create a diverse, future workforce for the industry.

Those who already feel marginalised – such as women, those from different ethnic minority backgrounds, or disabled people – don’t just feel the physical impact on their wellbeing from building design that doesn’t include them. It affects their psychology, too, by reinstating that they are still excluded from the wider discussions taking place in construction. Not only will they be less inclined to join the conversation themselves, but they’re also unlikely to encourage their children to join an industry that has left them feeling ignored. And so, the impact of on the skills gap becomes clear.

To resolve this, architects and building designers should strive to expand the contributors to their ideas, bringing a more diverse audience to their table before pen is put to paper. Doing so will not only make construction more inclusive, but will lead to environments that are more considerate of more peoples’ needs, which in turn contributes to increased positive wellbeing.

Once this is achieved, the self-fulfilling prophecy may just transform into one that says, ‘construction considers me, and I want to be part of it’.

Disclaimer: The sole responsibility for any views expressed lies with the author(s). Any opinions shared do not necessarily represent the views of Saint-Gobain.

Kathryn Lennon-Johnson
Kathryn Lennon-Johnson Director
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