Harnessing the power of data-driven design

Rob Bentley

Contact Rob Bentley, Director
robert.bentley@benoy.com

Andrew Mc Vicker

Contact Andrew McVicker, Director, Retail Property, Pragma Consulting
a.mcvicker@pragmauk.com

In a dynamic and fast-evolving market, urban design solutions shaped by data, analytics and insight can maximise value for clients and communities alike. Here, Benoy Director Rob Bentley and Pragma’s Director of Retail Property, Andrew McVicker, answer questions about the unique data-driven design capabilities at Handley House.

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What is data-driven design and why is it important?

RB: Data-driven design is about design solutions that are based on facts, figures and insight, as opposed to instinct, whim or preconceptions. Through data-driven design, we put some hard science behind the process of understanding a client’s asset and delivering value from a social, economic and environmental perspective. 

It’s important because the problems in towns and cities are often perceived to be the same – retail contraction, high-street collapse, diminished footfall. But as we know, the answers to these problems can never be the same – they have to be different because every location is different. Data analysis helps us understand those unique issues, attributes, trends and challenges that define an urban centre, enabling a high-level review of asset ownership and the wider socio-economic context. We then use this research to create nuanced and educated architectural solutions – solutions that balance data with our experience of placemaking, stakeholder consultation, information gathering and site visits. 

But the analysis has to come first. You wouldn’t construct a building without foundations. And here at Handley House, we never propose a design scheme without the analytical groundwork. As form follows function, so design follows data. 

Do clients tend to specify this particular approach in their briefs?

AM: It’s more a question of deploying our analytical capabilities to challenge client briefs from the outset. Through what we call research-driven brief creation’, we often use data to reengage a client with their asset, encouraging them to view it from different perspectives. This process involves establishing success criteria early on to determine the scale of the intervention required. For example, some projects need only limited asset upgrades, while others comprise wholesale town centre transformation. And clients haven’t always researched whether the direction they’re proposing is the right one. 

Using data, we can provide trusted evidence – trading figures, lease terms, tenant profiles, demographic trends – to demonstrate that an alternative route is appropriate. Sometimes, an asset is doing better than a developer imagines. Rather than scrapping everything and starting again, we might suggest options for reuse and redevelopment. The data can help to steer clients away from architectural narratives that haven’t fully considered the true value of what’s already there. In this way, we can help to reshape the vision for a project. 

'We look at the sustainability of space by assessing elements like average trading density, the size and type of catchment, competition, local shopping patterns. And then we assess the ability of occupiers in these circumstances to deliver against a landlord’s aspirations. Compared to top-down analysis, which is very general, our approach provides a unique level of detail and precision. It adds huge value to clients looking to develop a business strategy. '

Can you talk us through the typical steps you might take?

RB: Every project begins with a joint site visit. We strongly believe in the value of walking the streets before any desk research begins. Only in this way can we achieve a true sense of place and local experience. 

Next, we conduct a rigorous analysis of the economic, social and political landscape. We look at Local Authority strategies and aspirations to see how these might support or conflict with a developer’s proposals. We also consider wider national initiatives that might lead to additional funding and development. And we look at the core assets; their size, strengths, weaknesses, lease structures and the mix of uses at play. 

At the same time, we undertake a detailed architectural analysis, which includes a review of existing and forthcoming developments to help us map the current and future urban context. This process also involves a high-level assessment of the asset and associated practicalities; a review of the planning context; and detailed studies of key urban ingredients, from access, layout and scale to environmental assets, public realm and usage. 

Armed with this information, we then begin masterplanning and design development. At this point, we convene group-wide Handley House design workshops, bringing together senior representatives from Benoy, Pragma, Uncommon Land and Holmes Wood to kick-start the creative process. During these sessions, we collectively review the data, challenge the brief and begin to explore ideas and opportunities. 

What would you say is unique about the Benoy/​Pragma process in this area?

AM: One of the key things we do differently is a bottom-up analysis of occupier profitability. This means we consider whether, in a particular location, a landlord looking to achieve certain rents, rates and service charge fees will be able to attract and retain occupiers to sustain those occupancy costs now and in the future – especially given all the changes going on in the world of retail.

We look at the sustainability of space by assessing elements like average trading density, the size and type of catchment, competition, local shopping patterns. And then we assess the ability of occupiers in these circumstances to deliver against a landlord’s aspirations. Compared to top-down analysis, which is very general, our approach provides a unique level of detail and precision. It adds huge value to clients looking to develop a business strategy. 

RB: What’s also unique is our one-consultancy ethos and approach. Close collaboration between the four businesses within the Handley House family enables great flexibility and agility. It also provides a wealth of shared global expertise. Benoy and Pragma’s alliance, for instance, allows for multiple scales of intervention – from small-scale capital release through to large-scale masterplanning and everything in between. Together, we offer a genuine breadth and depth of capabilities, with Pragma’s specialist focus on data underpinning our creative solutions. And there’s an ease of communication and unity of vision that helps to simplify complex problems and processes, which is of huge benefit to the client. 

Working together, we’re also committed to breaking the cycle of short-termism in the market. While being commercial in outlook, we focus on delivering longer-term value through targeted social and environmental assessments and solutions. And here again, the data and analytics help us understand how we can deliver maximum project value through economic prosperity, positive social impact and sustainable urban design. 

Can you share some current examples of where you’re applying this thinking?

RB: We’re currently working on a number of data-driven design projects across the UK. The majority are challenged town centres with high vacancy rates and poor building stock, but at the same time, places that are still much loved and vital to the local community. 

In each case, we’re using detailed analysis to test the viability of the client’s original proposals. Rather than simply follow the latest trend, such as repurposing space for a market hall, we’re using data and site visits to get under the skin of these developments and propose alternative options. 

As trusted advisers, operating with a fresh mandate unconstrained by historical issues or preconceived ideas, we’re helping these clients see the value in existing assets. Assets which, with slight adjustment or reallocation, can play a key role in these catchments and deliver sustainable value over time.