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RIBA Plan of Work: how the new Engagement Overlay can support architects

This professional feature talks to the authors of the new Engagement Overlay to the RIBA Plan of Work about how better engagement can provide a boost to projects.

25 January 2024

RIBA has published an Engagement Overlay to the RIBA Plan of Work, giving architects, other built environment professionals and members of the wider project team a framework for meaningful stakeholder engagement at every stage of a project.

As with all RIBA overlays, the new resource is being made freely available from today (25 January 2024).

Of course, architects collaborating via stakeholder engagement is fundamental to any project but this overlay hopes to help raise engagement standards across the industry as well as set out for the first time what an exemplar engagement process should look like.

The Engagement Overlay has been developed in collaboration with the Association of Collaborative Design (ACD) and Sustrans, and supported by the Landscape Institute and with contributions from participants from over 30 organisations.

The Engagement Overlay hopes to help raise engagement standards across the industry (Photo: Pexels)

Why is the overlay needed?

“Most built environment professionals are working with complex and uncertain systems; all too often rushing to simplify what isn't simple, and being frustrated by the results,” says Dr Jo Morrison, co-author, ACD Director and Head of Policy and Research.

“By embracing meaningful engagement, professionals not only expand their own practice, they will improve project outcomes at every stage.

Interest from across the industry is massively inspiring and demonstrates demand for the Engagement Overlay as well as the current lack of understanding about engagement. I've spoken with global architecture firms, construction associations, developers, government agencies and so forth, all agree that engagement is really important.”

Lead author Sarah Jones-Morris, Co-CEO at ACD, adds that even when clients, especially local authorities or community-based organisations, are enthusiastic advocates of engagement, they perhaps do not understand what a good engagement process entails.

The overlay gives everyone a set of core and advisory tasks that can be applied with proportionality, according to the nature of the project, and fills this knowledge gap.

“From the start, once you have acknowledged the value of engagement as an integral part of the professional service and creative process, you can start factoring in costs and resources and it can be embedded into fee proposals and your working practice,” Sarah adds.

Conversely, architects can use the overlay to evidence the quality of their engagement processes, which is often a stated requirement in procurement frameworks and supporting social value assessments.

Read more about how architects can navigate changes to planning policy.

When should engagement processes be applied?

Research suggests that a number of architects and other built environment professionals have an opportunity to upskill in order to engage with project stakeholders beyond the obligatory informing and consulting required for public consultation in the planning process, says Sarah.

She argues that to enable effective, inclusive engagement, it should run from the early strategic stages of a project through to a planning application. It should also facilitate stakeholder participation in design development and provide progress updates during the construction stage.

Engagement could then continue with involvement in the management and stewardship of buildings and spaces where appropriate. This means applying good engagement practices and processes throughout all work stages.

The ACD’s mission is to champion and work to mainstream collaborative design. Sarah takes it as a given that the most successful projects are the most collaborative, where engagement with a diverse range of building users or local voices becomes part of the creative process.

“‘Proportionate’ is a key word running through the overlay,” she advises, “as clearly the engagement process has to be proportionate to the stage of work and the project’s context, complexity, scope and impact.”

Accordingly, engagement processes are weighted towards early work Stages 1 and 2 and early analysis of the site and context. This sets the scene and provides the starting point for the development of ideas at Stage 3.

The engagement process should be proportionate to the stage of work and the project’s context (Photo: Pexels)

What are the benefits of good engagement?

But while the task list becomes more condensed by Stage 4, Sarah says that one of the key themes that repeatedly came out of the development process for the overlay is the role that engagement at detailed stages can play in reducing the risk of challenges and conflicts, so that projects are essentially de-risked.

Some feedback and experiences from the overlay research steering group members were that a ‘community group’ have become a form of client. In doing so, the ‘community group' are embedded into the crucial shared decision-making throughout the design development stage.

While the overlay promotes opportunities for better engagement throughout all work stages and provides frameworks to do so, each architect and practice is encouraged to develop their skills depending on their own personality and project type.

Sarah believes that the engagement process is the best mechanism that architects can employ to collaborate with, not for, stakeholders to tackle the emerging challenges facing designers.

This includes defining social value, enriching design within a local context, maintaining healthy environments, enabling ‘sustainable futures’ and, most immediately, delivering biodiversity net gain where long-term stewardship programmes will need to be established.

Download the Engagement Overlay to the RIBA Plan of Work.

Thanks to Sarah Jones-Morris, Co-CEO, Association of Collaborative Design; Dr Jo Morrison, ACD Director and Head of Policy and Research.

RIBA Core Curriculum topic: Business, clients and services.

As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, professional features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD core curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as a RIBA Chartered Member.

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