What Does 'Feasible' Mean for Cultural Infrastructure Projects Today?

for The Platform
January 2021
By Adrian Ellis, Libby Ellis, Harry Fisher-Jones, Daniel Payne and Natalia Vartapetova

Every year, AEA tracks newly completed and announced large-scale cultural infrastructure projects – those with a capital cost of $US10m or more. The 2019 Cultural Infrastructure Index counted 101 new projects, accounting for over $4.7 billion of investment. Early indicators for 2020 suggest a slightly more modest level of investment, but not significantly lower.

These projects require careful planning: they are expensive; have many dimensions of success and therefore of potential failure, and they are (at least in principle) built to last. AEA has had the privilege of being engaged in many feasibility studies over the last 30 years, working methodically through a project’s mission, vision, programmatic ambitions and the attendant spatial, operational and organizational implications to establish and, we hope, improve their long-term efficiency and effectiveness. We have learned some things along the way:

  • Any feasibility study needs to make explicit the underlying assumptions and the associated probabilities assumed so their plausibility can be held up to the light and examined. This seems obvious but it is surprising how deep you sometimes have to dig to find implicit assumptions that, if wrong, can send everything crashing.
  • Establishing feasibility is an iterative process. Only the work strictly compatible with finding a robust answer to critical questions should be commissioned at each stage otherwise you can easily take a wrong turn. (For example, don’t spend money on a structural engineering study until you know the building you have your eye on is in the right place!)
  • It is important to be clear about whether the feasibility study is about ‘how to’ or ‘whether to’. These are different sorts of exercises. If not clearly stated, your consultants will be answering questions you have not asked, and on your dime.
  • The dual purposes of feasibility studies – for both internal planning and external fundraising collateral – carry a risk of systemic pressure toward optimism and 'spin.' Adding that spin is the client’s prerogative and sometimes their duty. The consultant should be neither systematically optimistic nor pessimistic.

AEA’s work on capital projects tends to focus on financial and operational feasibility. Other experts – design and theatre consultants, cost consultants, fundraising consultants – contribute to the understanding of the feasibility of the project in terms of achieving its design and technical ambitions, projecting costs required for the full cycle of the capital project, or developing potential funding sources and strategies.

The array of expertise required is expanding. Today’s environment has added challenging questions that need to be asked under the general rubric of ‘feasibility’. The COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing, climate emergency and C02 emissions, and other societal and technological shifts are raising new questions that are equally critical to a project’s long-term success. Last September, Arts Council England published an Arts and Placeshaping: Evidence Review, illustrating the ways in which culture-led regeneration and investment can help drive local economic growth, regenerate struggling high streets and promote social cohesion. Cultural venues are increasingly expected to serve as sites for civic activity and interaction, bringing communities back together and enabling innovation and exchange of ideas – additional criteria for success and feasibility. We can reasonably expect the current societal and environmental changes to shift the focus and volume of capital projects towards the civic roles of cultural organizations (as meeting places and open forums), serving as sites for experimentation and innovation, and where artistic production can co-exist with community functions, drawing learners of all ages, creative industries, and adjacent health and social care sectors. Below is a list that seeks to capture some of these additional dimensions of feasibility.

Location – Site availability and complementarity – or competition – within the existing ecology        

  • Is the desired location at increased risk from impacts of climate change in the short- or medium-term?
  • Are there other environmental factors?
  • Is the site (re)development the most sustainable option available?

Demand – The needs, character and scale of the intended audience, now and in the future

  • What proportion of the target audience – and cultural product – is local, national and international?
  • What is their propensity to attend in-person programming?
  • How are audiences and their consumption habits changing in the wake of the pandemic and recent technological advances?

Supply – Availability and technical requirements of the product

  • How can the value chain and delivery model be designed to promote more equitable access and opportunities?
  • How can digital become an integrated and complementary element of the overall offering?
  • Are certain elements of the supply chain especially susceptible to disruption in times of crisis?

Organizational Design – Governance and staffing structure

  • What systems are required to embed inclusive, collaborative, and anti-discriminatory practices?
  • Can the trend toward flexible and remote working be built into the organizational structure and building design?

Business Model – Income and expenditure projections

  • What is the relationship between fixed and variable costs and how resilient is the business model – and balance sheet – to withstand shocks?
  • Is revenue generation reliant on in-person attendance or are there alternative ancillary income opportunities?
  • To what extent might public and philanthropic support be impacted during an economic recession?
  • Are there opportunities for mixed and innovative business models, co-ownership?

Physical Design – Massing, areas and adjacencies 

  • How can public space be utilized to encourage greater community engagement?
  • What social and civic purpose and uses could the new building serve? Can it be easily repurposed or adapted, if required?
  • To what extent should flexibility of spatial configurations and uses be prioritized in the design process?
  • How are circulation and capacities impacted by social distancing measures and what is the minimum viable occupancy level?
  • What systems (heating, ventilation and air conditioning among them) and design interventions can be implemented to promote health and wellbeing and mitigate the spread of airborne infections?

Capital Costs – Hard and soft and strategies to meet them

  • How will an economic recession (and socio-political events) impact construction costs?
  • What sustainable / renewable resources are available for building construction and maintenance?
  • What is the most efficient and sustainable approach to procurement?

Impact Assessment – Broader economic, social and environmental implications                                  

  • What are the environmental impacts of the project in the development and operational phases, and how can these be mitigated?
  • Can the project be accommodated in whole or in part within upcycled or repurposed existing building stock? 
  • What is the project’s impact on its host area and community?

Risks and Sensitivities – Uncertainties, risks and mitigating strategies

  • In the current period of uncertainty, what are the key sensitivities affecting the project's viability, and how can these be modeled?
  • What scenarios need to be considered for the project’s long-term sustainability?
  • How can socio-political events impact the availability of resources and costs?

This article was written by a team including Harry Fisher-Jones, Consultant; Natalia Vartapetova, Consultant; Daniel Payne, Managing Principal; Libby Ellis, Director; and Adrian Ellis, Director. 


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