No. 27 (2024): Project and regulation

Project quality, regulation quality

Elena Mussinelli
Dipartimento di Architettura, Ingegneria delle Costruzioni e Ambiente Costruito, Politecnico di Milano

Published 2024-06-10

How to Cite

Mussinelli, E. (2024). Project quality, regulation quality. TECHNE - Journal of Technology for Architecture and Environment, (27), 10–14.


In the Italian context, the first law directly affecting the urban planning and building sector dates back to approximately 160 years ago, precisely Law 2248/1865. It established the administrative unification of the Kingdom of Italy, empowering municipal councils to deliberate on ‘hygiene, building and local police regulations’, and was followed a few months later by Law 2359/1865 on expropriations for public purpose. By contrast, the first regulations for the protection of artistic, historical, archaeological and ethnographic heritage (1089/1938), and natural beauty (1497/1939), are just over 80 years old. From that time onwards, the rules governing planning and design actions have been considerably enriched and developed. Hence, it is worth reflecting on the effectiveness and efficiency of a regulatory framework that has been governing territorial, urban and building transformations in an increasingly articulated and specialised manner with a view to improving the quality and sustainability of natural and anthropic habitats. Moreover, its ability to govern the ways, times and cultural and technical contents of the project production process to carry out high quality creations is worthy of consideration.

Perhaps the issue of standardisation has never been the centre of attention in all sectors of civil life as today: in public administration and scientific research, among economic operators, planners, and citizens themselves. Regulatory systems are increasingly pervasive in regulating design activity and the characteristics of works in response to a general «increase in the variety and complexity of public interests that appear worthy of protection, such as the quality of the environment, the safeguarding of the natural and historical-artistic heritage, the protection of health, the safety of persons, and security […]» (Bassanini et al., 2005). Changing interests require frequent updates to adapt regulations to rapid socio-economic, cultural, and technological changes.

The centres of regulatory production have also multiplied, breaking up into different levels and sectors of regulation, namely with multi-level (international, EU, national, regional, local), sectoral (economy, environment, territory, landscape, infrastructure, cultural heritage, health, etc.) and institutional governance structures, with corresponding different interests (public/private, collective/individual) and complicated relationships of interconnection, conditionality and/or competition (Raveraira, 2009). The scenario is even more complex, if we broaden the scope to include, in addition to prescriptive and binding rules, the vast universe of guiding principles, voluntary standards, guidelines, best practices, etc.

Moreover, also due to the nature of the legal system model of reference (civil law derived from Roman law, as opposed to the common law of English-speaking countries, founded on the binding force of practice and judgements), Italian legislation has been stratified by an anomalous number of rules, which are often not mutually coordinated, sometimes contradictory or bearing inconsistent definitions. They are either incapable of producing the desired results, or are not the cause of effects even diametrically opposed to those expected. The attempt to solve every problem through a special regulation results in limiting the free and responsible action of citizens (and planners). Indeed, as Marco Romano points out, «to reduce people’s desires to rights codified in the doctrine of planning, imposed by enlightened and pedagogical governments on rebellious citizens unaware of their own good, is to erase what makes them citizens: the diversity of their individual life projects» (Romano, 2013).

On the other hand, the discrepancy between this regulatory approach and the reality that surrounds us is evident. On Alessandro Pizzorno’s death, Fabrizio Schiaffonati recalled how, back in the 1960s, the doyen of Italian political sociology had already warned that in Italy «everything must be regulated so that everything can be conceded», pointing out that «this is still the case nowadays, more than half a century later, with good peace for the quality of the project, which is overwhelmed by constraints and contradictory procedures that are obstructive to a necessary qualitative transformation of the anthropic environment within proper time and costs» (Schiaffonati, 2019).

This hypertrophic growth of laws and regulations (a true ‘legislative inflation’ or ‘regulatory pollution’) is accompanied by their rapid variability over time, so much so that a building intervention begun within a given legislative framework risks being completed in the presence of a different regulatory framework, which would not have allowed its execution, and vice versa. Not to mention the «badly written, lengthy regulations that are difficult to read and even more difficult to apply, (which) now represent a constant factor with which even the most prepared and motivated operator must come to terms» (Gorlani, 2022), which lead to confusion and interpretative doubts. This makes bureaucratic formalities unnecessarily complex, overloads administrative action, and increases the regulatory and management costs for citizens, businesses and the public institutions themselves, including those dedicated to monitoring and control actions (which, in a context of shrinking public resources, are often the first to be lacking…).

Legal uncertainty leads to opaque, if not arbitrary decisions, facilitates corruption, increases discrimination and social conflict, and limits economic development, sometimes to the point of inhibiting it (Bassanini et al., 2005). A vulnus with dramatic effects, if it is true that certainty does not have to be of the law, but: «certainty is law, just as, vice versa, law is certainty, if it is true that law […], is constituted for the specific purpose of giving certainty, or rather: certainties» (emphasis added; Ruggeri, 2005).

The body of urban planning legislation has expanded considerably, imposing on city and regional planning new objectives and constraints aimed at protecting and improving the quality of the environment and landscape. Strategic environmental and impact assessments, regulations to limit land consumption, to increase climate resilience and to regenerate the built environment have been in use for many years now, with their rich set of analyses and tools to manage knowledge, build scenarios, compare alternatives, and quantify their effects through indicators (environmental, socioeconomic, etc.). And yet, all this does not seem to have produced the expected effects, as witnessed by the continuing degradation of urban suburbs, the continuous increase in soil erosion by new urbanisations and infrastructures, the abandonment of ‘inland areas’, and the hydrogeological instability of the most ‘fragile’ territories. Instead, by moving more and more on the level of so-called policies, planning seems to have lost its technical capacity to conform the quality of spaces, even in their cultural value and use, in a sort of throwback of illiteracy forgetting the grammatical and syntactical rules of construction of the European city. The disciplinary crisis of the plan is evident, incapable of governing land uses and built forms, as well as the quality of public space, relying, instead, on the abstraction of ‘tactical squares’ and social streets totally inadequate to determine an organic configuration of the urban structure.

There is no large city that does not have a plan for climate resilience or sustainable mobility, nor is there a major project that cannot boast top-level environmental and/or energy performance, duly certified even when it plans to replace a tree-lined park of more than 50,000 square metres with green roofs on a shopping centre (for example, San Siro in Milan). Greenwashing operations often characterise the private actions of real estate operators, in the absence of checks and controls by the public authorities.

The public works sector has long been searching for a better balance of time, cost and quality of works. «A long journey, which has allowed for advances […] and regulatory innovations during the Nineties» (Schiaffonati, 2006) and which, after thirty years of conjunctural measures (suspensions, temporary derogations, emergency decrees, special procedures and competences, variations of thresholds, etc.1) has led to the new Procurement Code (legislative decree no. 36/2023). It features a text of more than 150,000 words, to which the regulatory and procedural innovations introduced by the PNRR must be added, with the related set of regulations, guidelines, explanatory circulars, protocols and technical instructions2.

It is a seemingly unstoppable process of continuous correction and integration to reform the reform, in the absence of the indispensable monitoring activity that should, instead, verify and assess the effects of the application of the regulation to correctly finalise its amendment. Nevertheless, there has been no lack of significant precedents in this regard, as in the case of the French experimentation of the Spinetta Law on construction insurance systems3.

If we apply to the standard the historical notion of “quality as fitness for intended use” (Juran, 1951), or to the more recent notion of «the set of properties and characteristics of a product or service that provide the capacity to satisfy expressed or implicit needs» (UNI EN ISO 8402:1995), it clearly appears that the challenge to be faced concerns not so much or only regulatory and administrative simplification, or the replacement of redundant, obsolete or unjustified regulations, but precisely the “quality of regulation”. A direction undertaken since 2001 by OECD and Apec countries with a Regulatory Reform (reference criteria to ensure quality and transparency in regulatory activity), in line with the obligation to formulate rules that are conceptually and semantically precise, clear and comprehensible in the terms used, in the objectives set, in the required behaviour (Constitutional Court, ruling no. 364 of 1988) and, above all, with contents derived from consensual and shared planning (Raveraira, 2009).

Responsibility, consensus and collaboration are, I believe, the key words to possibly rethink the relationship between design and regulation. In fact, I agree with Marco Dugato’s observation in this Dossier when he argues that «the fault of normative hypertrophy cannot be attributed to the omnipotence of the regulator by itself, rather it is attributable to the contribution of the ones regulated». If it is true that architectural design is constrained by regulations, it certainly cannot be mechanically determined by them for mere reasons of conformity. Conversely, as Maria Chiara Torricelli emphasises again in the Dossier, the norm is a tool that provides valid and shared knowledge to the project; and the project itself, as a projective activity, contributes proactively to its definition. There are many examples spanning technical directives regulating the implementation cycles of the INA Casa, the result of design research in support of the political project, and the various procedural and meta design regulations derived from research in the Architectural Technology Field. Such design experiences have unfolded in an experimental manner, in derogation of the regulations and leading to their renewal.

Instead, deductive design approaches seem to prevail today, due to the growing availability of algorithmic procedures that do not merely support the design process, but develop it in an almost automated manner through conditioning and prevailing indicators and parameters. These tools legitimise choices where conformity to the standard acts as a screen for the assumption of precise responsibilities.

There is a conceptual and operational reversal with respect to creative, responsibly inductive design action, which experiments and innovates, putting the principles of adequate performance and compliance with needs over the criteria of formal conformity. This is evident in the relationship between technical regulations and techno-typological innovation for evolutions that move the parameters of regulatory congruity “forward”, but sometimes even “sideways”. This also counteracts the phenomena of norm obsolescence.

In consideration of the pervasiveness of the regulatory systems that rule design action, it is, finally, disturbing to observe the very limited importance assigned to this subject in the education of new designers. The didactics of design, which have long been the focus of Architecture studies, rarely envisage a structured discussion on regulatory and normative aspects, leaving them to the discretion of professors. Hence, at the end of the course, a large proportion of students have never heard about the Code of Procurement, environmental impact assessment or minimum environmental criteria… Whereas it is, instead, essential to solicit, from the first year, critical attention to the normative paradigm, also for the ethical, social and professional responsibilities it entails, and to encourage the assumption of norms and constraints as factors that nourish the entire design process. The norm thus becomes a «tool for guiding and controlling design choices», which as such «must be assumed in the organisation of the starting data» (Del Nord, 1992).

Not to mention the need for qualifying training programmes, as Mario Avagnina points out, so that all those involved in the process, particularly public clients, are able to carry out their tasks. The objective is far from being achieved, and «necessarily passes through the training of the figures involved, starting with the RUPs». Figures characterised not only by technical knowledge of the building process and its rules, but also by a culture of standards and conscious responsibility that can only derive from a design practice, which is continually verified in the real context, and by design actions based on an experimental method that aims to face the issues of society. Figures characterised not only by technical know-how of the building process and its rules, but also by a culture of standards and conscious responsibility, which can only derive from a practice continually verified by comparison with reality, and by design actions marked by an experimental method that finds its arguments in taking on the problems of society.


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