THE built environment is a woolly phrase used by architects and planners to mean the things around us. It sounds remote from our daily lives but unless you live in a yurt on a beach with a view of the mountains, those "things" do matter. They are the schools your children learn in, the hospitals you go to when you're sick and the doctors' surgeries you fret in when you think you might be. They are houses, shops, offices, cinemas, bus stations, and branches of Starbucks. They are the places in which you love, laugh, sleep, eat, wait, work and queue for a cappuccino.

The built environment is little like gravity, then. We never give it a second thought but it's absolutely fundamental to our existence. It surrounds us, it envelops us. And just as a view of a beach can lift our spirits, so the built environment can lower them. Like gravity, it can have the effect of pinning us down and keeping us low.

Josef Stalin knew that when he commissioned the uncompleted Palace Of Soviets in 1932, a 1400ft-high monstrosity topped with a massive statue of him, and intended to cow the Muscovites. Billy Connolly knew it too when he famously referred to Drumchapel as "a desert wi' windaes". And it's what lies behind annual awards such as Plook On The Plinth and Crap Towns. Cumbernauld has been a recipient of both those dubious honours in recent years.

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Motivated by the lack of current debate about the built environment and its influence on our quality of life, The Lighthouse centre for architecture and design in Glasgow has organised a series of debates to discuss the subject. The intention is to commend the good, highlight the "crap" and concoct a manifesto for change across a range of topics including housing, health, regeneration, public space and sustainability. The debates start this week and continue into September. The project is called Future Scotland because, well, that's what's at stake.

Among the participants are fashion designer-turned architectural evangelist Wayne Hemingway, cultural iconoclast Germaine Greer and award-winning architects Malcolm Fraser, Gareth Hoskins and David Page. Just as important, however, are the people of Scotland. The professionals are starting the conversation but it's our voices that need to be heard. Now is the time to ask questions. Why is that road so noisy? Why don't these windows open? Why is my house so dark? What would happen if the whole town centre was pedestrianised? Why isn't there a permanent farmers' market? The answers are out there, and so is the ability to make change happen.

"We want to get Scotland talking about what it wants to be built in future and I think with economic conditions bringing about changes in the construction industry, this is a really good time to start," says Lighthouse director Nick Barley. "We want as many people as possible to put forward their point of view and as a picture emerges, we'll bring out a series of publications which try to capture that conversation."

Right now, I'm less concerned with gravity's similarity to the built environment and more concerned with its very real pulling power. I'm hanging out of a window high up in the building which houses Malcolm Fraser's architectural practice, a window with dizzying views over Edinburgh's Old Town. Fraser is beside me, craning his head out and doing well to ignore the 60ft drop to Fleshmarket Close below.

"I can look down the length of Princes Street gardens," he's saying. "I can see the sunshine on the rooftops. Things like that make us feel better, work harder, take fewer sickies. These are simple, quantifiable aspects of architecture that affect our health, our wellbeing and our creativity."

When we are safely back inside, he tells me about a recent study from America. It demonstrated that where hospital patients have a window that opens and admits natural light, and a view of a tree, there is a 17% increase in recovery times. Use of painkillers, meanwhile, drops by the same amount. Apply that figure to the NHS drugs budget and you can see where good architectural practice affects both health and wealth.

Fraser's hope is that the Future Scotland project will bring about a significant change to the way buildings are designed, financed, viewed and used. The continued use of public-private partnerships to deliver schools and hospitals is one of his main bugbears but there are many, many more.

"We do need better leadership on the built environment. We need people talking about the bigger issues - about light and fresh air, and about how to build communities around those things," he says. "In all the vast amount of debate and all the bullshit and rubbish that descends on our heads from government, it's all about micro-management. We don't see the big picture."

The Future Scotland debates are doubly welcome, he says, because such opportunities for the public to influence policy-makers, planners and other building professionals are disappearing by the day. "In my architectural career, I've seen a huge diminishing of people power and the ability of people to affect development and to express desires and concerns for their place."

But might not the recession-led slowdown in building work prove a blessing in disguise, by forcing a rethink? Fraser is doubtful. "It would be lovely if that was the case, and it makes sense. But I'm afraid that possibility is hugely undermined by our inability to commission buildings well, or think about how to build well." Looking around the carnage, he sees an industry that's panicking rather than grasping the chance to take stock. In fact, he thinks there's a danger of the opposite happening: of architects and builders, forced to compete on costs, putting in bids that are "suicidally low" to the extent that they can't do the work properly or well. "Coming out of this recession, we are going to see a slew of buildings which - and this is hard to imagine - are even worse than the rubbish we're putting up at the moment," he says.

We are also going to see a greatly weakened building profession as construction companies and architects' practices go to the wall. Recent data from the Office of National Statistics showed that new orders in the construction industry were down 34% on last year. This month has also seen Douglas Wallace Architects, a major UK firm specialising in the hotels and retail developments, go into administration. In Edinburgh, the company behind the Scottish Parliament, RMJM, announced last week that it was cutting 60 jobs. Many others are following suit. Still in Edinburgh, the vast Caltongate development in which Malcolm Fraser's own practice was involved has also been mothballed. Elsewhere, many recently-completed office and residential blocks lie empty, waiting for tenants.

Housing is the subject that most exercises Wayne Hemingway, founder of the Red Or Dead fashion label in the 1980s and now a designer with his own practice. "The built environment has a massive influence on people's behaviour, happiness and wellbeing," he tells me. "If people don't understand that, they're daft."

Hemingway is a regular - and pleasingly mouthy - contributor to radio and television on all aspects of architecture and design and it was him who coined the phrase "the Wimpeyfication of Britain". He was referring to the volume housebuilders that fill enormous swathes of countryside with identical brown housing schemes, or inner-city gap sites with flats aimed at the buy-to-let market.

Since launching his broadside, Hemingway has actually worked with Wimpey on a highly successful residential project in Gateshead called Staiths South Bank. But today he is no less outspoken about the design evils of many out-of-town housing schemes. "They all look the bloody same," he says. "They just appeal to one taste level. You end up with a monoculture" - or about the need for good, affordable, sustainable housing.

Greed, he say, is the problem. Greed on the part of consumers, who put investment potential before aesthetics or even common sense, and greed on the part of the developers who build the houses.

"In the UK, land is seen as a way to profit rather than as a means of life enhancement. We've allowed that to happen and we're all party to it. Housing is seen as a means to get rich. It's never been that and any sensible economist can show you that house ownership doesn't lead to wealth. But for some reason we're daft enough to believe an industry that's led us up that garden path."

Malcolm Fraser can point to some good residential projects. He's a fan of the EDI Group's regenerative programme in Edinburgh's Craigmillar housing scheme, for instance. He likes the fact that it puts creation of community ahead of any other priority, that it uses government money creatively, and that it employed one of Scotland's best architectural companies - Glasgow's Elder and Cannon - to build which he thinks is easily the best-designed school in the country, Niddrie Mill and St Francis Primary School. But he is no fan of those volume housebuilders whose major marketing tools are "kerb appeal" - what the house looks like when you pull up outside in your car - and something they call "gob-ons".

"When I first heard that phrase in a marketing discussion I couldn't believe it. It means things like pediments, trellises and ruche curtains. They call them that because they don't care about it. They just build a dumb shoebox. That indicates an industry not entirely comfortable with what it does."

Better, Fraser thinks, to concentrate on how the house feels on the inside. Instead of "gob-ons" a home should have "big doors that open on to sunny gardens where your kids can kick a football about with the neighbours. These are the things we should be building our communities around".

As for the future, sustainability is one of the key issues. It means environmentally-conscious design, and includes everything from using solar power for heating to flushing toilets with rainwater. Fraser has attended too many symposiums on the subject to be anything other than cynical about some aspects of the debate, however.

"I've been to these conferences and five minutes in my jaw always hits the floor because lesson number one will be: Knock down a good Victorian school that has a century's life left in it and replace it with a piece of cardboard rubbish.' It will be better insulated on day one but it's got smaller rooms, far less light and it's going to fall apart."

For Fraser, sustainability means working with existing environments as much as it means creating new ones. Make do and mend is his mantra, and a good Scottish virtue it is too.

"There's a circus out there telling us a sustainable eco-future is about building enormous dormitory towns on farmland somewhere, but they'll be eco' because they'll have Prince of Wales-approved pediments around the front door. That is an enormous smokescreen."

He points to the window, gesturing once more across the Edinburgh rooftops. "You want an eco town? There's one. Our eco towns are our existing settlements. They've got railway stations in the middle, they're dense, they're walkable, they're liveable. I live my life in Edinburgh without a car. There's a mountain here I can climb and my architectural career has been about reinforcing the integrity of a place where you can live with a small carbon footprint."

Like Fraser, Hemingway is a keen cyclist. Like Fraser he sees much of the work in the years ahead as being about sustainability, reinforcing and rebuilding a sense of community, bringing light, air, space and common sense to design briefs - and, of course, reducing the impact of the internal combustion engine on cities. That might mean pedestrianising large areas, it might mean rethinking controversial projects such as Glasgow's M74 extension.

"We should be designing with humans beings in mind before cars for all sorts of reasons - safety, pollution, the environment," he says. "We should be encouraging people to walk and cycle in our cities. Anyone who thinks the best way to navigate a city is by car is lazy and old-fashioned."

There is no knowing the best way to navigate Scotland's future where its built environment is concerned but Future Scotland will at least offer us a compass. After that, it's up to us to keep a guiding hand on the tiller. As the saying goes, think global and act local. But do act.

"You've got to make your life work," says Malcolm Fraser finally. "And you've got to insist on making the place you live work."

It's simple really. Nothing woolly about that, is there?