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The Future of Design 2014: Part 1

The Future of Design 2014: Part 1

Every year I go to the IABSE Future of Design conference (sample size: 2 years). It has a good selection of speakers, but more than that- it has a good selection of attendees. It’s nice to meet people the same level as me in different firms, who are at least interested in engineering enough to take a day off work to hear about it.

For those of you who know nothing of the IABSE Future of Design events, they’re day long conferences aimed primarily at young designers; although the speakers are typically experienced members of the industry. Unlike many conferences, however, the aim of most talks is simply to celebrate structural design; rather than honing in on a specific technicality- or even field!

As is my wont, this, and the next, post will skim over some of the highlights of the day- for those of you who didn’t attend, and those of you who turned up but were distracted by the pastries.

Josef Hargrave (Arup)

What is normal to us now, won’t be normal to us in the future.

It seems apt that a day on the future of design should begin with someone whose whole career is based on the development of techniques and tools to help target markets for the future. Quipping that ‘change is constant’, and only those that adapt will thrive and survive; Josef outlined his view of the future. At the end of his talk, however, Josef acknowledged that our industry is slow to change because of the relatively long life of our products, and the high risks involved- and he was unsure of what we could do to keep up with the pace of technological and scientific development.

With the widespread accessibility of social media, feedback is immediate and technology allows people to react instantly. According to Josef this will lead to more user driven and democratic design; tooling the communities affected to design their own environment. Engineering will begin to focus more on resilience and adaptation as climate change increases the frequency of extreme events; and similarly resource pressure will lead to a focus on a built environment that produces as much as it consumes. That is Josef’s considered opinion; and to be honest- it’s not hard to imagine it coming to pass…

Francis Archer & Phillip Hall-Patch

The Garden Bridge is designed to disrupt the path of least resistance, and make the journey the experience.

Arup & Heatherwick Studio

Not surprisingly Arup’s Garden Bridge was one of the more controversial talks of the event. Crossing the Thames at Embankment, the 300m long, two-span balanced cantilever bridge has been mathematically designed to appear as if it sprouts, like the branches on a tree, from its two piers. The biggest challenge seemed to surround creating a “maintenance free” design life of 120 years for the structure (a phrase I was once told to severely distrust); requiring a monolithic shell of copper-rolled steel. Designed to ‘delight’, I’ll be doing a follow up fairly soon, trying to figure out why this bridge is so divisive.

Julia Barfield (Marks Barfield)

People have a desire to get to high places.

Architect of the London Eye and the Kew Garden tree-top walkway; Julia’s talk was surprisingly modest- although she won me over fairly quickly after stating that “weathering steel is beautiful”. Talking about the Kew Garden tree-top walkway, she explained the focus on keeping the structure a kit of parts; repetitive, slender and adaptable (something that would later help after a last minute route change); and the struggle of getting close enough to a tree without killing it.

Currently she is seeing a project her firm had initiated, the Brighton i360, enter construction. Following the London Eye, she says, every city now seems to want a tourist wheel- but few can really sustain them. The solution for Brighton is a slender needle/capsule vertical lift tower; providing unrivalled views of Brighton, the Channel (and the Isle of Wight, for some reason). Most interesting to me is the construction sequence, which can only be described as a vertical launch- each piece being slotted in at ground level, and then lifted to form a space for the next!

John Cutlack (Flint & Neill)

Don’t look at a Code of Practice until you already know the answer; and when you do- ignore it and have some fun.

John started his talk with a reminder that “Structural Engineering is Fun!” He then proceeded to prove it, by taking example of structures he’d been involved with during his career. From floating cars to Venturi chamber shaped bridges, giant model American Footballers [ed. well, I think it was, but Google is showing a blank] that crouched in the wind and climbing walls for land rovers- each example seemed more tantalisingly outlandish than the next.

A common theme across all of the structures he had been involved with was that it was the structure that formed the architecture. Lamenting the separation of architects and engineers that occurred with the industrial revolution, John made a plea for younger engineers to get involved with conceptual design- where there is free reign to think and experiment; too often they get bogged down with detail and then find themselves in management- ultimately missing the chance to have some fun with their skills.

Keith Brownlie (BEaM)

Architecture is fashion made possible through technology.

Bridge design, fashion, and innovation formed the crux of Keith’s talk. Starting with the assertion that fashion is circular, technology is linear and construction is stationary (constrained); he asked why don’t bridges all look the same? His answer was context- we have bridges that create context (such as the proposed Garden Bridge) and bridges that engage with the local context (like the Kew Garden walkway). Talking of where the edge-fashion is today for bridges, he identifies ‘logo potential’, view from space (given Google Maps) and turning soffits into areas in their own rights as sources of inspiration.

Ralph Parker & Tim Lucas

Ideas are easy; getting them built is the difficult thing.

Price & Myers

This talk focused on the conceptual birth, engineering development and eventual construction of a sculpture at Heathrow airport. The concept was to build a continuous volume representing the animation of a plane doing an inversion stunt. Tim’s work focused on realising this as a structural system; employing the increasingly necessary engineering skill of big-data management to collate thousands of points down to a real volume; which could then be rationalised into a physical object.

To me, it was the role of the unnamed contractor that proved most interesting. It had turned out that they had cunningly required drawings be provided for all parts. This led the guys to discovered that they had designed something that needed 35’000 drawings to build. That (seemingly alone) is what spurred them to truly address the buildability; reducing the construction complexity into support cassettes, which could be assembled like jigsaws from pieces that were automatically cut using a link between the software and the laser machine- although it still resulted in sections that took three hours to lift…

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  1. Andy T

    John Cutlack’s advice to get involved in conceptual design sounds great… but did he give any advice for how to achieve it? It’s something I would have always loved to do, but never found the opportunity (well, never got given it anyway.. perhaps I’m just not proactive enough). Maybe I should have joined Flint & Neill! Certainly had a friend who worked there who tried convincing me to join.

    • Aside from joining Flint & Neill- not really! He said that smaller companies were better for it; although it’s only since moving to a much larger company that I’m now enjoying conceptual design. I suppose the trick is to work with architects (shudder…)

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