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The Future of Design 2014: Part 2

The Future of Design 2014: Part 2

I’m sure you’ve all been at the edge of your seats waiting for the second part from the highlights of the IABSE 2014 Future of Design conference; and for that I can only apologise- some times life gets in the way. I expect it’s a good sign, however, that a day long conference results in enough highlights to span more than one article.

In the second half of the conference there was a series of competitive presentations by actual young designers; keen to share their papers about the innovative design, or structural research they have undertaken. There’s also a short discussion on a topic pertinent to the structural engineering profession. I’ve given it my best to try and capture the key points- but, like most short talks; there’s a wealth of technical detail that makes a summary difficult to achieve.

Mungo Stacy (Parsons Brinckerhoff)

Design must be the process of creating value. We must demonstrate our worth to the public, and return to pioneering our environment.

Mungo compared the principles of civil engineering to the famous commandments of product design by Dieter Rams: it should be innovative, useful, aesthetic, understandable, unobtrusive, honest, long-lasting, designed to the last detail, sustainable and efficient. By accepting this, the future of design has us becoming leaders in design technology, building a sustainable future of efficient structures.

To me the more pertinent part was a discussion of engineers and our perceived lack of value within society. He argues that we cannot just demand to be valued, but must prove ourselves- remembering that once we were the pioneers. The built environment is the fruit of our design and we have an obligation to it; we cannot continue soliciting our skills to build whatever the clients demand, off-loading our responsibilities to politicians and ‘quick-win’ economics- we must return to acting as custodians for it, and there is where we will find respect again.

Young Designers

After all- it is a conference for Young Designers.

Jose Fernandes (Parsons Brinckerhoff), Prejay Patel (Mott MacDonald), David Knight (Flint & Neill), Elyes Aidi (Parsons Brinckerhoff), Katerina Vatti (Tony Hogg Design), Despina Tsertikidou (WSP)

This segment of the event celebrated some achievements of younger designers; who all presented papers as part of a larger competition. Jose started by introducing us to a tool he has created as part of his research into bridge dynamics. Intriguingly it allows engineers to get a quick indication of the effects of dynamic loading on simple bridges using nothing more than Excel! Prejay’s talk took us in an unexpected direction, where he discussed the finite element analysis of the pelvis- and how the use of similar ‘meso-scale‘ modelling could help engineers more efficiently assess complex structures.

David gave a talk on a project he had worked on; the Greenwich Reach Swing Bridge. What made this structure noteworthy was the use of a flat plate diagonal truss thru-section, which increased the buckling capacity by 50%. Elyes then shocked us all by bringing in a bit of the Old Wye Bridge– presumably to prove how urgently it needed repairs. More interesting than the technical side of the works, however, was its change management: which involved linking in a live spreadsheet log of defects into the analysis tools.

Katrina’s presentation focused on a field of engineering I’m almost completely ignorant of: fabric membrane structures. What it really highlighted, however, was the effects of ‘architecture-led-engineering’: Where the resulting structure was completely irrational; requiring each and every double layered panel to be individually analysed and designed. Finally Despina talked us though her involvement with the massive London Bridge Station upgrade project; and the difficulties of managing substantial programme pressures, working with partial information and dealing with the outfall of assumptions, which comes with working on our historic infrastructure!

Discussion Panel

City plans must be flexible: things change, and detailed plans are too brittle to take it.

Colin Wilson (GLA), Mark O’Connor (WSP), Clive Atkinson (Mott MacDonald), Karen Cook (PLP Architecture)

Quipping that “London got exciting in the 2000’s”; the view of the panel discussing “Designing the London Skyline” was clearly that the rise of tall-buildings is a good thing. Perhaps more surprising was the discovery that our audience bucked the stereotype of the ‘ordered’ engineer and voted nearly unanimously in favour of the fluid, dynamic and frankly disorganised nature of our city arrangement (that so aptly reflects our historic legal approach to planning) against the more precise ‘zoning‘ found in other cities.

Karen did, however, express a bit of frustration at how slow our system can be; noting that a partial pre-approval approach would be needed to help supply meet demand. The view of the panel was that London is beginning to mature, and the pubescent need for each of our tall buildings to be special (Walkie Talkie, anyone?) is ebbing. City planners are also getting better at negotiating; ensuring that every high-rise either provides affordable accommodation, or contributes to the city as a whole through parks and public infrastructure, etc.

Much of the discussion focused on the life of the buildings (25-50 years for most commercial offices- arguably a waste) and the exclusivity of them; spending our lives designing flats we could never afford. Interestingly Mark noted that this current tendency to mega-tall (40-75 storey) premium high-rises is likely to be a bit of a blip, and that the medium storey towers of the 60s are likely to have a second coming as the city attempts to house its workers.

Michel Virlogeux (Independent)

Clear sketches, first principles and fundamental forms; that, to me, is the epitome of a great engineer.

After last year’s performance by Mike Schlaich, and now Michel’s truly entertaining talk; I’m forced to conclude that engineers on the continent enjoy the profession more than we do! Like other engineering celebrities; I’m never going to do this man justice in a few paragraphs, and I’d really recommend trying to find a talk by him to truly appreciate the experience!

Michel’s talk focused on his experience doing something I’ve said you should never do; making a suspension bridge to carry rail. With the desire to create the slender decks that you would expect from the farther of the Milau Viaduct; Michel won the competition to the new Bosporous Bridge by throwing away the double-decker configuration typically used to provide adequate stiffness, and instead created a cable-stayed/suspension hybrid.

Looking at the 1400m span, Michel quickly identified that the maximum deflections from the heavy combined rail/road loading occurred at the quarter points, and worked to augment the suspension bridge with cable stayed lengths extending out from the pylons; providing enough stiffness while maintaining a razor-thin deck. This system allowed him to find perfect balance in the system under permanent loads; supporting the rest (in his own words) is like finding the cost of VAT!

Mark Whitby (DMagW)

Engineers are always the session artists to the architects; all of the work- none of the glory.

One of the nice things about the Future of Design event are the talks from seasoned engineers who still think that working with structures is fun. Since selling whitbybird back in 2007, Mark, our presidential Olympian (if Wikipedia is to be believed) has set out to take back ownership of our structures, and have fun doing so.

Through a tour-de-force of his more recent projects, Mark has seemingly enjoyed playing with structural forms; although he does acknowledge that architects are needed for the aesthetics (who else knows how to do hand-railing?!) Joking that coming up for new bridge designs is easy, a core theme has been how with working out the detail of every new bridge comes another idea to be investigated and attempted for the next design.

Kirsten Henson (KLH Sustainability)

Finding the right language is key to getting buy-in for sustainability from all parties.

For Kirsten, the main challenge isn’t the engineering behind making things sustainable; but getting everyone from the clients down to the contractors to buy into the idea. There’s a misnomer that ‘sustainability’ is something you add to the project; an unfortunate set of hoops that you have to jump through, which only makes everything more expensive. Some ways of thinking, however, aren’t helping; and she lamented the difficulties she had using a foam mix for inspection chambers because, despite being around from the 1960’s, it was “unproven”.

The art, according to Kirsten, is learning to use the right language. Clients won’t care that BRE such-and-such states that this should be done, or know a CEEQUAL award if it fell out of a tree onto them; but they will know how having a sustainable building fits in with their core business strategy. Using the new BskyB campus as an example, she explains how KLH engaged with the Corporate Sustainability Team to ensure the sustainability of this major new development was a client-led achievement.

Find the cost saving (think land remediation) and health and safety benefits sustainable technologies can bring, and getting buy-in from a contractor is easy. Designers, she said, have a responsibility to not just hide behind the standards, but to really consider the opportunities around them- to ensure lazy specifications to hinder later sustainability options. She finished by cajoling the room to make sure they tell the public just how good we are- silently working small miracles will get us nowhere!

The next IABSE Future of Design event will be in Manchester on the 27th of March. I’ll be aiming to go (company permitting), and if you can, I’d really recommend you do too- if only for the enviable opportunity to meet myself…

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