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Future of Design North 2015: Part 1

Future of Design North 2015: Part 1

With a quote from Prince Phillip about how the world that surrounds us is the vision of architects and engineers, the IABSE Future of Design North started off as it meant to continue; celebrating and sharing the innovations of our profession. It was exciting to see the fantastic conference venture beyond the capital; and just as amazing to see that it was just as successful for it- with well over 100 attendees and the first speaker from outside Europe.

Today’s post is brought to you with a prefix of shame, however. You see, the IABSE Future of Design North 2015 happened over three months ago. Since then I’ve had my notebook of inscrutable writings from the event glaring at me reproachfully from my desk draw; while my turn-around for this post approaches Duke Nukem like heights. My only real excuse is that I’m an engineer (lit. someone who has half the spare time they think they do.) Better late than never, however, and hopefully this will act as a fond remembrance for those who went, now, just as much as a good summary for those who didn’t.

Francine Houben (Mecanoo)

We should design for people first, then the place and finally the purpose.

Aptly fresh from the opening of a new office in Manchester, Houben talked about Mecanoo’s principles of design. Taking an interdisciplinary approach with their “symphony orchestra” of employees with diverse skill sets and even more diverse origins, the firm doesn’t believe that architecture is just an expression of art; it is something that should touch all the senses. Their philosophy is “People, Place and Purpose”. You might know everything about what constitutes a beautiful structure; but unless you’ve taken the time to understand the people and place that will form its context- all is lost.

Explaining the process, Houben talked us through the stages that led to the Birmingham Library. By walking through the city and talking to the people, she came to realize that it is an industrial town; where the river forms an incidental journal of art- giving her a story to form the architecture around. Learning how celebrated the archive was- she made sure that it wasn’t just relegated to the basement as so often happens. The result is a space that people enjoy, coping with the changing use of libraries over time; which is more than I can say for my local concrete block!

Brian Duguid (Mott MacDonald)

There are limits to analysis; sometimes you have to test and measure empirically.

Another fitting topic- the Northern Hub; a massive upgrade to the rail network to significantly improve services to and around the north of England. For this talk Duguid focused on the Ordsall Chord; a bridge that provides a critical bypass across a busy branch. Requiring 300m of new structures, widening of old masonry arches and situated on an environmentally and historically sensitive site (passing over Stephenson’s skew bridge, for example); the project would be complicated enough (when else will you need to film a masonry arch to determine how it behaves under load?!) without the decision to innovate by using a Network Arch form for the Chord.

Focusing on the delivery of the project Duguid noted that this form, while incredibly efficient when complete, is less so in the temporary condition. This has added to the complexity; highlighting the notion that while simplicity may not deliver the best solution- it does allow changes to be more easily forecast, making the design more flexible. Duguid seemed to have a similar attitude to BIM; noting that its “unbearable certainty” meant that models were often misleading, especially in the early stages where the design was still developing, or interfaced with existing, imperfect, structures.

Perhaps the most interesting points, to me, were on the commercial aspects of the project. Delivered under an alliance model, the client, consultant and contractor all take ownership of the project- sharing the risk and the successes. Fantastic for complex, or ill-defined projects (like everything I seem to work on!), it forces collaboration; making the team focus on solutions, not problems. Noting that Duguid works as the sign-off for both the contractor and the client shows just how effective the model has been at removing the traditional adversarial attitudes that are common in our contracts.

Anna Liu & Mike Tonkin (Tonkin Liu)

Lessons on minimising material and building strong, efficient, structural forms can be found everywhere in nature

It’s funny how easy it is to get set in your way. After nearly 10 years of training, when asked to draw a structural form I’m conditioned to pull out an I, a square/rectangle, T, or maybe an L. What’s amazing about Liu and Tonkin’s “story of failures” is that they were able to look beyond this and take inspiration from nature; shells and leaves; to form structures from incredibly thin, flat, steel sheets into immensely strong forms. It’s not often you see meters of span formed of millimeter thin steel!

Although their story was one of posturing, tendering and being (in the main) declined; they have been learning from these failures- acknowledging that these thin plate systems are only strong in the permanent condition and therefore need to be augmented for the temporary case to avoid prohibitive false works; working to realise their components from 2D elements to allow them to be formed without wastage; analysing the sections to remove all but the critically stressed parts. So in the not too distant future, I hope we’ll start to see some significant structures birthed from this remarkable form.

Peter Miller (Severfield)

Don’t forget to think how we build our structures; it’s not enough for it just to work in the permanent case.

It seems an IABSE tradition to bring along one person who actually does some real work (lit. a contractor), presumably so they can look on in fear as the speakers discuss increasingly complex and intricate designs for them to realise. Miller works at Severfield (née Watson), who are responsible for fabricating and erecting some of the most challenging projects in the UK, and his talk focused on some of the techniques they’re using to deliver projects in increasingly economic, program and space constrained sites.

Perhaps most impressive was his revelation that they are now sliding bridges over live rail lines. For those of you who haven’t worked with Network Rail, this is a massive achievement. Of course, the art is in assurance; significant work goes in beforehand, working with the permanent works designers to ensure the temporary conditions can be supported, pre-erection and test runs and a well-honed system of working. It is, however, a massive bit of progress- the ability to safely install new bridges across the line without closing it will do a lot to relieve the inconvenience and cost of possessions.

Neil Thomas (Atelier One)

Always use a common designer/contractor model; it’s the only way for complex projects: collaborate!

It’s not every day you get a talk from the Royal Designer for Industry. Describing the role of the engineer as something between a magician, a school boy and a builder; Thomas took us through some of the exciting projects he’s worked on over the years before finishing on a stark reminder that climate change is a very real problem that, as an industry, we seem to be ignoring. Talking about the future of design he says he’s holding out hope for the coming innovations in self-assembly structures and programmable textiles.

Thomas has definitely strayed from the beaten path with his firm; primarily working to deliver the structural elements of concert stages. It’s not often you get to hear about the design challenges behind U2’s requirements for a 360 degree screen– “either you put a damper in now and wonder if you needed it, or leave it out and find out you did!”. When it comes to working on bespoke multidiscipline projects under the public eye (where there’s no second chances), Thomas notes that collaboration becomes essential; all teams working on the same model and constantly sharing their ideas, expertise and experiences to ensure the final product works on the night.

Richard Hornby (Arup)

During construction the Queensferry Crossing will be the largest cantilever in the world.

I feel a bit like I’m being stalked by the new Forth bridge, whose progress I’ve accidentally followed closely; although thanks to Thomas I now know that it’s a bridge, and not a tunnel, because you can’t easily transport Whiskey though a tunnel! Hornby’s talk focused on the design; the challenge to produce a solution that combines elegance, efficiency and economy (or are they the same thing?) while not looking out of place standing alongside a river of bridges that were the state of the art for their time.

One thing I didn’t know about cable stayed bridges is the while two towers are common, three or more are not. As you increase the towers it is necessary to start relying on tower bending and deck stiffness. You could tie the tops of the towers to solve this problem; but the spans involved result in self-weight stretching that is prohibitive. Instead Hornby used a parametric approach to discover that overlapping the anchor lengths of each tower by approximately 33% results in an ideal balance between deck thickness and tower size. Now under construction, the bridge should be open in 2016.

That’s it for the first part, look out for the second half coming next week (or the week after; two weeks at the outside…)!

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  1. […] heard of the IABSE Future of Design events (then you should at least read the first post of this two-parter)- they’re a series of conferences aimed at celebrating and sharing the best of (structural) […]