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Looking at the Future of Design: Part 1

Looking at the Future of Design: Part 1

Last week I decided to break from the bonds of work and go network with the high and mighty at the IABSE (pronounced, it turns out, I-ab-see) Future of Design 2013 conference, which, despite never earning any commission, I’m still willing to promote.

And what a day it was too; in fact, my original aim of compressing it into a short summary article waned when I realised just how much I’d noted down in my inscrutable short-hand. So, with little more ado then a quick note (to whit: “fun was had by all”), let’s press on with Part 1 (of 2, I’m not Tolkien) of the IABSE Future of Design 2013: A Brand New Hope.

Sadie Morgan (dRMM)

Most engineers design in Concrete and Steel; it’s all to easy to forget Timber- perhaps its time we remembered.

If this conference has done one thing, it’s softened my opinion towards architects. Sadie’s talk was a great way of starting, providing, as it did, a much needed reminder about how much fun design can be. Of the pro-timber manifesto, my two highlights had to be the ‘Naked House‘; a ‘slot-together’ wooden affair where bits of each panel were removed to create the furniture, and the ‘Sliding House’, which is best appreciated as a video. Of course, whether or not it’s inspired a generation to design in timber is something only time will tell.

Peter Ayres (AECOM)

What do you need to get a job building in the Polar regions? A bit of luck, and a lot of passion and enthusiasm.

I was excited about this talk before I even came to the event; how often do you get the chance to meet an engineer who’s worked on every continent; including Antarctica? Peter’s talk didn’t disappoint. With a focus on the Halley VI research station; designing in extreme, uncodified conditions, where first principles and testing are the only guides.

It’s hard to imagine working in an environment where you only have a three month window to erect the structure, a single dock precariously made of 1m thick sea-ice, and a foundation that is melting from the bottom, flowing out to sea, and burying you in snow. There was real elegance in the solution of using ski-mounted jack pads to support an elevated modular structure; but the real pique come from his closing statement- that this work is beginning to inform future construction on Mars.

Ian Ritchie (IRAL)

“Water connects the world, but divides people.”

Out of all the talks Ian’s stands out as the most abstract. While other’s may have focused on their own work in design, Ian took the opportunity to rhapsodise on everything from architectural frameworks (failing where small start-ups cannot beat large firms), to the false-hood of “Consumers as Gods”. The most striking moment, to me, came in the declaration of designing with words– aphorisms- as they are far more easily thrown away than drawings.

Clive Loosemore (Costain)

What do contractors care about? Program, Risk and Cost; everything, in short, that the client does.

Joking that he was a “fox in a hen-house”, the only contractor at the conference provided a stark contrast (and indeed, much needed grounding) with a discussion on managing contractual risk. For my experience, he made a good number of recommendations including: Keeping a single point of design responsibility (to prevent confusion); using a short chain of command for change (to prevent bureaucracy); and the use of soft-contracts where high proportions of the gains, and small proportions of the losses were shared between consultant and contractor (to encourage better pricing and innovation). He was also the first, but by no means the last, to set the tone of advocating co-location.

Lars L Nielsen (COWI)

Bridge Design has developed dramatically over recent years, and there is no obvious reasons why the development would stop.

Introduced as Bridge Design 3.0, this talk managed to float around a real interest of mine; Engineering Software. Where v1.0 of our ability to design bridges were pens, paper and a whole lot of tables, now (at 2.0) we use a whole array of softwares (think how many bridges now are only possible because of Finite Elements?). For our next iteration, Lars insists, we’re heading towards a fully integrated process- draw the structure, analyse it and then undertake the detailed design within a single program. Personally, I’m dubious; as they say: A jack of all trades is a master of none.

Martin Knight (Knight Architects)

Build for the Community: “It’s their bridge, it’s not our bridge.”

I think I won’t be the only one to admit a touch of surprise when Martin, as an architect, began his presentation with a quote from none other than the DMRB; a set of standards that say bleak-functional infrastructure like no other. Continuing to talk about what makes well designed structures iconic, he used his own work on the Te Matau a Pohe bridge to demonstrate how the use of a community symbol, reduced to a simple and memorable shape, had captured an audience. In a memorable moment, he recapitulated by returning to the DMRB; completing his argument that “to not use an architect [on a road bridge] is a departure from standard.”

Roma Agrawal (WSP)

In an industry where we are forever complaining about a lack of awareness, it’s great to see someone who can be both a keynote speaker and an approachable face on Twitter.

Out of all of the prominent speakers, Roma was the only one I knew for more than reputation. Mindful of her work promoting the profession to women, I took the opportunity to have a look around the room as she took to the podium; with 30-40% of the audience female, it definitely feels there’s been a marked improvement over that last few years.

Having sunk 6-8 years of her life into the Shard, it was great to hear about some of the design considerations: did you know that the ‘Shard’ is a modern take on the spires that littered the Thames in antiquity?; or that when faced with the question “Concrete” or “Steel” for a mixed use building- they took the plunge and just went for both?! Perhaps my favourite bit (betraying my background on grubby and unappreciated rail sites,) was the introduction of a basement image, showing only 10-15 surprisingly slender columns- half-coated in concrete and London grime, as her boss’ favourite picture; because that’s what holds the Shard up.

Stay tuned for Part 2: The IABSE Strikes Back.

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  1. […] is Part 2 (check out Part 1 for the backstory that makes the twist so engaging) of the trials and tribulations at the IABSE […]

  2. […] presenter; and although I’d already heard from him about the Antarctic research station before, for this talk he had mixed it up a little, and added a lot more […]

  3. […] Like Glastonbury (but without the musical camping); the Future of Design 2014 event programme is still shrouded in mystery. A good few speakers have been announced, however, including the engineer behind the Milau Viaduct and a suspiciously large number of people involved with the Garden Bridge that Arup have planned for London. If you want to know what to expect, check out my write up of last year. […]

  4. […] 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. […]