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Civil engineers urged “to take responsibility” for good design

14 September 2020

Civil engineers have been urged to raise their sights and grab responsibility for good design on their projects in our latest strategy session. Watch it again here. 

Civil engineers urged “to take responsibility” for good design

Good design is the responsibility of everybody who works on an infrastructure project – not just people who are called ‘designers’. So said National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) commissioner Professor Sadie Morgan, speaking at ICE’s latest Strategy Session: ‘What makes good design?’ chaired by ICE president Paul Sheffield.

Morgan, the co-founding director of architecture firm dRMM and HS2’s design panel chair said that good design must be at the heart of tomorrow’s infrastructure:”Everybody working on a project is responsible for design – for ensuring good design – it’s not just those that are called designers.”

The Commission advises UK government on all sectors of economic infrastructure, and its Design Group, of which Morgan is chair, has published design principles that describe design being “as much about process as it is product… embedded at every step of planning and delivery.”

ICE and the NIC Design Group have formed a partnership to explore civil engineers’ relationship with design. ICE members have been invited to take part in a survey entitled, ‘What makes good design’ to inform the Institution of its forward programme of work.

ICE fellow and Expedition Engineering senior director Judith Sykes, echoed Morgan’s sentiment, adding that, “there are no design heroes” but that good design came from working well together. Sykes, whose experience includes High Speed One, Heathrow Terminal 5 and the London 2012 Olympics added that civil engineers needed to be more confident in recognising when different skills were needed to achieve the best outcomes for the climate, people, places and value. She explained that industry also needed to accept that the design process was not linear. “It has to be iterative to resolve multiple objectives.”

Watch the session again in full below.

Strategy Session: What makes good design? 8th September 2020 from ICE Group on Vimeo.

Understanding the value of design

Organisations like HS2, Highways England and Network Rail are starting to understand the value of design and the need for ‘critical friends’. This was confirmed by Network Rail professional head for buildings and architecture Anthony Dewar who reported that Network Rail has published its own design principles and launched a competition to find the best options for improving small and medium-sized stations.

The importance of designing for a wider context was discussed by Andrew Grant, founder of landscape architect Grant Associates and award-winning designer of Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay. “We think of the context as being the site boundary, but in the modern world we have to think about the context as being the planet,” he told the audience.

He also highlighted the enormous influence civil engineers have due to their sheer numbers [currently at 95,000] – more than ten times his own professional institution – and explained infrastructure’s far-reaching “value”.

“Value is not just about saving money; it’s about how we really start to build social or environmental infrastructure and make places that are going to be sustainable in the long run.”

Cost and benefit

Professor Hanif Kara, co-founder and design director of AKT II, continued on the subject of cost and value: “I think design is seen as a cost rather than a benefit,” he said. “But money is not the only thing that creates value; and cost is not the only way to measure value.”

Kara gave examples of projects that have created value in different ways, including the CopenHill waste to energy plant in Copenhagen, which has a ski slope on its roof; and Northala Fields in west London, where four hills have been built from the rubble of the old Wembley Stadium and spoil from construction of a shopping centre. The hills reduce visual and noise pollution and provide a unique landmark for the parkland.

“I believe design is a way of life,” concluded Kara. “This is about designing a better world. Don’t puff it with engineering and science; and don’t puff it with architecture and vanity.”

  • Margo Cole, technical writer and editor at ICE
  • Ruby Kitching, head of engineering insight at ICE