Why Don't We Design Better?

06/01/2013 09:59 | Updated 07 March 2013
  • Becci Taylor Associate Engineer at Arup and Women of the Future 2012 in Science & Technology

Why are systems so often set up to prevent the success that is possible with truly collaborative, integrated design? I work in the construction industry, where there are many barriers to achieving this goal. Significantly that most buildings are designed by multi-company teams newly formed for each project and knowledge transfer between projects is difficult. As an industry we learn slowly, and information flow through our value chain is poor. This characteristic accentuates the need for a holistic design approach to produce efficient and delightful buildings. I'm pretty sure that the issues I outline below can be applied to other projects involving multiple parties such as large scale digital media projects or government initiatives.

Buildings are generally conceived, designed, built and used in a linear way. The norm does not encourage interaction between these processes and feedback loops in the industry are fairly poor. As a result there is significant wastage of time and effort from highly trained minds. And as we commoditize concepts such as 'sustainability', an increasingly regulated construction industry continues to enable folly to the extent that we may be in danger of building increasingly worse spaces that are harder to build and more difficult to operate.

I love great architecture, and don't want some notion of 'sensible' design for easy construction and simple operation to impede its creation. I believe that collaborative integrated design ought to inspire and enhance architectural vision. Better buildings are better for people in aesthetic and operational terms, leading to truly sustainable results.

A building must consider and respond to its setting, and interface positively with its surroundings. It should simultaneously take opportunity from its context and improve by its presence. This architectural attitude should be extended to the interaction of the building with the physical environment and the powerful natural resources of sun and air. Truly integrated building design considers the opportunities in the environment (often called passive design) such that the physics of the building are efficient. It also considers the construction of the building, and the use and maintenance of the building. To be truly successful, this process ought to also start with a client brief which is developed with input from the team.

In most examples this simply doesn't happen. And there are plenty of examples where the lack of integrated holistic design leads to complete unfitness for purpose. The worst cases I have seen include schools where access to services is so poor that they cannot be properly maintained or where internal acoustics prevent teaching; or buildings with glazing that causes uncomfortable overheating. These failures of the design process are often due to an 'additive' approach to design.

The extreme additive design process follows a linear process of conception by a client; development by an architect; being 'made to work' by engineers; and made buildable more cost effectively by contractors. Design in this way cannot be integrated. Details are solved piece by piece. Elements are added to make it work, make it 'green' and pass building regulations or score points. I am an engineer; I am trained to solve problems. But it is deeply unsatisfying to solve problems that didn't really need to exist in the first place. And design in this manner loses the elegance and efficiency that makes great engineering and great architecture.

As the building process gets more complex, the problem gets worse. This quote from Ove Arup poses the problem well.

"Specialization is the way civilization moves forward - and perhaps it is the way it will destroy itself. Faced with a complex entity we split it up, catalogue the parts, study and develop them separately and then fail to put them together again."

These issues are not something we can legislate for. Building regulations have made significant improvements in elemental performance of buildings, but it is unlikely that they could, without becoming unwieldy, change fundamental problems in the design process. This is not an issue for the government to regulate but instead for designers to embrace morally. Human energy is wasted and results are poorer when design processes ignore important constraints and opportunities at the outset.

There are 'sustainability' scoring systems out there (such as BREEAM and LEED) which help, but also encourage a check box mentality of 'we don't get points for that, so there is no point in doing it.' There is little encouragement for egalitarian design teams. How about a scoring system that awards a point for 'the architects talked to the engineers before they picked up a pen' or the involvement of constructors early on the design process? And are there lessons to be learnt and shared across industries?