Ramboll has developed a dynamic masterplanning tool which cuts out hundreds of hours of work to give clients instant answers.
The old adage of buying in haste and repenting at leisure can particularly resonate with developer clients. They often have to make quick decisions about sites without an in-depth analysis of the risks and potential.
Savill’s commercial property arm says that in London, despite Brexit, there is still huge tenant demand. It says that if no new properties came on the market, there would only be a year’s supply of office space left in the City and the West End – two or more years’ supply is normally considered healthy.
Pre-let office space
The firm says 26% of the office space due to come onto the market between 2019 and 2022 in the City of London is pre-let. This means tenants are starting to bag space on sites which have not yet seen a spade in the ground.
Although demand for retail space is experiencing a downturn, landlords are expected to start looking at giving some of this space to other uses, including residential, hotels and even warehouses.
The need for new housing is well documented, with engineers increasingly having to make the most out of increasingly constrained spaces.
Consultant Ramboll developed its SiteSolve dynamic masterplanning tool initially as a way to help clients get a fast-track insight into the potential a piece of land has.
It’s about bringing data, which would normally only be available later, to the early stages
“In the traditional design process, [at the start] you know very little and you’re making decisions on assumptions you know very little about, and at the end of the process you know everything but can’t change it,” says Ramboll associate and digital design specialist Ruth Norman-Johnson.
“So, there is this horrible conflict on a project that we’ve experienced for a number of years.
“Given technology, automation, computational power and all the developments that are going on in the digital world, it just doesn’t need to be that way.”
Ramboll’s masterplanning tool helps developers understand what they can fit into a site, how much it could cost, and then even explore how tall a structure could be. It enables them to fundamentally reduce the risk on their project upfront.
It is a constraints-led program which works by using algorithms – the technology can analyse thousands of options in a fraction of the time it would normally take to look at one. By inputting a developer client’s preference – whether it is river views or maximum building height – options can be narrowed to the most viable options at an early stage.
Wide ranging analysis
The programme analyses a range of other factors that could affect the development of the whole site, or the impacts of various different site layouts.
These include potential massing, overshadowing, incidental radiation, wind comfort, sight lines, baseloads, craneage, solar reflectance, travel distance, and modularisation. Hours or days of manual modelling can now be done in seconds.
“It’s about bringing data, which would normally only be available later, to the early stages to allow our clients to feel more comfortable in the decisions they make,” says Norman-Johnson.
At the New Civil Engineer TechFest last September, judges awarded this new tool the Driving Efficiency through Design Award.
We managed to show TfL that there was a lot more potential on the sites than they thought there was
“Usefully boring,” the presenter said; “usefully innovative” the judges said.
Transport for London (TfL) is one of SiteSolve’s users. It uses it to explore over-site development potential. One development at a busy station site had to take into account rail infrastructure and assets, complex topography, active highways and utilities. The system managed to find that if some assets adjacent to the station were moved, four times the area they occupied could be made available as residential space.
In addition, it showed that line closures could be avoided by relocating foundations. In total, 5,000m2 of additional viable development area was generated.
“For TfL it’s about understanding the land it has and allowing it to explore and visualise options and demonstrate the potential of the land, because it is very easy to be risk averse in quite a challenging infrastructure environment,” says Norman-Johnson.
“We did that with it on a couple of sites and managed to show them that there was a lot more potential on the sites than they thought there was. TfL could know risk was managed and that it was exploring a viable solution.”
Origins of the idea
“Off the back of that project, we thought this might be more broadly applicable, but it just didn’t really fit in the market at that point, so we never really pursued it,” continues Norman-Johnson. “And then about two years ago, we thought [the sector] has got big productivity challenges, there’s always talk that we need, as an industry, to get better and more efficient, now is probably the time to really push this forward. Let’s see what we can do.”
The team started developing a prototype and found that clients were interested in the idea. It did some early work with clients, creating specific technology for each project. With graduate engineers coming into Ramboll able to code as well as specific IT staff, the team was quickly able to develop the program.
“We love engineers that can code. We also have people in the business from an IT background. It’s bringing all those skills together in combination with domain knowledge. It’s the people that know the clients and the challenges the clients face, coming together with the people that can code and solve technical problems,” says Norman-Johnson.
In the future Norman-Johnson says Ramboll wants to start applying machine learning, so the technology can be fed with data from successful schemes so it learn and generate solutions. Clients can already star rate solutions, which the machine learns about so future designs can reflect the preference of the developer.
“Design for so many years has been done behind closed doors. You have 20 people in a room, you sit together, everybody has a little bit of knowledge in their head. As a team we bring it together and we come up with a solution.
“That has worked for years, but it doesn’t need to be that way anymore. We can sit in the room as a team, we can see the results in front of our eyes, and we can get much further much faster than we could with this kind of tool.
“ That’s where the value comes for me. It’s about putting design into the open and putting our clients at the heart of the design process,” says Norman-Johnson.
The innovation is in its early days, but it is already making a significant impact on projects.