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Pushing the design envelope

Young structural engineers and designers gathered at University College London last week to discuss the future of design. Antony Oliver assesses the challenge.

Designers of the future must be driven by passion, innovation, collaboration and determination if they are to create a sustainable environment for the 21st century, young designers heard at last week’s International Association of Bridge & Structural Engineers Future of Design conference.

And also by wood, according to Architecture Association president and partner of award winning architecture practice dRMM Sadie Morgan as she kicked off the conference.

The renaissance of wood as a structural material, she explained - in particular the new breed of technically sophisticated soft and hardwood cross laminated timbers (CLT) - was central to meeting the profession’s ambitions of driving a low carbon future while also creating an environment in which people feel comfortable living in.

“Wood was once at the heart of our society as a structure material,” explained Morgan, pointing out that, while even Brunel built bridges with it, the material had been overrun by brick, steel and concrete as a material of choice. “So where did it all go wrong for wood?” she asked.

“We need a new shared spirit of adventure. If people say that you are wrong then you are probably on the right track.”

Ian Ritchie

The answers are, in many ways, obvious when you see what has been achieved with the use of these other materials - including the dozens of stunning examples shared with delegates by speakers throughout the day.

But, Morgan said, this should not mean that wood does not have a future in a sustainable low carbon world.

Morgan illustrated her point by taking delegates on an inspiring visual CLT journey which culminated with dRMM’s Endless Stair project which opened outside the Tate Modern in London last week.

She described the beauty and flexibility of wood starting with the 2006 Naked House; the Kingsdale School gym structure in Dulwich; the astonishing Sliding House project in Suffolk; and the hybrid concrete cored Rundeskogen Towers project in Norway which demonstrated CLT as a truly structurally significant building material.

Challenging the norms

Yet each of these projects also demonstrates that, regardless of material used, successful design really does demand a belief that norms can be challenged. As Morgan put it, designers must “keep innovating and be determined to create beautiful engineering”.

Yet, as world renowned architect Ian Ritchie pointed out, the commercially driven world today can hold back innovation through its relentless focus on measuring rather than valuing the cost of ideas.

“In our low risk society we see a management madness that stifles innovation,” he said. “We need a new shared spirit of adventure. If people say that you are wrong then you are probably on the right track.”

The concept of pushing back against so-called impossible solutions was also underlined by Aecom’s Halley VI project leader Peter Ayres who described the process and challenges of designing and constructing a research station in Antarctica on a moving ice shelf with a three month construction window.

“It is the science that drives the station design,” he said, highlighting the fact that international protocols in this region demand a light environmental touch, so innovative design and multidisciplinary teamwork was the only way.

“The value of your scientific work has to outweigh the cost to the environment of being there but there is a balance to meet between survival and the ability to work.”

“We are not really taking into account whole life material impacts. We need better baseline and incentives”

Andy Wong, Gammon

The modular design of Halley VI, simple prefabrication and the focus on recycling of all waste,
water and heat also pushed forward the norm in terms of low carbon and sustainable design, a concept that, of course, pervades design beyond the Antarctic border.

Clearly structures like the 310m tall Shard tower in London raise a question mark over the designer’s role in creating a sustainable low carbon future (See box).
WSP designer Roma Agramal, who worked on the Shard for six years, said the key to the project’s success was making the structure as light, efficient, quick and easy to build as possible.

In essence, innovative design saw the core constructed top down and the structure switch from concrete to steel back to concrete then again to steel as it progressed up, thus gaining more useable floors and avoiding the need for expensive dampers.

Putting aside the fundamental debate about whether high rise structures can ever be sustainable, by lightening the structure and so using less to gain more, good design had delivered a more sustainable result.

Material impact

It was a point tackled by Roger Ridsall Smith, head of Foster & Partners’ structural design group, who after presenting three of his recent projects, discussed the concept of whether, given the competing forces of fabrication, transport, labour and operation, you can actually calculate the impact of any particular material choice.

His conclusion was that he tended to subscribe to the view that if you can design structures to use as little of any given material as possible, whether it is steel concrete aluminium or wood, then generally speaking you will end up with the most sustainable solution.

Thus, he added, while wood was certainly a very interesting and beautiful material to work with, as a sustainable low carbon option, he feared it required simply too much of it to be used for it to be a truly sustainable structural solution.

A renaissance for wood could perhaps be harder than it once seemed.

Unless of course you follow the advice of University College London head of design John Eyre who advocated that designers constantly approach problems with an open mind to the solution - including their choice of material.

He pointed out that questions such as what materials are used or how much money is spent must be tackled by the design process. “And if you don’t give creativity room then you repress it,” he said.


Sustainability debate

Although designers understand the importance of creating a sustainable low carbon infrastructure, the specific drivers and challenges are less clear, International Association of Bridge & Structural Engineers (IABSE) Future of Design delegates heard.

Structural engineer Jane Wernick is clear that, while a huge amount of work has been done to understand the sustainable implications of design decisions, the industry still lacks the tools to analyse the complete picture.

“While we all use tools such as Breeam and LEED to measure performance we still do not do enough post-occupancy analysis of building performance,” she told a discussion on low carbon structures during last week’s IABSE Future of Design conference.

“We need to embrace the impact of cradle to factory gate; transport to site; construction; operation and demolition,” she said. It is vital to understand and then change client resistance to retrofitting existing structures and encourage new build to adopt “loose fit design with decent floor to ceiling heights so as to enable flexible future uses”, she added.

The need to establish a better performance baseline across structure life was underlined by Hong Kong based structural engineer Andy Wong from Gammon Construction.

“We are not doing enough analysis,” he said. “We are currently only looking at the building’s operational emissions and not really taking into account whole life material impacts. We need better baseline and incentives.”

Working in Hong Kong has given Wong a unique view on whether, regardless of the level of sustainability analysis carried out, the construction of super tall structures such as the Shard could ever be justified.

Wong argued that it was the responsibility of the designer to ensure that the client’s need was satisfied with the most efficient and sustainable whole life solutions, hence the need to boost the quality of the tools used to carry out the analysis.

Sustainable design expert Craig Jones of consultant Circular Ecology agreed that establishing whole life thinking was the key. The future, all speakers agreed, was not about creating boring structures but creating structures that ensure lives and a sustainable future.

“Clients have a role in stimulating the demand for low carbon structures,” he said. “But we need to adopt a holistic and collaborative approach to this challenge.”

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