‘We have got to make governments and big delivery bodies believe in design’

11 March, 2018

At the last Archiboo Pitch, panellist Sadie Morgan, director of dRMM and the the youngest National Infrastructure Commissioner overseeing HS2, called on architects to “put their heads above the parapet “ by getting more involved in infrastructure projects because “at the moment they are not even in the room”.

How much is being spent on infrastructure?

“The total public sector budget is £200bn – it’s a shedload of money and my beef is that the architectural community aren’t engaged in most of what is being procured, designed and delivered. I estimate that two per cent of this will be spent on design – that may be me putting my finger in the air but what I am trying to say is that if you look at the infrastructure projects, it’s usually just the stations where architects feel there’s a natural fit. But there’s a whole other area – £6bn worth of civil contracting in HS2 at this moment in time being designed and delivered – and thankfully, because there’s been an emphasis on design, architecture is part of the mix – and that’s very, very unusual.

What is the NIC doing to encourage a more design-led approach?

We commissioned a piece of work on how transport infrastructure could unlock other development opportunities for new settlements by reclassifying existing townscapes. We foresaw we could build more houses, more homes than anyone anticipated if you did it carefully, thoughtfully embedded in a proper plan. It’s sort of simple, it’s not rocket science.

“But there’s a capability and skillset that’s been lost by the stripping out of the planning teams in local government, and it’s really showing now.

“I don’t have the answers, all I am trying to do is point out an opportunity, to say to architects we are not putting our heads above the parapet, we are not really offering our services which are problem-solving, lateral thinking, a capability of bringing in a different perspective, a spatial understanding, all of the things that help these big projects invest themselves with people and place. We’re not there, our voice is not even in the room at the moment – and we need to address that.

Sadie Morgan – “It’s not difficult to think about creative engineering.”

So what can architects do to get involved?

“Architects should look like they are interested in infrastructure, to talk about it and think about it, the same way that at the archiboo pitch, the winning presentation stood up and did a quick scheme for a site, why don’t archiects start thinking about how technologies are going to change our infrastructure, our built environment, our roads, our rail.

“And in the same way you break into any sector, archiects need to think about partnering with larger practices, not just larger architectural practices but big engineering firms who are delivering infrastructure projects.

And a final word?

“It’s a bottom up and top down. From the top, we have got to make governments, and big delivery bodies believe in design – and that’s part of what the design task force will be doing – and making sure that design is part of the conversation, part of the procurement, and all that stuff, and then, as a profession architects need to put themselves in that arena.

“There are very few architects who describe themselves as interested in infrastructure. If you go on their websites, it’s unlikely that they will say they are anything to do with infrastructure. If you are inventive and willing, you’ll win through. You haven’t got much competition!

And what happens if design is ignored?

“If you are designing big parts of the city, and you do it without any understanding of coordination and optimisation – all the things that designers are good at because we’re problem solving – you end up with inefficient infrastructure that  needs redesigning or at worst literally crashes into the existing environment and is completely detrimental to existing communities. In everything – roads, rail, power lines – we could so much better. In Holland, you don’t just build a concrete flood defence, you build a beautiful cycle park, or a playground. It’s not difficult to think about creative engineering.”

Main image: Millau Viaduct near Millau in southern France, designed by Foster & Partners and Michel Virlogeux