Design will define the legacy of our infrastructure

Published: 10 Oct 2018

By: Sadie Morgan - Commissioner


Portrait of Sadie Morgan 2017

Today, this year’s Stirling Prize winner will be revealed. The prestigious award, handed out annually by the Royal Institute of British Architects, recognises the UK’s best new building. Winning the Stirling Prize is like receiving the best picture Oscar, and last year dRMM – the practice I founded with Alex de Rijke and Phiip Marsh – picked up the trophy for our work on Hastings Pier. Following a devastating fire in 2010, dRMM worked in partnership with the local community to reimagine and rebuild the pier. Our job as architects was to help bring together ideas and people, to analyse, question, create and communicate a vision – one that the public can appreciate and get behind. The new pier has risen, phoenix-like, from its all too real ashes, creating an enormous, free, public platform over the sea.

The relationship between the built environment and our wellbeing is well-documented. Our surroundings can be a source of detriment, indifference, pleasure or inspiration. Effective urban design is a powerful tool that can help communities thrive in a sustainable and lasting way, while its absence can lead to a fractured society. This is about far more than just aesthetics. It’s about the creation of places that improve people’s lives and social outcomes, promote health and encourage cohesion. Improvements in housing stock through clever use of space, light and dual/triple aspect can offer a much better quality of life within our homes. Done well, schemes can add to the local environment, with good public realm and better-shared outdoor spaces. Design can increase biodiversity and produce developments that are more energy efficient and less polluting. It can empower people to integrate more physical activity into their routines, ensuring green spaces and services are within easy reach and giving children areas for play.

The same holds true when it comes to our infrastructure – something I know well as a Commissioner for the National Infrastructure Commission. In July, we published the UK’s first-ever National Infrastructure Assessment. Looking across a 30-year time horizon and spanning transport, energy, digital, water, flooding and waste, the report makes recommendations for how the Government can address our infrastructure needs. An important thread that runs through this work is the role of design.

The key infrastructure projects of our times won’t just serve us in the short term – they need to be fit for purpose for the future. The public should rightly expect a quality service that proves the value of such significant investment. Embedding thoughtful design into the culture of infrastructure planning will help to achieve an end result that looks good and works well. Good design is about problem solving and as such can save money, improve resilience, reduce risk, and protect and enhance the natural environment. Too often design is an afterthought, a hurried tick box exercise tacked on at the eleventh hour. Our ambition is for every major project to consider design at the outset of development and at every stage throughout delivery, making the most of our infrastructure without increasing costs.

There are signs that this is starting to happen, with projects like HS2 and Crossrail consulting design panels, but we want this approach to be the norm, not the exception. We think projects need two things: advocacy for design at the highest level and access to design expertise. We are recommending that all nationally significant infrastructure projects – those authorised through hybrid parliamentary bills or national policy statements – should have a board level design champion and use a design panel to maximise the benefits the infrastructure will bring. To provide support and raise awareness, we are proposing to establish a National Infrastructure Design Group of leading industry professionals to set overall principles for excellence in infrastructure design and drive this agenda forward.

The experience of our built environment speaks to our national identity, it says something about who we are and what we are good at. As a country, we are moving into a decade where many big infrastructure projects are being delivered. It will be design that defines the legacy they leave behind. We must make sure that our infrastructure adds to the life of our cities and countryside, that it is fit for purpose, designed for the needs of all, is not wasteful of the world’s resources and most importantly stands the test of time. The next generation should be as proud of these projects as we are of the heritage of our Victorian past.

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