Principles before particulars secures project success, say NIC design experts

New guidance on developing project level design principles is published.

Published: 21 May 2024

By: Ben Wilson


The National Infrastructure Commission’s Design Group has published guidance on developing and implementing design principles for major infrastructure projects.
Building on the Group’s high level design principles – climate, people, places and value – the new guidance sets out a structured process for applying tailored principles at every stage of a project life cycle.
The Design Group is an advisory committee to the Commission, which in turn advises government on long term infrastructure strategy.
In her foreword to the guidance, Design Group Chair Professor Sadie Morgan (dRMM architects) says that following such a process can help “generate support for schemes from stakeholders, deliver the widest possible benefits, facilitate a smoother planning and consenting process, and avoid costly problems later in the project lifecycle.”
The document includes case studies of ongoing projects which have adopted design principles from an early stage, including the Lower Thames Crossing, Tideway and Sizewell C.
The guidance recommends project leaders:

  • Make sure there is a genuine commitment from the most senior levels of the project to using a structured design process from the earliest stages
  • Put principles in place before taking any decisions – and once in place, ensure they become a key part of the governance framework, informing all decision making
  • Make sure that principles support the widest range of outcomes (not just operational functions) and that they are used to directly inform each design iteration
  • Keep revising the principles as new information comes to light and use them to manage an evolving project effectively.

Stressing that “every project will have a unique set of requirements, technical challenges, consenting issues and procurement processes”, the document sets out “a generic lifecycle and an indication of how the design principles might look at each stage.”
The document lists issues which project leaders might consider including under each of the four design principles for national infrastructure, from climate resilience to how the scheme will work with local partners to unlock additional value beyond the site boundary.
Commission Chair Sir John Armitt notes the volume of major projects expected over the next 20 years: “Our latest National Infrastructure Assessment envisages around £70bn of public and private money being invested in infrastructure each year during the 2030s and 2040s. Before then, at least 17 new major electricity transmission projects and nine water resource projects will be required before this decade is out.
“If these projects are to be successful, and meet public, political and investor expectations, they must have a focused attention on design – in its widest sense – at every single stage.”
The new guidance has been welcomed by the Infrastructure Projects Authority, whose head of infrastructure Stephen Dance will speak at the publication’s launch event at UKREiiF in Leeds today (21 May).
The UK government’s National Infrastructure Strategy, published in 2020, committed to embedding good design in all major infrastructure projects. The strategy requires all NSIPs to have board level design champions in place and to have regard to the Commission’s design principles.

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