With the government spending on transport, there’s room for architects to make inroads in the sector

Charles Mills, head of Crossrail at London Underground
Charles Mills, head of Crossrail at London Underground

Transport clients populated the RIBA’s latest roundtable discussion. Attracted by the UK’s huge investment in transport infrastructure, the event found attitudes to architects to be generally positive. On the one hand, peacock projects like HS2 (especially with dRMM’s Sadie Morgan heading its design panel) have a much-vaunted focus on design; on the other, sub-sectors such as road-building rely on standardisation, restricting architects’ chances to get involved. The need for collaboration across the value chain was  critical on both. 

By the end of the current programme, the government will have spent over £142bn in transport infrastructure. With £78bn of that still in the pipeline, it is an alluring honeypot. The big question is the extent to which architects can dive in. 

A 2011 report by McKinsey found that building and maintaining the nation’s infrastructure is expensive, inefficient, and difficult. Planning processes are slow, involving tricky consultations over large areas of land. Procurement is complex and costly. Productivity across the value chain, although improving, is low. Pressure on costs is high, pushing the design stage towards standardisation and improved risk management. 

Julian Robinson, head of architecture, Crossrail
Julian Robinson, head of architecture, Crossrail

Sayeh Ghanbari, senior director of infrastructure at EY, recognises this state of affairs. ‘This sector is facing huge challenges; increased urbanisation and congested cities, digitisation, cost pressures, and more and more complex mega-programmes. When we involve architects, it is not just to make things better but to solve problems,’ she said.

Fundamental issues

These problems are structural. Charles Mills, for example, head of Crossrail at London Underground, said LU is engaged in a procurement process that assesses the value of contractors’ schemes by monetising reduced transport times for passengers and feeding this into the business case evaluation. He said aesthetics do not come into it, perhaps reflecting a wider cultural mismatch between what are seen as civil engineering projects and the value architects bring. 

The nature of operations is largely stan­dardised, enshrining safety and reliability. While Mills said this avoids ‘random outcomes’, Joanna Vezey, design development leader of infrastructure at Laing O’Rourke, recognised the difficulty it poses for architects: ‘The sector is inclined to codify everything, which can present challenges in creativity.’  However, Julian Robinson, head of architecture at Crossrail, warned against style over substance. For him, the architect should ‘bring out the best from the engineer.’

The case for involving architects is more pronounced in the bid to respond to long-term disruptive trends in the sector. Ruairidh Jackson, senior projects director at Argent, working on the Airport City Manchester project, said: ‘The convergence of physical and digital in public environments will become commonplace in the future. It means we will experience places very differently, creating huge opportunities to collect data and create tailored experiences. The property industry doesn’t yet grasp the potential this offers.’ 

Laura Kidd, head of architecture, HS2
Laura Kidd, head of architecture, HS2

Ghanbari went further, saying: ‘Digitisation is a fundamental trend; it will lead to driverless trains and increasing automation.’ Mike Wilson, chief highway engineer, Highways England, agreed: ‘We’re starting to scratch the surface of a whole new user experience through autonomous vehicles or platooning. Perhaps this is no longer within the realm of the client but in the hands of smart phone or vehicle manufacturers.’

Critical role

There was general consensus that architects hold the key to unlocking these challenges. Tim Neal, global director of buildings, Arcadis, said architects’ focus on people and performance is critical. ‘We need their creative thinking and innovation. When we let that lead we get better solutions and results.’

The desirable skillsets are multiple, and mostly relate to masterminding the vision and optimising the passenger experience. Julia Gregory, head of airport development at Gatwick Airport, uses architects to work out how a scheme fits together for the passenger and to ‘demonstrate the strategic case’.  

Julian Robinson wants architects ‘in the driving seat to oversee contract and programme management and delivery’. He sees them add value in other ways, for example by challenging engineering preconceptions or helping articulate the client’s brand. Both can improve the business case in a way ‘no other professional is as well placed to do.’ 

Design and place

Placemaking is also important. Designing attractive transport nodes that reflect their locality, to elicit what Ruairidh Jackson called ‘the Instagram moment‘, opens up the business case by encouraging retail spending through increased dwell time. ‘The public realm has huge value at transport nodes.  You have all the advantages of potential footfall, but the challenge is to deliver quality.’

Richard Stafford, director, Turner & Townsend
Richard Stafford, director, Turner & Townsend

Jerome Frost, Arup’s global planning leader, recognised the role of well designed stations, but conceded that in many situations ‘the [railway] client struggles to claim the immediate economic benefits derived from the investment as often the significant value effects are realised through adjacent development and not within the railway red line. It takes time for the investment to translate into increased passenger numbers. Robinson argued that the broader ambition is ‘multi-mode connectivity’ and Tim Neal agreed, sharing international examples where clients have pushed for better outcomes by asking: ‘How can we manage stakeholders or engage differently to create a much bigger socio-economic benefit?’ 

Of course, this focus on consultation is important for more fundamental reasons. Jerome Frost suggested that public opposition is perhaps ‘the biggest impediment to the successful delivery of major infrastructure’, playing to one of architects’ prime strengths. 

But for any of this to succeed, architects must ‘forget “them and us” when working with engineers', as Julia Gregory put it. Most value derives from the integrated team where the barriers between engineers and architects fall away. Richard Stafford, director at Turner & Townsend, favoured pushing the limits of standardisation by ‘backing the engineers’ rather than confronting them. 

The trouble for architects is that most are inexperienced micro-businesses in the eyes of large infrastructure clients. While there is some indication that size and experience do not matter, it clearly is a concern. 

Frost sympathised: ‘With tight budgets, clients are rarely able to hire big staff teams to manage multiple architectural teams directly. It’s often far easier and more practical to procure multi-disciplinary consultants who bring a choice of design/architecture teams.’ 

Avoid lipstick on the gorilla

Despite the limitations of high PI thresholds and added risk, Julian Robinson felt it was the client’s responsibility to bring on new talent, and suggested smaller practices could get in on the action by teaming up. 

Ultimately, though, it is down to the client’s attitude to procurement. To reap the benefits of creative thinking, architects must be brought in at the start. As Joanna Vezey pointed out: ‘We’ve got to pull architects out from being sub-consultants.’ To do otherwise is to ‘put lipstick on a gorilla’, said Robinson. 

There is a patent willingness to use architects’ skills in transport projects. With mounting challenges, technological convergence and a once-in-a-generation investment in transport, there is an appetite for new solutions. Provided architects are, as Jerome Frost says, ‘able to communicate clients’ values’, perhaps now is the time for effective repositioning.