NEWS / Blog / What is “design” in the built environment?


07 SEP 2020


Tim Chapman of Arup on the very different aspects of our work covered by a single term


he term “design” can be used to describe three very different facets of our work. These are often mixed and conflated, which can cause confusion, especially when viewed within the prism of making construction more efficient and assisting clients in better decision making.

The first is what I would call “aesthetic design”, but is sometimes (slightly confusingly) known as “design quality”, and asks the simple question, is it attractive or elegant in appearance? Hugely subjective and not amenable to standardisation, it takes a real skill to create that is possessed by very few – but most people can recognise it when they see it. Architects are trained to create it, but many also do it intuitively. 

Done well it uplifts and inspires, generates a sense of pride in place and active communities will coalesce and develop around it. Not all projects need it, but row upon row of bland identikit buildings can lower the spirits. It is not possible to automate this process. The expert human touch is still required.

Next is “elemental design” which is when a structural engineer, for example, works out how big a beam should be so that a building is safe. Hugely amenable to automation, the better applications of BIM enable great efficiencies to be made throughout the whole process – from design automation and optimisation through techniques like generative design. 

With a full 3D BIM, where the original design has been completely integrated to the contractor’s shop drawings, you get to clash avoidance. For very complex projects it is important to do this digitally well in advance before attempting to build it in real life. With better definition of objects in the BIM model comes more complex attributes and in the more advanced BIM models that get taken to Level of Detail (LOD) 500, this leads to the opportunity for automated procurement.

Further developing BIM models to full 7D can achieve even more. The fourth dimension is time, and hence scheduling and logistics. The fifth is money and full cost management. The sixth is CO2 emissions and wider sustainability. Finally, the seventh is facilities management and the handover to operations. On top of all of this, introducing GIS in the process can enable full digital engineering and the ability to exploit data in new and even more imaginatively productive ways.

Understanding that design can have a multitude of definitions in the mind of clients is an important starting point. Tim Chapman

The final facet explores what is required for the asset to be efficient and effective, for example, the ergonomics of a modern hospital. Often overlooked, this third type of design covers the critical planning that enables an asset to realise its value and be effective and efficiently run.

Requiring rich thought and consideration by a host of stakeholders to refine ideas, it is especially important for platforms that are to be repeated, such as in a programme to build 150 new schools. In fact, getting it wrong once is bad enough, but getting it repeatedly wrong across a range of new assets can be both extremely expensive to fix and deeply embarrassing for everyone involved.

Therefore, assets created as platforms which are able to reap the efficiencies of this third design facet have a far greater incentive to get the elemental design facet fully refined and thought-through – and then progressively improved as more data becomes available from buildings in operation.

Assisting clients to better decision-making is fundamental to the RecDNA programme at ACE. Understanding that design can have a multitude of definitions in the mind of clients is an important starting point for any programme looking to introduce major changes in approach for employing design consultants.

Tim Chapman is a Director of Infrastructure Design at Arup. He is Technical Director on the RecDNA programme, delivering ACE’s work for the Construction Innovation Hub.

Tim  Chapman

Tim Chapman

Director of Infrastructure

Tim Chapman is a Director at Arup and Technical Director of RecDNA.