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Cabe wins statutory role advising UK infrastructure

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The Cabe team at the Design Council has been named as the statutory adviser for all nationally significant infrastructure projects

The appointment means the design review organization must be consulted on major future infrastructure projects such as new roads, railways and power stations.

Cabe will however not be statutorily consulted on projects which require an act of parliament to proceed such as High Speed 2 – although the organization is likely to be involved in reviewing the railway’s design.

The statutory role was previously held by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and has been reconfirmed by DCLG following the organization’s reincarnation as a self-funded independent entity.

Nationally important infrastructure projects already advised on by Cabe include Feredy Pollard’s £4.1 billion Thames Tideway super sewer scheme and LDA Design’s Rookery waste-to-energy plant (pictured) in Bedfordshire.

The organization has meanwhile at the request of the planning inspectorate published guidance on how to improve quality in the design of UK infrastructure projects.

Organized around ten key principles (see below), the report advocates a ‘holistic’ design-led approach that takes geographical context into account, speaks a confident architectural language and makes a genuine contribution to the local community.

Covering energy, transport, water, waste water and waste projects, the document sets out ‘how best to articulate the aims of industrial design’ and also advises on multi-disciplinary design team selection.

Design Council chief executive John Mathers said: ‘Infrastructure projects are essential to economic growth, so it is our priority to support the processes involved. This guidance, along with the Planning Inspectorate’s recommendation to the Secretary of State will boost design as a key consideration for future developments – great news for communities and for industry.’


Cabe’s ten design principles for UK infrastructure projects

1 Setting the scene
Design thinking should be part of creating the vision and designing the brief for a new project. Even while still setting the brief, before a design team has been hired, the applicant and project management should be thinking in design terms and define a clear, design-led framework in which the project can develop. Machinery and internal processing equipment will represent the project’s predominant purpose and highest costs -
far more than the expenditure for façades and building - but its design will be integral to the scheme’s success, both in terms of local acceptance and impact on the surroundings. There should therefore be suitable budget to ensure that building and landscape design match the quality of the technical equipment and that they can be maintained long-term.

2 Multi-disciplinary teamwork
To achieve a scheme that works both functionally and in design terms and, that, moreover, is well received, collaborations between stakeholders must begin early and be sustained. Stakeholders may include, among others, the client, the design team, technical experts, the community and the local planning authority. From the start of planning, the design team should include not just engineers and technical specialists but also architects and landscape designers. By including this expertise and letting them challenge the engineering approach, the applicant can achieve an inspirational, elegant and ambitious structure that has the potential to last for decades, at lower building costs and be relatively maintenance free. Early design input will ensure that efficiency, engineering aspects, town and landscape considerations and compelling design solutions come successfully together. Plant layout can be reorganised to minimise the footprint, mitigate impact on views and improve the relationship with its surroundings.

3 The bigger picture
Design does not start and end with the immediate project or site. Holistic thinking is required to ensure that projects are part of an integrated process that fits into bigger strategies such as regional or sub-regional planning. Potential synergies in an area should be explored in great detail, for example, to use the exhaust heat from new power plants for district heating systems, communal greenhouses and other uses. Large power plants are a major investment and often located in declining post-industrial areas and large brownfield sites. Investment and job opportunities can be very welcome, bringing benefit to the community and potentially creating a sense of local identity. Again, infrastructural requirements can work with wider needs. Visitor centres, for example, can contribute to community life by acting as community facilities and providing meeting rooms and a successful outcome will boost the reputation for future projects.

4 Site masterplan 
It is in the nature of nationally significant infrastructure projects to have far-reaching impacts. These can be both hugely positive (utility provision, employment) and potentially negative (noise, traffic, odour, visual blight etc.). Good design will do much to reconcile the infrastructure project with its environment by creating a facility that responds to its context. Understanding the structure of its surroundings, topography and adjacent land use at each site should be the starting point for master-planning. This will inform routing, site organisation and detailed layout. Such work can be hugely important in reducing the size of the facility, leaving the rest of the site free for other uses. For instance, innovative conveyor systems or rearrangement of the process line may achieve a smaller and more efficient plant layout. The value of and impact on existing structures, landscape and archaeology should also be a key consideration and feed into decisions about site clearance and mediation.

5 Landscape and visual impact assessment
Due to their size - and number in the case of power lines and wind farms - infrastructure projects are visible from many viewpoints. They may impact on many different surrounding areas, whether it is densely urbanised townscapes, surburban or sparsely populated rural settings. Each context requires a different appreciation of how to handle scale and how the project relates to the environment. For power lines and wind farms, visual impact assessment and landscape character assessment is an obvious part of the planning process, but large power plants should also be assessed using the same strict criteria as have been put in place for residential buildings, high-rise buildings and any other major architectural work in terms of their impact and the quality of design. Visual impact assessment should be used as a design tool to inform location, orientation, composition and height. This should take in a large number of viewpoints right from the beginning of design. For large scale projects, which may spread over the landscape the assessment of verified montages needs to be representative of what the eye actually sees and perceives. Typically montages based on a 50 mm lens tend to diminish the impact of certain structures such as wind turbines or pylons when seen from afar in a wide landscape. A 75 mm lens provides a better representation. 

6 Landscape design
Intelligent landscape design mitigates the impact of an infrastructure installation and can enhance its setting. It should be developed in parallel with the proposal and take into account site topography; including, for example, existing flora. Good landscape designers minimise tarmac surfaces and provide better road systems, pedestrian routes, car parking and lay-by surfaces. They will often look at using excavated material to reform and shape the site to suit the plant. Wherever possible, the majority of the site should be given back to nature, providing space for leisure, play and wildlife - even up to the point of sinking the structure into the ground. Often remote and protected from human activity sites can become valuable habitats for a wide range of flora and fauna. Well-designed outdoor spaces will offer pleasure and relaxation for staff and can create a visitor
attraction in their own right, perhaps a new destination for school ecology projects.

7 Design approach
A clear architectural concept can manifest itself through symmetry (or asymmetry) and balance, repetition of organisational elements such as the grid, the frame or the bay and resonance between elements of different scales. The structure of the building - the system of bearing elements (girders, columns and walls) - can significantly inform the overall appearance. In a good design, such choices will seem compelling and inevitable, clearly expressing what the project is about and working well with its setting. In a poor project, such choices will often seem arbitrary. On a large scale project the adverse impact on the surrounding environment is amplified by poor decisions in the design, where typically inappropriate, wilful or superfluous, additions are made.

However, difference and variety of design approaches in relation to the context can be virtues. Infrastructure projects benefit society as a whole and should be celebrated. Different structures will require different levels of architectural ambition. There are places for an expressive or assertive approach and places for modesty - dictated both by a project’s context and its purpose and status. In most cases less is more: simple (but not simplistic), straightforward designs go well with functional and efficient infrastructure. Nevertheless, real design ability is required to create compelling structures, rather than standard catalogue solutions, ubiquitous distribution sheds surrounded by acres of tarmac.

8 Materials and detailing
High quality materials and careful detailing will limit the need for maintenance and allow schemes to weather and age well. Metal cladding is often the default these days, but there may be other options that better reflect the value of a major civic building. Local materials and traditional building methods, for example, might inform the design.

A building’s appearance often tells us something about what purpose it serves, its place in a town or city, what sort of spaces it contains and how it is organised and put together. It can be especially effective to make the building’s internal workings visible: glazed surfaces showcase equipment and processes as well as contributing to better working conditions. A lighting expert or artist might be commissioned to develop a design strategy for large surfaces. Light, colour or an art installation can add character and give large elevations structure and rhythm. Intelligent lighting, perhaps using multiple colours, can highlight and strengthen aspects of the design. Often a good design can be let down by clumsy detailing. Junctions between materials, the framing of materials or panelling for example, well handled, make a major contribution to the success of a project in visual terms. Design intent for key details should be developed alongside the Concept and Scheme Design stages so that the architectural potential can be understood by approval bodies and consultees. 

9 Sustainability
Given the complexity of infrastructure projects, sustainability must be integral to the design from the very beginning. A successful proposal will cover every aspect of this, including, to give just a few examples, traffic movements (e.g. delivery and refuse), social inclusion of workers and visitors and the use of biomass. While natural light provides good working conditions for staff, glazed surfaces need to be carefully considered to avoid glare and light pollution affecting wildlife and residents at night. The site strategy should include biodiversity, planting and sustainable urban drainage systems. Ideally, building materials should be locally sourced, reclaimed, recycled or have very low carbon impact. Most infrastructure has a long lifespan and should therefore be designed to take account of potential changes to the frequency and severity of extreme weather
due to climate change. Aspects of use are likely to change over the structure’s lifetime, as will the technologies it contains. A good design will be flexible, able to accommodate changing requirements without major alterations, and adaptable, able to be altered or extended conveniently when necessary. All good design teams are attuned to these issues and employ the latest best- practice to deliver these challenging requirements. There is no reason why infrastructure projects should not win eco awards and achieve high CEEQUAL scorings like Pudding Mill Pumping Station.

10 Visitor centre 
Many large infrastructure proposals offer the opportunity to provide a centre where visitors can learn about the plant operation and be introduced to the concepts of sustainability, energy generation, waste management and humanity’s impact on the environment in terms of our ecological footprint and the exploit of natural resources. A good visitor centre can be an engaging place of exploration, providing a compelling insight into the need for the infrastructure and an appreciation of its size and scale. A good visitor experience makes the most of the opportunities: a well-planned tour, for example, will encourage visitors to enjoy the often monumental dimensions of the plant, show them the extraordinary machinery at work and perhaps take them up on the roof for an exciting view. Design can optimise this experience by making sensitive provision for it and creating a unique attraction. The siting of a visitor centre should be considered carefully, as part of the overall experience of the visitor. It ought not to be shunted out of the way as an inconvenience, but located to celebrate the process and purpose of the plant and enjoy the heroic scale and character of its architecture.


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