Thursday, August 25, 2011

Musings on Design

When we come across the term "design", the first things that spring to mind are often fashion, the "egg chair" or those really strange looking lamps that my best man has in his apartment; mostly beautiful items to fill our houses or clothe ourselves. Occasionally concept cars will occur to us and once in a while beautiful buildings. But seldom gears, ductwork, concrete slabs or steel beams. Yet it is these behind-the-scenes elements of engineering design underpin our experience of the world - every day, in every way.

At university, my degree - mechanical engineering - included a core major of mechanical design; gears and the like. In many ways it was a very dry (and extremely technical) subject. No left-of-field characters, no champagne and to be honest, not much beauty. Having worked in a consulting engineering environment for a number of years now, I have seen the same trends professionally. Other design professionals are passionate, "creative" types, but many (not all) engineers seem to be turning the handle on a design sausage machine - producing technical systems that meet the clients requirements at the lowest cost, but seldom anything more. Further to this, many are stuck reproducing designs that have been done before, without questioning alternative paths.

I can hear the screams now: "but meeting the clients brief at the lowest cost is precisely what being a professional engineer means!!!". Well, I challenge that - as professionals we must meet our clients brief, we must do it responsibly in terms of cost (it's not our money after all); but we must also add to the world - beauty, heart, functionality - helping our clients to a new brief if necessary.

This blog is about how that lack of spark in engineering design is because we only get taught the last step: the design process, but never the preceding two: purpose and function.

But back to design.

The technical design process is the sausage machine; a set of rules and thinking patterns that match theory to a particular problem. It's a powerful machine and is why engineers are often referred to as problem solvers. It goes something like this:

Step 1: briefing - establish/clarify/inform the design brief

Step 2: concept design - identify and screen a range of early design concepts

Step 3: design development - refine the design concept selected during the concept design stage and establish the operating parameters

Step 4: detailed design - refine the design details and produce drawings for manufacture

Once this process has been undertaken a number of times for the same type of system, the early stages can be neglected as the experienced engineer already knows the answer, so all that remains is the detailed design - matching the already-decided design response to the local situation. Only very occasionally do the assumptions that inform the brief at the outset get challenged or revisited. And that is my main challenge with how we're taught the design process- all the effort goes into getting the details right, but so little goes into challenging the underlying inputs into the design process. Fortunately, the sustainable design evolution (we're still far too mainstream to consider ourselves revolutionary) is one process which is starting to question those underlying assumptions. And the first of those is unpacking the function we're striving for through design.


The first insight I had into the importance of function was a course I did on Biomimicry in September 2010. At the heart of the biomimetic design process is identifying function. This skill is something drilled into zoologists from very early in their careers, and was even drilled into me in high school biology classes: when studying an organism, it looks the way it does because it does a certain thing. Form fits function. If you want to interrogate the form, then you must understand the function.

The Biomimicry Guild have produced a taxonomy of functions to guide the process of design by Biomimicry. This is an excellent tool for beginning to look at any design problems from a functional perspective; some specific functions from the taxonomy are:

- to attach permanently,

- to protect from thermal shock,

- to capture energy.

The full list is far more comprehensive and forms the basis for the brilliant online resource Similar briefs in a conventional engineering approach would be to require the use of a particular glue or rivets (instead of the function of attaching something permanently); insulation (instead of protecting from thermal shock) or a solar PV system (instead of capturing energy). We have become so bound by the precedent of our professions, that many engineers have lost the ability to identify function in the first place. A common design brief in my field where function is often ignored, is the design an air-conditioning system instead of a system to maintain occupant comfort, or a system to provide fresh air to occupants.

Another reason why identifying function is important is that multi-functional systems are becoming increasingly important in sustainable design. It is no longer good enough for a water treatment system to simply reduce the impact of effluent that is expelled. To work in the cities of the future, it must now provide a source of energy, a source of fertilizer, a source of recycled water and become a node of biodiversity. We cannot hope to get multi-functional design right until we are well practiced in the art of identifying function.

Function must come before design. If design answers the how? then function must answer the what?. But there is something that must come before function. And that is the why? The purpose for which we are designing.


Again quoting a man who has given me a glimpse of the way forward for my profession - Bill Reed at the Green Building Council of South Africa conference 2010: "All systems have a purpose". When you look at a bicycle, it is clear what the purpose is; the purpose informs the function and the function informs the design.

Unfortunately, most of the modern commercial building projects that shape our cities are founded on the purpose of financial return. The purpose of the building is to generate revenue for the listed funds which invest in them. Not to foster innovation or build a functioning city; but to make money. Whereas in most of the truly inspirational buildings of our time the purpose was broader - to set a benchmark, to be a landmark, to build trust in institutions or to heal a nation. In comparison, the purpose of making money seems an awfully shallow one on which to base the cities in which we live, work and play.

And so, I believe we need to start championing a new purpose. A purpose that comes more from the heart and less from the pocket. A purpose that might allow us to actually create true value and prosperity, not just for the rich. While the generation of wealth won't ever come of the agenda, we must start designing our buildings with the purpose of healing our communities and regenerating the natural systems which keep us alive.

If developers and financiers are too locked into their status quo to see the need for this, then it is our responsibility as professionals to begin to do it anyway. We can start with the purpose of our business - is it to simply create shareholder value, or can we aim a little higher. Do we exist to add value to communities to end poverty? We can challenge the purpose of our projects, or at least approach them with (true) purpose. We can stop seeing the complexities of community and ecology as in convenient extras to report on at year-end and start to build them into the very fabric of what we do.

Ultimately, the purpose of our businesses, our buildings, our cities, our communities and our own role is of a metaphysical nature. The big question of why we are here. Far be it from me to answer that - there are far better qualified people to do so than I - but I do tend to agree with Bill's answer to the question: our purpose is to love. And how do we, as engineers, love? Well, in the immortal words of Theodore Roosevelt; "do what you can, with what you have, where you are".

We can impact the technical systems of the world’s cities such that they do not entrench the status quo of exploitation, inequality and environmental degradation. We can do it with our skills, our training, our systems and the influence that comes from being professionals.

1 comment:

  1. Hi again Rich, hope I'm not going to drive you absolutely dilly with my comments on your blog posts from more than a year ago???

    This one brings back extremely fond memories of our time together exploring the Two Oceans Aquarium in a very exciting new way; a 180 degree paradigm shift where Claire's intro to bio mimicry opened up an entirely new world to me, which indecently rubbed off onto my son, Thomas who selected this as his topic for a speech at his 10 club meeting.

    You can gauge my progress as I continue to read…..
    Will try not to comment on every one….