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Why Design Is So Important In The Built Environment

Updated: Mar 12


Construction is an extraordinarily complex process – using an analogy it is like making a movie where many different and diverse set of parts being actors, producers, set builders, makeup artists, casting crew are all brought together to create a final product. Completion of any construction project is, like a movie, dependent on everyone working collaboratively. If one key part of the project such as sub-contractor fails it can jeopardise the entire project. The overall look and feel of the project will also reflect how much the developer values investing in a quality design that is agreed and implemented by the project manager and contractors.


New Zealand has seen a trend in construction procurement in recent years where design has been separated from the building process. This has led, in many cases, to poor outcomes because developers or contractors have tried to cut costs including what is spent on design and there is poor coordination between the design team and the building contractor doing the construction works. Often this means that the design of the build is not given due priority, and rather than being understood as the integral hub of the construction project, is instead relegated as just another cost centre subject to variation by the parties.


Not surprisingly, when communication about how a design should be applied to a build breaks down the consequences can be significant. If design specifications are not followed this can mean that materials like concrete, steel and wood will not perform as intended and may compromise safety and longevity of the building project. Examples include Sydney’s $135M Opal Tower which was feared would collapse after cracks were found in the building because of design and construction issues. A preliminary independent investigation found critical hob beams in Opal Tower were prone to cracking due to their structural design, as well as the use of a lower-strength concrete. Subsequently, New South Wales government commissioned reports called for the implementation of third-party certification by an independent registered engineer and monitoring to ensure buildings are built to those designs.


Other examples include Boston's Central Artery/Tunnel Project, better known as the Big Dig, a tunnel to reroute the city's interstate which partly because of design flaws, turned it into America's most expensive highway project ($14.6 billion) and taking 16 years to complete. Closer to home the design of the Sydney Opera House was an example where the architect Utzon was still working on the final designs as construction started which later led to major problems including rebuilding the structure's roof-supporting central podium columns.


Other approaches to construction of the built environment include design and build which sees a specialised construction manager appointed by the developer who deals directly with the designers, specialist suppliers, sub-contractors to complete that specific work, with the process normally better coordinated through to completion.


New Zealand procurers and contractors need to be more focussed and should uniformly adopt a more integrated and disciplined approach to design. This would mean that the final design was agreed before the construction tender process began which would see more consistent, quality projects completed as intended. This change in putting design first is also more likely to prevent substitution of cheaper building products that don’t perform as the original plan intended or changes that alter the quality of the final project.


While agreeing on the design component up front might can mean more time is spent initially in the development process, ultimately this will lead to a smoother, more cost-effective build with fewer or no issues later. This in turn will lead to more trust and credibility being restored to the construction industry which has suffered a loss in reputation after successive, well-publicised failures and cost overruns like the Christchurch Justice Centre and Auckland’s new Convention Centre.


As one of New Zealand’s largest industry sectors we need to start articulating a clearer vision of design across our built environment so all parties to a construction project understand it and share in benefits that will flow through almost every aspect of the process. The construction industry can do better using a new approach to design and with a multi-billion infrastructure pipeline ahead of us can we really afford as a country not to get it right for all our futures.

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