Necessity is the mother of invention. It’s also the mother of get on with it. Over the last few months, we’ve seen changes to the fabric of our daily lives that would have taken years to bring about under normal circumstances. 

We can learn from this. Often the only thing standing between us and positive change, is us.

Remember when working from home was seen as a perk offered by progressive employers, while others worried about whether it was a good idea, or even possible? Necessity sorted that one out. Some businesses have struggled, but many more have found that working from home isn’t such a big deal and are wondering what all the fuss was about.

In the built environment, we didn’t have time to wonder how two-metre social distancing might work, we just had to get on and do it. COVID-19 forced our hand. We also had a tantalising glimpse of what car-free cities look like and, better yet, sound and smell like (even if things went back to how they were pretty quickly). 

We know it can be done. We’ve seen that in some circumstances we can deliver change, really quickly. The question now is, what are we going to do next?

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Construction technology: Building with agility and building agility in

In the Creative Technologies team at Bryden Wood, we’ve been working for some time with Highways England on smart motorways. We developed our Rapid Engineering Model, or REM – a digital workflow that absorbs a huge range of data sets and design rules and generates a variety of outputs. These outputs – including virtual reality motorway driving – allow us to visualise and assess risks and opportunities of a smart motorway at the earliest planning stages. It takes a few days to do what used to take months.

This approach – harnessing wide-ranging data, applying it creatively, iterating rapidly – can be applied in any number of other contexts, and we are currently working on several initiatives that need rapid implementation in the post-COVID world. Watch this space.

It’s all about agility; the ability to plan and respond to changing circumstances in complex situations. But agility can’t simply be reactive. We have to design it into our built environment. Future-proofing is no longer about thinking how we might repurpose a building in twenty years’ time. The question now is how we allow for changes that may well cycle round in a matter of months.

In a world where everyone may need to work from home, what does that mean for designing and building flats and houses? If every occupant has to have the space, power and connectivity to work effectively? And what will we do with that space if it’s not needed, if the occupants have jobs that can’t be done at home? 

How will we design and build offices, if there’s the possibility that they might have to be re-purposed for domestic, healthcare or manufacturing purposes? How will we adapt workspaces, ventilation, lifts and kitchens so that we can keep working if (when) new viruses arrive? What can we do with existing buildings?

Our Platforms approach to Design for Manufacture and Assembly (PDfMA) provides some answers here. As a method of construction, it presents many advantages, but in this context three stand out:

  1. The Platforms approach to construction uses standard components for buildings that can be assembled in a number of ways, depending on the purpose of the building. But because they’re standardised, these parts can be disassembled and reassembled relatively easily within the superstructure
  2. The inherent agility of the Platforms approach means that final decisions on configuration can be made much later in the process than in traditional construction, allowing for change, if necessary, during design and build.
  3. The use of the same components across sectors allows the possibility of repurposing buildings – so an office block can later be turned into residential with relatively little intervention.

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Digital design makes it all possible

In all of this, digital is our strongest ally. Our ability at Bryden Wood to model using unusually large and varied data sets gives us a uniquely multi-dimensional perspective on problems. It means we can iterate, learn and iterate again. We can test multiple scenarios and identify risk and opportunity. We can operate at a scale and speed that most can’t.

With the digital platforms we have developed within the Creative Technologies team at Bryden Wood, we have, and will increase, the ability to be agile, and to design a built environment that is agile too. We can help developers, planners and government design to value. 

What we can’t do is change the way services are typically bought, provided and contracted for. But we’ve seen approaches over the last few months that have stripped away barriers and taken a direct and pragmatic approach to procurement, when speed of delivery is the priority. This is progress and again, it shows it can be done.

Another thing we can’t do is decide for clients what value is most important to them. But by making it easy to understand the possibilities, and show solutions that can be quick to implement and agile enough to change quickly when necessary, I think we can help people come to the right decisions.

When we see how change can be implemented quickly when the circumstances demand it, and when we work in an agile way, it’s only natural that people will start to ask where else we can go, and what else we can use agility to achieve.

We have the opportunity to take bold, exciting steps. To make real improvements to the quality of our built environment. We’ve seen that it can be done, and we have the tools to make it happen. 

Why wait? 

Learn more about our Creative Technologies team's work here