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From an idea to reality

We’ve had some hugely iconic buildings in recent years, with the Shard, the One World Trade Center and the Burj Khalifa. But what’s next? Bart Leclercq, structural expert at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff talks about the challenges of designing the world’s next big thing.

 

Iconic buildings follow the economic trends of the world, when times are good we see a resurgence of tall towers, unique features, each outdoing the one before.  When the tide swings, not surprisingly, we see less investment in status symbol towers and more focus on the functional and the necessary. We are once again at the turning point with this cycle, about to head into a new phase of bigger and better.

But for every high profile project that gets off the ground and makes an impact there are ten that don’t. So what makes a high profile project successful? What is the unique set of circumstances needed to get it from an idea to a reality?

Take the Shard in London. We spent ten years working on this project, a significant length of time to spend on one building but the returns when you see the end result and the impact it has on the surrounding area are well worth it. Tall towers and iconic buildings don’t just stand in isolation as a symbol of prosperity; they have a huge role in regenerating the surrounding area. A building like the Shard, which is a vertical city with restaurants, offices, apartments and a hotel, creates footfall and drives the local economy. Suddenly you have an influx of people working, shopping and eating in the area - it’s a huge catalyst for the whole community and arguably, the city and the country as a whole. 

In my experience, projects that have this kind of impact have a couple of key things in common. First and foremost is the client. The client needs to have the vision and be willing to take some risks to get their vision over the line. They need to have done this kind of thing before or at least have surrounded themselves with others who have. They need to be credible enough to open doors, inspire confidence and generally get people on board with their vision. Selling the concept is often the hardest part – once you’ve got buy in everything is a bit easier.

The architect of course also has a crucial role in bringing the vision to life and the engineering consultants then have to make that a reality. But over and beyond the technical input of the individual players, the team set up is really vital. One weak link can impact the whole project, so everyone involved needs to not only be highly competent, but share a common business approach or at least be willing to find one.  The most experienced teams will not succeed if they can’t work together and this can be the downfall of any complex project. If an inclusive and open approach isn’t taken from the very beginning that would be a red flag for us.

From an engineering perspective, there really isn’t anything that we can‘t do if the drive to do it is there. Yes there are always unique challenges associated with each project but nothing we’ve not been able to overcome yet by applying the same rigour and principles we do any challenge. And there will be new ways of doing things to get our heads around in the future, like using 3D printing to create physical models for our clients, but exploring the boundaries of engineering complexity is what gets us out of bed; it gives us the opportunity to showcase the full breadth of our expertise.

So, are we looking forward to this next phase of emblematic buildings? Absolutely.