The $100 design review

Innovation is difficult in the best of times, but a tough economy can make it seem practically impossible. As budgets shrink, designers often feel pressured to churn out rote solutions that do little more than meet the baseline requirements.

The civil engineering team at Arup’s New York office has been experimenting with ways to guarantee a focus on quality design even on projects with very tight budgets. One tactic that I call the $100 design review has proven highly effective.

Rather than allow the quality of thinking that goes into our projects to dwindle, when an interesting project opportunity comes to our attention we gather the team and spend our own time – usually lunch – discussing it. We hash out simple questions such as how to elevate the project’s design or turn one element into an icon. This quick, friendly midday chat helps us consider a broad range of options and establish goals that are both ambitious and (likely) achievable. It also engages and excites the team about design possibilities that may also be applicable to other situations.

Our experience with one recent project demonstrates the $100 design review’s potential. When we heard of a plan to turn an abandoned rail line into a bike trail and park, we wanted to make sure that our bid for the job included the depth of thought and creativity the project deserved. In particular, the broad range of neighborhoods that the tracks run through made it particularly critical to address issues of culture and socioeconomic status in the design.

An hour or so later, we had developed ideas encompassing passive and active uses, security, access, equality, community business opportunities, and inclusion. These concepts were woven into our proposal and delivered to the client review board, whose feedback was extremely positive. “This is the kind of unique approach Arup is renowned for,” the panel wrote.

This type of approach is fast becoming a favorite for the team, as it allows all voices and opinions to be heard and discussed. And the name? – derived from the $100 check for lunch provided during the gathering.

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