The secret to truly integrated design? Talk to each other

Throughout my 25 years with Arup, I’ve learned a great deal by watching people do things in different ways. One simple lesson has proved invaluable in every project and location: communication is key. Who talks with whom, when, and how can mean the difference between success and failure.

To those outside the industry, this may seem like a curious preoccupation. Don’t engineers basically just do the math? Isn’t their job to get the physics right — to make sure that the tunnel doesn’t collapse, the building doesn’t fall down?

But calculations are just a small part of the engineer’s toolkit. One of the most important differences between good design and mediocre design is the amount of thought devoted to the bigger picture. Is the proposed solution appropriate for its context and the client’s situation? Could the tunnel be more effective in another location? What if the organization doesn’t even really need a new building? Designers should grapple with these kinds of fundamental questions on every project. This requires close communication with stakeholders.

Calculations are just a small part of the engineer’s toolkit.

Total architecture

Ove Arup believed strongly in this idea and shaped his firm around it, bringing different disciplines together in-house and encouraging creative collaboration. His 1970 “Key Speech” described his vision of “total architecture,” in which all members of the design team collaborate to bring the best ideas to clients, then develop these ideas to realize exceptional projects.

Ove Arup (center) with colleagues

Over forty years later, his firm is thriving largely due to its commitment to bringing a broad range of disciplines together in-house and experimenting with different ways to share information.

Artificial barriers

So how does this work in practice? How does total architecture play out day-to-day on a project?

I’ll start by explaining what happens in its absence. More than once I’ve come across hurdles when, for instance, the structural engineering firm says, “I can’t provide the information you’re asking for because I don’t have the geotechnical engineering firm’s report yet.” I’m always surprised by this situation, no matter how frequently it occurs. Why aren’t the structural engineers working with the geotechnical engineers to understand the site conditions from the outset, rather than just being handed a report once it’s finished? Why do they then simply accept the data without question when a good understanding of local ground conditions is so vital to their work?

Unfortunately, I’ve seen this siloed approach more in North America than in other regions of the world. I attribute some of the blame to differences in licensing requirements, some to habit and culture.

When this happens, I always wonder whether clients always get real value for money, or even have the information they need to make decisions when they receive responses to a call for tenders. On the face of it, every submission will seem to present a multidisciplinary team. In reality, however, many teams will ultimately lack coordination because they are simply a loose collection of individual disciplines. It can be difficult for clients to tell the difference between the two.

Listening, challenging, contextualizing

One of the most serious flaws of the siloed approach is that it makes it all but impossible for designers to truly listen.

To provide truly high-quality technical advice, listening intently throughout a project is a must. This is the only way to ensure a strong understanding of client and stakeholder needs, incorporating the viewpoints of everyone involved. This often reveals conflicting demands — sometimes from within one organization. The designer’s job is to find a solution that satisfies all parties’ expectations.

This can require challenging stakeholder requests and assumptions — far better to politely suggest that a client’s instruction is not in the project’s best interests than to undertake it knowing that it adds little value.

It’s also important to understand the local and global context. Taking the time to learn about the issues important to a community or region is critical, as is considering projects in light of international experience.

Success story

The recent New Champlain Bridge design demonstrates the clear benefits of breaking down barriers and encouraging communication among stakeholders. With a prominent location over the Saint Lawrence River in Montreal, the new bridge needed to reflect the city’s forward-thinking, artistic reputation while providing excellent functionality for decades to come.

Arup was selected to define the bridge architecture and technical requirements for the project. This work was led out of our Montreal office and supported by a fully integrated team based in our New York, London, and Toronto offices, as well as four subconsultants, three local and one based in Copenhagen. From the project’s earliest days, we adopted an integrated approach, coordinating via videoconference, email, and phone as well as conducting numerous face-to-face workshops.

To provide truly high-quality technical advice, listening intently throughout a project is a must.

Looking at the design today, it’s impossible to unravel the architecture from the engineering. All parties made valuable contributions for the good of the project, and the design has been warmly embraced by the local community.

Given the challenging program and aggressive schedule, I believe it would have been practically impossible for a typical siloed approach to achieve the same degree of success.

Looking ahead

My advice to young designers: Tools change, but project fundamentals don’t.

When I first started working, we exchanged information via post and fax rather than email.

The tools have changed drastically over the years and will continue to do so. But no matter how technologies evolve, the underlying need to listen and collaborate remains. Ove’s total architecture approach is still one of the best ways to make this a reality.


Questions or comments for Doug Balmer? Email


Print this post
Read More Articles