Architecture, Connected Cities, Construction, Engineering, Funding, Sydney

The design and construction of iconic buildings is fundamental to shaping our cities and how they’re in turn perceived by residents and visitors. Globally we have seen iconic buildings act as a catalyst for economic growth and urban renewal, and often they become synonymous with the city in which they’re located. Examples include the Burj Al Arab, which defines the Dubai skyline, and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which created the so-called “Bilbao effect” – referring to how the museum transformed the city.

Here in Australia, the Sydney Opera House is arguably the country’s most iconic building, not to mention the centre of the city’s arts scene and a must-see attraction for visitors. Buildings of such stature often unify critics, academics and the general public by reinventing design and setting new benchmarks in innovation.

However, they don’t happen very often. As an industry of engineers, architects, developers and construction specialists, how can we work together to overcome the risks associated with pulling off something special?

More of the same

True innovation means that, as a designer, you’re out on your own. It means going beyond the most current industry standards, a daunting prospect that explains why, as an industry, we too often emulate what has been done before, imitating best practice and pursuing a risk-averse approach.

When ‘more of the same’ is created, the environment in which innovation flourishes is stifled. Over-analysis of new design concepts can over-complicate the process and create uncertainty around construction practicality, leading to a lengthier design phase and subsequent higher costs. In hindsight, it’s questionable whether some of today’s landmark buildings would be built today given more complicated procurement processes and the increasingly contrasting objectives of architects, developers, contractors, engineers and government.

Overcoming hurdles in innovation

Every so often, though, the risk is taken and it pays off. To break down some of these barriers to innovation, we need to start by reviewing the drivers for each stakeholder, and how these might change depending on the role of a building. For example, innovation is much more prevalent in the public sector, where structures like art galleries, law courts, museums and universities are driven by reputation. Universities, meanwhile, are more likely to invest in innovation to attract the best students.

For example, AECOM is working with the University of Technology (UTS) in Sydney on the new Dr. Chau Chak Wing, designed by distinguished architect Frank Gehry. The defining characteristic of this building is its unique masonry façade, which contorts and twists in a three-dimensional plane for the full height of the 14-storey structure. These inclinations and curvatures created structural engineering challenges not normally encountered in cavity clay masonry veneer façade construction, and go beyond current codes and standards. In collaboration with UTS and the brick supplier, AECOM developed a unique brick, tie, mortar and backing system that solved the load, constructability and complex geometrical issues to generate a practical solution to enable such an extraordinary façade, and allow a near-impossible feat of engineering to be realised. It was crucial for all design teams to work closely together to ensure the complexities were effectively addressed and that the final solution successfully captured the architect’s design, which is set to push the boundaries and set a precedent for future architectural design in Australia.

A thorough understanding of the wider benefits of innovation for all stakeholders will help us to drive forward unique projects that may otherwise be overlooked. For example, private developers tend to be more driven by achieving higher margins, which require more rapid construction of buildings and perhaps less focus on the design stage. The reality is that iconic buildings will cost more to construct. However, it is more likely that they will attract higher-profile tenants and longer-term tenancies, which is a key opportunity in sectors such as commercial and retail.

Practical, logical thinking cannot be underestimated with regard to its critical role in achieving iconic structural forms and innovation. No amount of complex analysis can transform a fundamentally flawed concept if it is missing the key ingredients of buildability and efficiency. In many instances, it is technology that is progressively removing this barrier and opening up exciting opportunities for invention. It can enable optimisation of structures and an understanding of behaviour that once could only be estimated in a manner that lead to conservatism and simplification. We should look to use this important resource to overcome over-complicated concepts and drive practical solutions to existing constructability issues.

Bravery is not a word often heard in the construction sector. It is more of a taboo than an attribute of honour. But bravery is what is needed to inspire future generations who enjoy and benefit from our iconic buildings. Bravery from not just engineers, but a collaboration of visionary souls in our industry, who together can make better informed decisions that not only satisfy the aspirations of the ultimate building end user, but also drive the long-term vision for our cities to support economic growth and prosperity.


stephen giblett@aecom comStephen Giblett ( is director of building structures for AECOM in Sydney.


Originally published Jul 17, 2014

Author: Stephen Giblett