Why civil infrastructure has a noteworthy impact on new-build housing developments

People often talk about the journey and the destination, stressing the importance of the former. For many, where housing is concerned, it is often the other way around, writes Xavier Martinez, Associate and Head of Civil Engineering at Thomasons.

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hen planning and development are not prioritised and given adequate thought, however, the implications can be costly and far-reaching. During these processes, civil infrastructure is a key consideration that has a significant impact on the rest of a project.

Shops, bus stops and automobiles

While infrastructure is a single word, it comprises numerous aspects. First and foremost, how will future residents get to and from home? Locally, connectivity between the housing and other areas needs to be in place, whether roads, cycleways or pathways. Dimensions should be appropriate to the size of the development and location. Bus stops and train stations should be within a reasonable distance to encourage the use of public transportation. Where commuters might drive or cycle to a station, parking spaces should be planned for. At home, there should be appropriate space for private vehicles to prevent poor parking practices.

For the buildings to be liveable, utilities – electricity, gas and telecommunications – are needed. Water supply, foul water and surface water drainage are greatly impacted by other key players in new developments and early planning for these is crucial.

Few people have everything they need at home, so consider what services are on offer nearby. Are there places for shopping, sports, leisure and health services? This can reduce the transport needs of the local population. Future space requirements should also be planned for.

Always assess the development area for safety risks, in case specific infrastructure is needed, as is the case in flood zones. While it is better to avoid these areas, this is not always possible.

To err is human, but avoidable

When you’re working with so many other disciplines, coordination and communication can become confused, leading to mistakes which necessitate redesign, preventing the optimal design being achieved. Tardy communication risks disrupting programmes and budgets which have already been set, causing delays as parties try to amend agreements which have already been reached.

It’s happened a few times in my career that finished floor levels (FFL) are set at an early stage, prior to the completed development of a drainage strategy or a consideration of driveway levels. As a result, surface water runoff could not be managed in the best way possible, causing unnecessary disruption.

By talking frequently from the outset, working together and allowing enough time for an optimal design to be developed, everyone involved can prevent careless mistakes from happening.

Rising to the challenge

Civil engineering, in particular, faces challenges of stringent fees and tight programmes. While these are not ideal ingredients, it requires us to be resourceful and creative.

Perhaps a less obvious hurdle is that of inexperience. This has been the case working with some local authorities. Achieving an agreement with people early in their careers can be difficult, requiring a lot of design reviews and resulting in no real change being introduced. Along with encouraging nascent professionals to seek advice and not necessarily delay or prevent viable developments happening, I would also suggest that those with more experience make the effort to provide more support to them.

Location, location, location

Some projects are especially challenging as a result of their location. I worked on one in a Flood Zone 3 area that was located above an unconfined aquifer. At the time, the Environment Agency’s river model was not up-to-date, so we undertook an update of the model ourselves to prevent delays. This allowed us to establish FFLs for the development and to define a suitable drainage strategy. Additionally, more footpaths were required at a high level, making it complicated to provide dry access and egress routes. At the same time, vehicle access had to be included, which could not cross the latter. It was an extremely complex situation.

Another project was located in a steep and uneven plot, requiring a significant effort to define the development’s levels. A number of retaining walls were required to provide terraces where the new buildings would go. To help absorb the high gradients on site, some buildings have access to varying levels from different sides.

Innovative infrastructure

Innovation often evokes a sense of the immediate and drastic. While change is happening across all areas of construction, it is gradual and continuous. Where materials are concerned, the specifications being offered are better and the amount of recycled materials used is growing. Surveying is seeing an increase in laser scanning point cloud technology and flying drones, which are available at a reasonable cost and provide accurate information in a very short timescale. Projects are also more frequently developed with BIM, allowing better coordination of the designs and encouraging a collaborative environment. These are all exciting developments, but none of them are happening overnight.

Looking forward

To help builders and developers meet ambitious new home targets in the capital and across the country, the Government would benefit from identifying opportunities for improving and shortening the planning process.

There are some systems in place already that are helpful in developing projects, such as useful data, provided by organisations like the Environment Agency or the British Geological Society. Improvements and support don’t always require great reform. Just as new-build housing developments are made up of smaller parts, help given can be targeted and built up to effect desired change.

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