chris wise engineer

No hiding place….measure design by performance

Testing testing testing….isn’t it a shame that the building industry doesn’t have something like Nissan’s Delta Wing experimental racing car? You may have seen it in the paper, engineered to race later this month (June) at Le Mans. It’s a long, sleek, black thing, and it certainly has something about it, at least for 8 year old boys and Jeremy Clarkson. Heir to the Batmobile, for Tin-Tin fans it looks more like a rocket to the moon than a car. Gawped at by everyone, it’s no doubt a fabulous mobile advertising hoarding for Nissan. But there’s a bit more to it than that, and that’s why the car should mean something to us as we drift about here in 2012 in what I like to think of as the relaunch pad for our beloved building industry but which sometimes feels more like a library (or on really bad days, a mausoleum). For the Delta Wing’s designers claim that the car is breaking the mould…compared to its counterparts it allegedly has half the aerodynamic drag, half the tyre wear, and uses half the fuel. And it does up to 190mph, with a 1.6 litre engine, presumably for 24 hours non-stop…if you ever had a Nissan Sunny please don’t write in here…

Anyway, as at Nissan, so in buildings…the siren song of less energy, lean build, simple design, low “cost-in-use”, in buildings all unfortunately hardly ever realised even when the good ship Earth looks as if it will be dashed on the rocks.

Because the difference with the Delta Wing racer is that we actually test whether or not it works. All that marketing baloney counts for nothing when the car goes out on the track. We may argue, subjectively, whether or not motor racing is brave and inspiring, or a marvellous way to waste resources very noisily. But whether the Delta Wing is fast, or even the fastest, is an entirely objective matter. We can measure it absolutely, first past the post. And whether the car uses less fuel, or less tyres, than its competitors is also entirely objective. Tests for everything down to the last ounce of speed and the last drop of fuel. So, at Le Mans in a few days, Nissan will be counted for their claims…..they say they have designed a car that, by some objective measures, is twice as good as the rest, and they are prepared to offer it up to public scrutiny to prove it. If Nissan are just bragging and can’t back it up with performance, the car is mere technological porn, ultimately a hollow promise.  But if they are right and their car wins, the experiment has worked, and maybe the fab car leaves the race track to become a mass product, morphing into our family runabouts. There might even be technology transfer, improving our trains, boats, trucks. And what about buildings?….well that’s point. Where exactly is the Delta Wing of our buildings? Or the “track” for those buildings to race on? Or the tech transfer industry ready to capitalize on it?

The Nissan engineers have tested for performance first, measured the results, learned from them, and refined the car accordingly. The nice trick is that they kept their experiment simple….they just wanted to win, under the simple commercially appealing metric of using only half of everything to get better performance. So please, let’s have an equivalent in building, a coordinated programme supported by those championing “creative Britain”…a simple challenge to design and make a measurable experimental proposition for, say, a family house that gives the same performance but only uses half the materials and half the energy. I know people will say they are doing that already, but, really? And another challenge for roads, one say for railway tracks especially for all the ballast that’s wasted, and throw in one for big holes in the ground and civil engineers and all their “lumpy objects”. Run an experimental programme on every day construction types, as complete entities not bits, and prove they perform, objectively, and in public. And do it by starting with a demand for high performance and letting beauty emerge, not the other way round, and not by ignoring both.

For I forgot to mention the best bit about the Delta Wing car. It’s absolutely drop dead gorgeous, everyone here in the office has been grabbing the paper to read all about it and ogle the pictures, and that beauty comes from the way it’s been engineered, objectively, through testing.  If I could drive a Delta Wing, no doubt it would be up there with the most exciting things I‘ve done in my life. The Cure’s haunting refrain goes…”When we look back on all this, as we surely will…..” a thought I’d complete by saying that if we could transfer an experimental mindset, a spirit of enquiry, into our building industry, I guess we might eventually look back on all this, only on our lives for goodness sake, somewhat content.

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