Off their trolleys or an inspired masterplan?

BAA’s solution to commissioning and paying for the same item 176 times was standardisation of the design-buying process. But does it serve the creative process? Bhavna Mistry reports

Creating benchmarks for best practice is not a new idea for designers. The concept has long been mooted by design’s trade bodies and industry heads for various ends, whether it be to create a consistent standard in the way consultancies approach their work or as a guide for clients in running design projects.

So when a major design buyer like BAA decides to set up its own benchmarks to tighten the design buying process, the move is, on the face of it, a proactive and sensible one.

And this is exactly what BAA is doing. With Terminal 5 waiting in the wings, consultancies looking to work with BAA – or, indeed, get on to the long-awaited roster for the group’s architecture and design suppliers – will have to take on board the fact that BAA is streamlining its act with its standardisation programme.

Stephen Challis, the group’s design manager, has been setting up the system for the past two years. The process went live in April and consultancies have been working with it already.

So what exactly is it? Challis calls the process one of “creating benchmarks which enable us to repeat things we have done well in the past”. This is fair comment, especially when faced with the fact that BAA’s 11 airports at one time had no less than 176 different types of trolley guards installed in various sites, each of which did exactly the same job – protect the walls from baggage trolleys. “Not only had they been designed 176 times, but we’d also paid for more or less the same thing 176 times,” says Challis.

The standardisation programme includes not only the trolley guards, but also the trolleys themselves, seating and flooring – in fact, many of the fixtures and fittings used in BAA airports. Eventually, designers will be able to forget about sourcing and specifying chairs, door handles and check-in desks, or thinking about which sort of flooring to use. The standardisation programme provides a limited number of alternatives for designers to specify, from a BAA approved list.

Challis says the strengths of this system are three-fold; cost-effectiveness, cost-certainty, and “a need to repeat the good things without having to reinvent the wheel for every project”.

But surely this is a process which also stunts creativity? Designers are working with a template before they even put pen to paper or mouse to Mac. Challis admits that consultancies have commented on the limitations of this approach, although none felt comfortable enough to discuss any problems.

“There have been two types of feedback from designers,” says Challis. “On the one hand, you have designers who say it’s fantastic, that we’ve taken all the work out of the brief so they can concentrate on the bigger issues, like way-finding and the customer’s experience. On the other hand, you have designers who comment that their creativity has been limited.” Challis says groups that have the former opinion are “usually more successful in providing an effective working environment which is economical”.

He claims the standardisation programme in no way stifles creativity, but is a tool to ensure BAA gets the final results it actually wants. The standards have been set up after a long and comprehensive consultation process, says Challis, and they are being constantly monitored to ensure that BAA doesn’t start lagging behind the times.

The biggest drawback has been a reluctance to use the standards, admits Challis, although as the operator’s design briefs become more specific and much tighter, this problem should fade.

But despite Challis’ wish to make sure “good design is repeated at BAA without having to re-create the same thing constantly”, creative solutions are in peril if only because designers no longer have control over the detailing and finish of their concepts. Challis says he is aware of this and pledges to monitor and review the standards tightly. While the overall standardisation concept is a good one, BAA will have to beware being left behind the rest of the world; design could develop faster than BAA can monitor its standards.

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