Thought Leadership

How a design challenge can help address the unique needs of your civil engineering project

August 25, 2022

Bioswale median

By Rachel Hayden – Vice President / Regional Growth Leader

As civil engineers who design public infrastructure, every project we encounter is unique. Yes, there are best practices in design standards that we follow, but our design can be influenced by ever-changing factors including topography, environment, climate, geographic location, community needs, etc. So, if every civil infrastructure project is unique, why are so many designed to meet cookie-cutter standards? And how can you ensure you select an engineering team that will design to the specific needs of your project?

I asked myself: How can our team get away from the proverbial cookie cutter? How can we get creative to provide the best, tailored design solutions for each infrastructure project? Recognizing that competition fosters innovation and creativity, and to challenge my team to look at each project individually and within a broader context than is typical in our industry, I created a design challenge. Let’s explore how this process could benefit your next infrastructure project.

When I first contemplated this idea that our projects should be designed in a broader context, the terms “context sensitive design,” “green infrastructure” and “low impact development” were new to our industry. Our team had been selected to design a major urban thoroughfare for a major metropolitan city in north Texas. The city wanted a more sustainable, out-of-the-box approach to the project. Read: No cookie cutters. The community had been clear: They wanted roadway projects with better pedestrian and bicycle access and that were designed within the context of their surroundings.

I knew our team needed to challenge our way of thinking and stretch ourselves as engineers to deliver the project that the client and community desired. I racked my brain to recall all the training I had received on the topic of sustainable infrastructure, and then I realized: I have an incredibly talented and diverse team of engineers and technicians who would love an opportunity to be more creative as designers. Most of us entered this profession because we are problem solvers, we are creative problem solvers, and what better way to encourage that mindset than through a design competition? I gathered my engineers and said: “Here’s your challenge: Come up with at least one idea for something more sustainable/green/context-sensitive/unique.” I asked that they research different cities, states, even countries to find solutions that could work for this project and improve the quality of life for the community. The ideas did not need to be new, but they needed to be unique to our region. And here was the kicker: This research was not to be billed to the client; the benefit was to tap into our creative, problem-solving minds, and develop the best unique solutions for the project. The payout: 1) the opportunity for the winning individual or team to present the idea to the client; 2) a small monetary bonus would be awarded to the winning individual or team if the idea was selected by the client to incorporate into the project design.

Our first design challenge resulted in what was a relatively new concept in our region in 2012 for treating stormwater runoff: The median bioswale. Medians in Dallas are typically designed as raised medians with a curb and gutter system to route stormwater from the pavement into the storm drain system and eventually into a stream or river. By depressing the median and routing stormwater runoff into a vegetated median swale before it enters the storm drain system, we created what is referred to as low impact development or “LID” design.

Drivable grass is a LID concept allowing stormwater infiltration and filtering of runoff adjacent to a river.

LID was a new concept for creating a design that mimics pre-development conditions, in part by reducing impervious surfaces within a watershed. The two major benefits of bioswales include filtering sediments and pollutants from pavement runoff and reducing the velocity and concentration of stormwater runoff. Bioswales were uncommon in the Dallas area at the time in part because of our expansive clay soils and our intense rainfall events. However, this did not stop our design team from creatively solving those challenges and presenting an award-winning design that was met with enthusiasm by our clients. In 2012 we were awarded a Gold Medal from the American Council of Engineering Companies of Texas for our “Riverfront Boulevard Median Bioswale Study.” But the most significant outcome of the design challenge was the engagement of our team when they were given the opportunity to be creative and innovative to solve problems of the future. Our team benefited as well as our clients and the community.

Fast forward to today: We’ve had two more design challenges for projects which resulted in innovative, unique concepts and team engagement as well as a better outcome for our clients and the communities they serve. One solution for a roadway project was incorporating drivable grass in parking areas as opposed to concrete pavement. Drivable grass is a LID concept to increase pervious areas to allow stormwater infiltration and filtering of runoff adjacent to a river. Most recently, our client selected all three design challenge concepts that were presented by our team: rain gardens in the parkway, alternative curbs, and shared use paths.

Civil engineering is one of the oldest professions in modern civilization and it is not uncommon for our industry to design using standards that were developed decades ago without considering the evolving needs of our communities. Every project is unique. Evolving social and environmental needs also mean engineering solutions need to adapt and evolve. By creating a friendly competition and allowing our engineers to become those creative problem solvers that lured us to the field of engineering in the first place, we create an environment that is both engaging to our team and results in a better outcome for our clients and our communities.

To achieve this same outcome at your organization, consider working with consultants who strive to think outside the box. The design challenge is one way we do that at GEI. To learn more about how a design challenge approach could help with your next project, contact me.