The Nature of Design – Five Reasons why Catering and Property Development are the Same!

Last year we did a lovely catering job as part of Belfast Design Week. And it got me thinking about the nature of design and the design world I used to work in – my world before The Edible Flower!

I’ve spent the vast majority of my working life (from 2007 to 2016) working for Argent, a small property developer in London. I studied engineering at uni but never could decide what kind of engineer to be, so I ended up employing engineers instead… And architects, and fountain designers, and cost consultants, and fire consultants and landscape architects and soil scientists, and artists and interior designers and building contractors – the full range of built environment professionals. I oversaw the whole process of designing and constructing buildings and (possibly more interestingly) the bits between buildings.

All my time at Argent was spent working on one project (albeit a big one) – the 67 acre King’s Cross redevelopment tucked behind King’s Cross and St Pancras Stations in London. Now, more than two years since leaving Argent, I feel pretty disconnected from that world of design and construction, of topping out and snagging – but this week I’ve been thinking… The process of Property Development and Catering aren’t so different after all.

Here are 5 reasons why they are just the same…

Number 1. It’s all about humans.

In 2001 (so long before I started there), Argent published a document (the result of many months of public consultation) that set out the principles that would underpin the development at King’s Cross. It’s called Principles for a Human City (download it here if you’re interested) and it’s still a good read all these years later. Designing buildings (or a new part of a city) is unsurprisingly all about people. Fundamentally, a building is protection from the elements, a controlled, comfortable space for people to live or work or learn, or do whatever they need to do. It’s shelter. But it’s more than that. A good building can be functional and efficient, but it can also bring delight and joy to people – a sense of belonging or deep comfort, or an understanding of the heritage of a place.

And now at The Edible Flower, I oversee the process of designing and delivering food-based events (and in many cases actually do lots of the work myself).  We design and deliver menus and events to fulfill a different basic human need – nourishment. People need to eat and drink. And again, a meal can be functional and nutritional, but we aim to make it more than that. To bring joy and delight – to reflect the seasons, or create a strong sense of place.

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Photo credit: Kat Mervyn

Obviously building a £100m office building from scratch is very different to planning and delivering a supper club. The timescales and budgets are hugely different, the complexity is obviously vastly different and that’s reflected in the size of team required to deliver it, but for me, I’m following the same principles that I sat down and digested in 2007 on my first day at Argent.

Number 2. “Form follows function”

It’s a classic design principle that I’m sure is hotly debated in many architecture schools – Form follows function. The shape or nature of a design solution should reflect and to some extent be determined by its function. As an engineer at heart, I couldn’t agree more with this!

However, if you employ a building design team, the lead designer is (almost always) the architect – so you may be tricked into thinking that “form” is actually in charge. Yes, an architect is very much concerned with the form of a building. But what they are hopefully doing is understanding and balancing up all the practical and functional constraints that the rest of the design team are responsible for, to design a building that works. I rather like this quote:

“Design is all about finding solutions within constraints. If there were no constraints, it’s not design. It’s art.”  –  Matias Duarte (Vice President of Design at Google)

Delivering a catering job or supper club is so much simpler, but the issues are the same. You want to design a menu that is breathtaking and delicious and groundbreaking, but you have to do that within the context of budget constraints, seasonal ingredients, and the limitations of your kitchens or venue. But it’s still a fascinating of process where creativity is driven by constraints.

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Number 3. It’s a journey, and a loop.

The design process is a journey. It starts with the development of a brief and ends only after the final result has been well used or fully digested. One of the reasons I never became an engineer was that as one member of the design team you only really see a fraction of the journey. But as the client (i.e. the property developer) you get to write the brief (or help your future tenant to write it), choose the design team, oversee construction, use the building or see your tenants using it, and then work out what you’d do better next time. As an engineer, you’re rarely asked to come back a few years later (though the industry is slowly changing as whole-life-costing comes in and people try to close that feedback loop).

And as a caterer you follow the same journey. You develop the brief by chatting to the client, design the menu, deliver the job and then review how it went afterwards. At The Edible Flower we keep pretty serious records of every job we do. Without those records of what we cooked, how much we cooked, what went well and where there was way too much food we wouldn’t be able to continuously get better at what we do – refine the recipes and quantities.

So you see, different, but the same.

Number 4. It starts with the soil

Other than some minor fruit and veg growing in my childhood London garden, my relationship with soil started at university. I studied, not only the snappily-titled module “Soil Mechanics 1” but the generally unloved sequel “Soil Mechanics 2”. Most people thought it was pretty boring. I loved it.

I’m not sure how often an average person would think about this, but all buildings are built on the ground, on soil. And soil is fundamentally pretty tricky stuff. It can be squishy or strong, it can change massively when water appears or disappears and fundamentally you can do hundreds of soil tests before you start building, but until you start digging you don’t know exactly what you will find.

At King’s Cross we also had the fun of potential UXO (unexploded bombs) and the joy of soil contamination from a couple of centuries of industrial London. So, I’ve always seen soil as a massive area of risk in any construction project. Once you’re out the ground you can definitely breathe a sigh of relief (and release some of your contingency budget). Soil is tricky, heterogeneous and thoroughly fascinating.

The food we make at The Edible Flower is also built on the soil. We’re a pretty veggie-centric caterer and we grow lots of our own vegetables and fruit. And even when someone else grows our produce we’re very conscious of the patch of earth it has come from. But that is where the similarity with construction ends.

Since starting The Edible Flower, growing all the vegetables and learning lots about organic gardening, soil is suddenly a totally different prospect. It’s much thinner now (I only really care about the topsoil were the vegetables are growing – not the structural properties of the clay 15 meters down) but it’s a bringer of life and nutrients – not a big area of risk. The soil I care about now is even more complex than I ever thought. It’s alive – full of microfauna – interacting with vegetable roots in ways that we definitely don’t understand yet.

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In London, in King’s Cross or really in any built-up city – you don’t see the soil. It’s covered in buildings or roads or pavements. And the soil you do see in the occasional tree pit or urban planter has probably been bought in, as so often the topsoil is lost when the builders start digging. But now I touch, see and hopefully enrich the soil everyday.

And that reminds me of my favourite sayings about an organic approach to growing food:

“Live like you will die tomorrow. Farm like you will live forever”

Number 5. Every building is a prototype.

As a property developer, every building you construct is a prototype. You might employ the same designers, or specify the same cladding material or the same cooling system, but each building will be different and each project will have its own unique challenges. This is due to the fact that buildings have to go somewhere in the world – and each site is different and each project has different constraints – the surroundings are different, access to the site is different, the soil that the foundations are on is different, and the client’s needs are different.

And it’s just the same with catering. We have not done two identical jobs. The client might be different, the venue and its facilities will be different (this has such a massive effect on how the job actually gets delivered) and even if those things were the same, the season would be different and hence the ingredients we want to use changes.

So despite all our attempts to work out how many falafels an average person eats, there is no such number as the average person (fortunately) rarely appears at one of our events.

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Belfast Design Week runs from 6 – 11 November 2018. Whatever creative, problem-solving or design-based world you work in, check out some of their fab workshops and events.

(If we hadn’t just had twins, I’d see you there)

 

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