Reimagining the Motorway
Our Design Researcher, Marta Golfera, talks through her ‘kit of parts’ approach to sustainable industrial design and entering the recent RIBA competition ‘Gantry for National Highways’
With several years’ experience in industrial design, I joined Maynard at the end of last year as a Design Researcher, a role in which I’ve been able to delve into human experiences, behaviours, and trends across a variety of market sectors. Throughout my Master’s Degree at Central Saint Martins I was always interested in the practice of user-centred and co-design which I explored in my projects; I designed for people with food allergies, victims of violence, and hearing-impaired individuals. I’m personally fascinated with the empathetic bond a designer can develop in co-designing closely with the people we design for, leading to the creation and development of powerful and innovative products our society demands today. At Maynard I have been able to continue my interest in these research areas as well as working on live projects and the recent RIBA competition ‘Gantry for National Highways’.
The competition was to re-examine the design of the motorway signage gantries that we currently see at the side of the carriageway. The brief was looking for innovative designs that challenged the current heavily engineered structures and provided a more sustainable product family that visually integrates with the surrounding landscape. There were a family of four different gantries to consider including a Cantilever, Super-span Cantilever, Portal and Super-span Portal.
Maynard’s participation in this competition was driven by our interest in developing new circular strategies applicable to the transport sector. Aligned with the UK’s overall net-zero strategy to reduce carbon maintenance and construction we saw this competition as an opportunity to apply an industrial design ‘kit of parts’ approach as well as utilising our experience in wayfinding to improve the legibility of the signage and deliver a safer, more inclusive experience for all users.
Our design approach
Initially my research was focused on studying existing gantry designs in other countries to understand if there were any applicable synergies that we could adopt. The answer was no, as each system was quite bespoke so I turned my attention to designing a lightweight structure that had a low carbon footprint. Created with simplicity and elegance of structure, our design seeks to integrate seamlessly with its natural surroundings. The structure achieves this through both form and function, in sustainable construction and component assembly. The gantry is reduced to the sum of its necessary parts, and by rationalising the design we have reduced the visual clutter of the structure and prioritised the display of signage to the driver.
A minimal, modular design approach has enabled us to significantly reduce the scale and volume of materials required for construction compared to traditional gantry design. The assembly process can also become faster and more standardised thanks to interchangeable modules that can be used for all gantry types, and establish a strong family identity. Design and manufacture of components can be mass produced for maximum efficiency and quality control. The primary suspension structure consists of steel sections, castings and a tension cable system, which provide support for a cantilevered lightweight gantry that incorporates signage and solar panels.
An important consideration was also maintenance and safety, and we proposed a design to facilitate the use of an automated vehicle lift to give access to a protected high level enclosure at the back of the gantry. This enabled operators to work on the digital signage and camera systems in a safe, protected environment while traffic passes below. We always think about how the design can be adapted to accommodate future technology, and therefore it was important to enable the gantry to be easily retrofitted with new products.
Learning along the way
The brief posed strict limitations and specific structural challenges, and in generating a creative response I had to utilise my experience of new materials and industrial design. My process was centred on the production of a 3D gantry model, requiring an intense attention to detail to map out the primary structure alongside space proofing for the ancillary components like cameras and digital signs.
As strategic problem-solvers, at Maynard we’re always drawn to technical challenges and design briefs that demand both operational and practical considerations. In contrast our design also drew inspiration from the simplicity of wind turbines and suspension bridges, where functionality meets elegance, strength blends with streamlined lightness, and industrial and natural elements coexist. Our slender design rises vertically, establishing a striking sculptural landmark against the sky.
The design communication of our concept had to be seamlessly intertwined with the final stages of the project. As I don’t have a graphic design background, I relied on my multi-disciplinary colleagues at Maynard for guidance. At every crucial stage of the project, teamwork proved unsurprisingly invaluable in delivering an outcome for the real world.
Concluding the project
The competition has been a brilliant opportunity for my growth as a designer to trace the entire creative process of a project, and a technically challenging design brief, from conception to communication. I drew from Maynard’s experience working with the “kit of parts” approach on recent transport projects including London’s new Elizabeth Line, that I often travel on. Expanding my knowledge of sustainable circular construction strategies has long been of personal interest to me, and this has better equipped me to support Maynard in future projects; we’re committed to utilizing local manufacturing resources and reducing emissions where possible, striving to prioritise sustainability in all crucial aspects of building operations.
The opportunity to drastically reimagine the motorway environment has allowed me to combine my interest in user research with my practical skills in industrial design. Focusing on the unique experience of the driver means I was able to approach the project holistically, considering attention to detail, from information design to structural engineering.
Our design reimagines a product that we see every day and intends to enhance the future highway experience for all users on their journeys.