Over the last three decades, Canada has become a world leader in using public-private partnerships (P3s) to develop critical infrastructure. Of the many learnings that have been realized over this time, including crucial lessons about project selection and P3 structure, one of the most valuable is a realization of the central importance of design excellence.

Before construction on a project even begins, the design phase can fundamentally chart a course for success or failure. “Design leads the P3 process,” says Tony Gill, Global Director of P3 Buildings at design and technology firm IBI Group. “It drives a lot of the outcomes, especially from a financial perspective.”

Beyond securing economic viability, design is also vital in advancing the end user experience, as IBI recently demonstrated in their design for the redevelopment of Surrey Memorial Hospital in British Columbia. “Good design means thinking about how efficient a facility can be and whether it optimizes the use of all the spaces available,” explains Gill. “Design excellence is really a means of ensuring that the experience of the users is efficient and comfortable. In a hospital especially, it calms things down and helps the healing process.”

Designing good health outcomes

The Surrey Memorial redevelopment project, for example, was particularly dedicated to having an optimal emergency department. “We ran simulation models and volume projections on where patients would go and where clinicians would come from,” says Gill. “We then gave that information to the proponents with our exemplary design so they could understand the demands, have a greater insight into the complexities, and really focus on the experience. In the end, did we get the emergency department we designed? No, we got one that was a little bit better, because the design communicated to the proponents what we wanted to achieve, allowing them to find further ways to improve it.”

Allowing room for this kind of innovation and flexibility is a central characteristic of both the best designs and the best RFPs. “A great RFP has to allow for innovation,” says Gill. “If an RFP is done well, the goals and objectives are very clearly explained, but there is still room for innovative design.”

Public transit by design

And these lessons are not only applicable to health sector P3s. In fact, the Eglinton Crosstown LRT project, and the first P3 RFP in Ontario to incorporate design excellence as a core component, has shown how these learnings translate directly to the transit sector and beyond. IBI is the design co-lead with SNC Engineering, leading the architecture, engineering, interiors, and urban design of the project. “At the core of the design is elevating the passenger experience,” says Fouad Mustafa, Global Director of P3 Infrastructure at IBI. “That is a key element that will attract passengers and entice them to give up their cars. The design also needs to respond to the local environment, because we do recognize that the system runs through a number of different communities, and it is important that the stations and stops are made to be integral parts of those communities.”

Getting these projects right makes a huge difference to Canadian communities, and the impacts of the design, good or bad, will be felt for decades. The Eglinton Crosstown, for instance, is a 19.5 kilometre transit system connecting the entire city of Toronto from east to west. It’s going to be around for a while. “These are long-term permanent features. They are fixtures that will transcend generations. A project with such a long view can only be successful through extremely strong design.”

Canadians should be greatly encouraged by the ascendance of design in P3 projects across the country. It means not only more affordable and more efficient infrastructure, but also better everyday experiences for all of us. “Everybody talks about good design as though it’s just about achieving the functionality, meeting the budget, and meeting the schedule,” says Gill. “Great design goes beyond those things and focuses on ensuring that the end result provides a great experience for the users and the community.”