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Interviews|December 13, 2016 16:13

High powered design

An unlikely candidate for a design makeover, the electricity pylon could shortly become a design icon right across the UK. Dave Howell reports.

Currently the UK has 88,000 high capacity electric pylons. Often the target of criticism for their impact on the landscape, these monoliths of steel that have changed little over the past 75 years, have recently been the focus for a design competition run by Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) on behalf of the Department of Energy & Climate Change and National Grid.

The design brief for the new pylon design stated: ‘This new RIBA competition invites architects, engineers, designers, and university level students of these disciplines to come up with proposals for a new generation of electricity pylon. As well as exploring the design of the object, this competition also seeks to explore the relationship between our energy infrastructure and the environment within which it needs to be located. The challenge is to design a pylon that has the potential to deliver for future generations, whilst balancing the needs of our communities and preserving the beauty of our countryside.’


Design competition

Of the total number of pylons in the UK, 22,000 are on National Grid’s main transmission network in England and Wales. These stand some 50m high, weigh around 30 tonnes and carry up to 400,000 volts of electricity over thousands of kilometres of some of the most exposed, weather-beaten parts of Britain. But the familiar steel lattice tower has barely changed since the 1920s.

A DECC spokesperson outlined the thinking behind the international competition: ‘The equivalent of twenty new power stations are needed by 2020, and much more beyond that as electricity demand doubles by 2050 to power more of our transport and heating needs. This new energy will need to be transmitted from its source to homes and businesses across the UK.

‘The purpose of the competition was to make the wider public aware of the scale of new energy infrastructure needed in the UK over the coming decades, and to explore the potential for a new generation of pylon within our landscapes.’

Winning entry

A prize fund was also made available that consisted of a winning prize of £5,000 to the outright winner, with £1,000 to the five shortlisted candidates. At the deadline for entries, 250 submissions had been made. The six finalists then had their designs shown as the London Design Festival, which attracted a great deal of public attention.

The winner of the competition was announced as the T-Plyon designed by BYSTRUP [www.bystrup.dk]. Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Chris Huhne said: ‘This is an innovative design which is simple, classical and practical. Its ingenious structure also means that it will be much shorter and smaller than existing pylons and therefore less intrusive.’

Nick Winser, executive director, National Grid expanded: ‘In the T-Pylon we have a design that has the potential to be a real improvement on the steel lattice tower. It’s shorter, lighter and the simplicity of the design means it would fit into the landscape more easily. In addition, the design of the electrical components is genuinely innovative and exciting.’

With Ruth Reed, RIBA Immediate Past President explained why the T-Pylon had been a clear winner: ‘The potential to reduce the size and height of pylons and consequently their impact on the landscape and the amount of materials in their construction, made this scheme a clear winner for me. The radical design of a single suspension arm carrying three conductors is simple and understated. Whilst there should still be the opportunity for statement designs where they are appropriate this radical solution is a quantum leap forward for the design of the thousands of pylons needed in the years to come.’

The winners of the competition have a background in pylon design that stood them in good stead when tackling the new pylon design for the UK. BYSTRUP had already successfully designed a new pylon in their native Denmark with 80 of their pylon designs being erected between Bramslev and Haverslev in Jutland.

Rasmus Jessing, architect and partner at BYSTRUP commented: ‘The main challenge was to create a pylon with a reduced visual impact suited for repetitive use across the British landscapes that was able to compete with the existing lattice towers regarding steel use, carbon footprint and overall cost. The T-Pylon is a very compact pylon. It is designed to meet the beautiful British landscapes, where space for the alignment of pylons is often limited, and a low overall height of the line is a virtue. The T-Pylon is approximately as wide as the existing lattice tower; however it reduces the overall height of the towers by almost 20 m.

‘It is our strong believe that design is function. Our design aims to improve all aspects of the project. In this case that includes erection speed, number of parts, overall height, maintenance and inspection, carbon footprint, visual impact as well production, safety and cost efficiency.’

And will we see the T-Pylon being erected across the UK in the near future? The National Grid is hopeful that the winning design can indeed be developed into a practical solution. Winser said: ‘We are very hopeful we can take the T pylon forward to production. At this stage it’s difficult to say if any aspects of the design will have to change. We will need to examine every aspect of the design with the BYSTRUP team. This design includes a new triangular configuration for the insulators. The positioning of the earth wire is different. And there are both a circular and square designs for the pylon shaft. We have to evaluate how to construct the towers.  And we will also have to look at how the pylon, insulators and conductors can be maintained and kept safe.’

The electrical pylon that is so familiar right across the UK is an unlikely candidate for a design competition. With energy needs on their inevitable upward trajectory, the need for more pylons will be necessary. Injecting a level of design into the whole process will not only deliver the pylons we need, but also create a piece of industrial design that everyone can appreciate.

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