In with the new
Succession in practices can be a tricky time, with the greatest danger coming when the original founder retires. But for engineer Anthony Hunt Associates (AHA), this point in its history resulted not in a loss of confidence, but in it powering ahead in new directions.
When Tony Hunt, the charismatic structural engineer who founded the practice, retired in 2002, change was inevitable. Over the past 40 years, the firm had progressively developed close and long-standing relationships with architects, blurring the boundaries between the disciplines. It has now developed this concept into a holistic approach to construction, with structural engineering integrated in a commitment to the environment. At the same time, the practice's creative design has extended into the realm of civil engineering.
What have remained constant are the standards of quality and service that Hunt and his fellow directors established over many years. 'We are well aware of our reputation, ' says chairman Alan Jones. 'We offer a quality service.We don't enter open fee-based competitions or work at suicidal reduced fee rates - if we did we would not be able to offer the kind of service for which we are known and respected.'
As a result, much of the new work received by the practice is based on personal recommendation and contact. These contacts go back a long way. It helped a lot that some of the projects undertaken in the early years of AHA are now iconic architectural monuments. The firm worked with Norman Foster on the Willis Faber Dumas building and with Richard Rogers on the Inmos silicone-chip factory. Collaboration with both architectural practices has been maintained. In many cases structural concepts that were initiated on one building were developed in a later building with the same project architect. Recent work with Foster and Partners includes the magnificent dome for the great glasshouse in south-west Wales, the centrepiece of the National Botanic Garden of Wales (AJ 14.9.00).With the Richard Rogers Partnership the practice devised an exposed composite concrete structure for Lloyd's Register of Shipping (AJ 10.1.02).
The network of personal contacts has spread exponentially as architects who were once part of the Foster and Rogers teams, for example, have established their own reputations and practices. Michael Hopkins (with Foster on Willis Faber Dumas) worked on a variation of the Patera building system with Jones and used it to construct his own office at Broadley Terrace, London. Chris Wilkinson, first encountered with Hopkins, has now, as Wilkinson Eyre, completed a major office refurbishment, the Empress State Building, with AHA. John McAslan, formerly with Rogers, is currently working with AHA on projects that include the redevelopment of the Roundhouse in Camden.
'We are keen to develop links with emerging practices, ' says managing director Les Postawa. 'We often do this by entering competitions with them.' Three years ago he worked with a young husband and wife practice, Brissac Gonzalez, on a scheme for the Museum of World Culture at Gothenburg. 'To realise the key concept - a two-storey gallery cantilevered over the street - we used the front facade as a deep beam to span 50m between two bookend walls, creating a structure-free glass facade. The job enabled the couple to set up their own practice.'
The organisation of the AHA practice has also changed in subtle ways. 'We're rather more of a cooperative team compared with when Tony was around, ' explains Jones.
Since 1976, when Tony Hunt decided to leave London, the head office - the largest team and the administrative centre - has been based at Cirencester, an affluent Gloucestershire town of Cotswold stone. It is housed in the upper floors of a Georgian town house in the main street - an unlikely home for innovative structural engineering but more pleasant than central London.
The practice has five directors, each heading a relatively small and manageable team.
Jones and Bjorn Watson run a team of 30 at the Cirencester office, which also houses the civil-engineering team under associate in charge Martin Jones. Les Postawa runs the London office with about 10, and Allan Bernau heads the 10-strong Sheffield office, with a small satellite team in Manchester. A branch office of 10 was set up in Edinburgh a few years ago under the direction of Tony O'Neill. This office has a number of new projects, including the £28 million development of The Royal Scottish Academy with John Miller & Partners, a Surgical Skills building for the Royal College of Surgeons with Benson & Forsyth, and a new British High Commission in Colombo, Sri Lanka, with Richard Murphy Architects.
Although this arrangement gives AHA comprehensive regional UK coverage, the importance of personal contact and service takes precedence over travel time. 'The Cirencester and London offices together look after the south of England, but it doesn't always work geographically, ' says Jones. 'As the largest office, it was logical that Cirencester worked on Waterloo International Terminal with Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners. But although we are relatively near to Stonehenge, the architect, Denton Corker Marshall, is in London, and just now our Sheffield office is working on a new college in Swindon.'
Far left: AHA is working with John McAslan and Partners at the Roundhouse in London, installing a 'top hat'over the existing structure and (middle) with Zaha Hadid on the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Rome, now on site.
Left: the Empress State building has been a familiar London landmark since it was built in the early 1960s. It has been refurbished with a new lightweight three-storey roof extension and a new 5.5m-wide extension to the south facade. It has just won an Aluminium Imagination Award for the most innovative use of aluminium in a building that contributes to its sustainability Cover shows some of the environmentally beneficial materials used in recent projects.
Clockwise, from top left: rammed earth; lime mortar brickwork; clay blocks; gabion baskets;
cedar shingles; bio-engineered slopes.
Foreground: opening bridge with Thomas Heatherwick Studios