Redefining the engineer Padraic Kelly, Managing Director of Buro Happold, stresses the breadth of the engineer's role and the importance of teamwork
Before joining Buro Happold 20 years ago, managing director Padraic Kelly took three months off to play golf. He hasn't played since, having spent most of his time in the Middle East where, by his own admission, 'it's a different game altogether.' Inspired by his childhood heroes, Brunel and Stephenson, he read engineering at Trinity College, Dublin. Then, deciding to specialise, he embarked on a Masters degree in computers and engineering structures. In 1978 he was approached by Buro Happold, which was looking for people to write software for many of its complex projects. With a booming construction industry, Buro Happold's was just one of many offers Kelly received. However, keen to gain overseas experience, he was impressed by the company's extensive international portfolio which included the King's Office, the Council of Ministers and Majiilis al Shura development, and the Jeddah Sports Stadium. So despite an alternative offer of 25 per cent more, he accepted the job.
After five years designing software his attention was caught by a project for the Diplomatic Club in Riyadh, jointly undertaken with Frei Otto. Built from both traditional and high-tech materials, the club comprised an interior oasis and lush landscaping. Kelly was hooked and so began his first visit to Saudi Arabia. He returned briefly to the uk in 1986 but due to the recession found the major focus for most consultants was overseas. Much of his subsequent career has been concentrated in the Middle East, where he has found less tradition and a more fluid working structure. He explains, 'More often than not we're the prime consultant which gives us a lot of control.' Participation at this higher level has also meant that Kelly has been able to create jobs where they may not previously have existed.
In 1988 work started on the four-year redevelopment of Riyadh city centre and Kelly was given the opportunity to oversee the construction of one of his own projects, an experience he found invaluable. 'Engineering is not only about producing high-quality innovative design,' he says, 'it's about procurement, construction and seeing those things built.' However, while he enjoyed project management, he missed the actual design process. So, in 1990 he opened a local design office in Saudi Arabia feeling that in doing so Buro Happold was demonstrating its commitment in the Middle East. This also enabled the practice to become more involved with construction management. The first such project was Half Moon Bay, a waterside development where the original contractor had gone bankrupt. Again, as Kelly explains, he saw an opportunity for further work: 'We felt that the masterplan didn't fully exploit the capability of the site'. He approached the client and as a result took on the master planning of the complete development.
Kelly was made a partner in 1992. He had been offered the position previously but refused, seeing it not as a reward but a responsibility. He took over as managing partner in 1996 and immediately started to evaluate the company's strategy and goals; the result, as he explains, is that: 'We've tried, to some extent, to design our future'. His first task was to formalise a structure which would enable the company to grow whilst retaining a 'small feel'. This included adopting a network structure, limiting the number of individuals per design group, and adopting a flat hierarchy. He went on to plan a three-year rolling strategy for the inevitable downturn in the economy. He is proud to point out that during the last recession Buro Happold managed to retain all of its key staff.
Influenced by his time in the Middle East, he sees the engineer as a fundamental player, able to contribute much higher up the chain: 'With specialisation engineers have lost sight of the client need. While we recognise the need for specialisation, we also recognise the need to see the bigger picture.' He cites the recently completed British Airways Headquarters at Waterside undertaken with Niels Torp and rhwl (page 33-40) as an example where innovation has applied through all stages of construction.
He reiterates the importance of team work; a philosophy initiated into Buro Happold by its late founder, Ted Happold. 'Clearly, one of my reasons for joining Buro Happold was Ted - in addition to being a great team builder he was a great team player.' He tells how Happold would look up local representatives from his 'little black book of Quakers' when travelling and thus forge bonds with people he had never met. This network of support clearly inspired the underlying philosophy at Buro Happold: 'technological innovation aligned to a social commitment whilst running at a profit'.
Although based in Bath, Kelly still spends much of his time overseas. 'Fortunately, my family finds the travelling interesting - it provides a good point of conversation. I have opportunities to visit places and meet people I wouldn't have access to otherwise.'