Leading practitioners share their journeys
Engineering Environmental Architecture may not be the most compelling title for an event (except for Footprint readers), but it attracted an audience of almost 300 to hear a panel of nine Bath University graduates – 7 engineers and 2 architects – recount their personal journeys in environmental design since leaving uni. How often do you get to hear leading practitioners – most of whom are competitors – share their personal journeys?
The Bath course was not just any uni course; this was Bath in the days of Ted Happold who championed interdisciplinary education as a route to collaboration in practice. Architects and engineers were educated side by side from year one, jointly imbibing Bannister Fletcher and performing structural calculations.
Masterminded by FCBStudios’ Peter Clegg and Atelier Ten’s Patrick Bellew – both Bath alumni themselves, the afternoon was riveting. The charged atmosphere in the room reminded me of FCBStudios’ anniversary event at the RIBA a few years back. Speakers were divided into two sessions: Neil Billet of Buro Happold, Klaus Bode of BDSP, Dave Richards of Arup, Patrick Bellew and architect Selcuk Avci were followed after the coffee break by Ant Wilson of AECOM, Guy Battle of Deloitte, Andy Ford of MottMcDonald (ex-Fulcrum) and FCBS’ Keith Bradley.
Despite the surprisingly different trajectories of the individuals, common themes emerged:
- the need to widen our sphere of influence to encompass behavioral change and city-making (Dave Richards shared work on Sauerbruch Hutton’s NoHo in Helskinki)
- closing the performance gap (ALL)
- lack of clear consensus on whether environmental design adds value to a project (Guy Battle offered a resounding no but Klaus Bode argued that getting this message across was key to getting clients to listen and winning work)
- need to pitch to meet the current market but build in flexibility for future adaptation (Dave Richards showed an AHMM project with a ‘variable’ façade which could be changed out in future to improve its performance)
- increasing importance of embodied energy (Guy Battle)
- the complexity of changing policy and regulations (Ant Wilson is a master navigator)
- the importance of collaboration (ALL)
- need to remember that it’s all about commodity, firmness and DELIGHT (Andy Ford and Keith Bradley)
The question which pervaded the day was why this type of course has not survived and been replicated elsewhere. Even Bath, which has a sustainable design focus in its undergraduate curriculum and post-graduate specialisms in low carbon materials led by Peter Walker and building physics led by David Coley, no longer offers a joint undergraduate course. It was put down to lack of demand due to lack of understanding from perspective students about potential careers paths in building services.
I was struck by the fact that several members of the panel explaining that they ‘ended up’ pursuing environmental engineering by accident, changing their focus once on the course due to inspiring teaching. Patrick acknowledged the formative influence of Derek Clements-Croome (in the audience and now at Reading) who always questioned first principles by asking ‘do you need a chiller at all?’ rather than ‘how big a chiller do you need?’
Here’s a small sampling of some of the other ‘gems’ from the afternoon:
- Dave Richards: All architects and engineers should have a spell running one of their buildings.
- Klaus Bode: Money (value) is the one key subject not taught on any course. You need to understand this to convince clients.
- Andy Ford: My London Met architecture students had a eureka moment when I took them to Seville and handed them a thermal imaging camera. If we’re going to make any progress, architects need to work with engineers. Engineers also need to learn to stand up in crits and defend their ideas. That is not the way they are taught.
- Max Fordham on the Basil Spence prize: the engineering students said they couldn’t do anything because the architects hadn’t drawn anything yet. I told them to read, question, and interpret the brief.
- Ant Wilson on integrated design: Clients don’t always want all the answers from the same consultancy team. Different points of view around the table can lead to a better solution.
- Patrick Bellew on teaching (after 12 years at Yale teaching both standalone courses and studios): the best way to influence architecture students is in the studio.
- Guy Battle: The whisky is in the cake, not the cherry on top. The increasing cost of energy is driving change in corporate boardrooms. What we need is a sustainability dashboard for boards and investors.
- Andy Ford on ‘forgiveness’: if buildings don’t work perfectly, but are beautiful, people will forgive you.
- David Coley on the need for transparency in metrics: we all know what it takes to make cars run. We need to translate that consciousness to buildings.
A consensus emerged that the profession has ‘got it’ (understands collaborative working) but the educational system has not. Paul Finch noted that even so, there are very few fully integrated practices (think Arup Associates, Peter Foggo). Despite the proliferation of masters courses in sustainable design, only one Part 1 course at the University of the West of England is jointly recognised by the RIBA and CIBSE. UWE’s Elena Marco was in the audience. Integrated practices are not necessarily the answer, but more integrated education is.
Paul wrapped up masterfully bringing a smile to everyone’s face by comparing various degrees of collaboration and integration to a one night stand, an affair, a good marriage or a marriage coming to an end. ‘If carbon stank – or was at least visible, we’d have solved this years ago’.
At the dinner afterwards, BuroHappold’s Gavin Thompson described understanding architecture as akin to learning a language. As a non-Bath graduate, he admired the cohort of engineers educated under Ted Happold who had assimilated that language early. It was a reminder that even amongst built environment professionals, gaps of understanding can be barriers. The evening culminated with Patrick Bellew and Peter Clegg, acknowledging their respective mentors - Derek Clements-Croome and Max Fordham - with ‘the Order of Bath’ in the form of special medals fabricated by FCBStudios.
The symposium will be available on video in due course. Contact Holly at FCBStudios, here.
photos: Richard Battye