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a light touch

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Neil Billet is the engineer responsible for building services on the Foster & Partners British Museum project. His real passion, however, is using light in the best possible way by eleanor young. photograph by jonathan brady; people

Light is more than a physical effect for Neil Billet. Sitting in Buro Happold's central London office which is flooded with early autumn light, he recounts the past life of the building as a dark, badly lit sweatshop for the rag trade. When Buro Happold moved in there were black boxy offices under the rooflights and the large windows were filled with concrete blocks. The quality of light and other services is central to the experience of the building.

As group director of building services for the London office, Billet has a professional concern with these things, in buildings from the British Museum to the Media Centre at Lords. Temperature, ventilation, the nuts and bolts of buildings - these are his everyday problems. But lighting is his passion.

Billet took the architectural and building engineering course at Bath when the role of head of school was shared by Michael Brawne and by Ted Happold, the founder of Buro Happold. Many core courses were taught to both architectural and engineering students. When he started Billet had little fixed idea of where he was going: 'I wanted to be 'creating.' There needed to be a physical, tangible product at the end of it.' In theory that could have been anything - 'cars could have been fun' - but he says that it was 'always buildings'.

Billet plumped for engineering and eventually for services engineering. 'I had a science background', says Billet, explaining why he took what he sees as the middle path between architecture and structural engineering. 'I understood what engineers did each day.' Billet's father was an electrical engineer for the Ministry of Defence in Plymouth, where he was brought up. Within these limitations Billet's choice of career eventually betrayed his real interest - people. 'Architecture deals almost exclusively with people, while structural engineering is about physics,' he says. 'Building services affect people more.'

He specialised in lighting, recognising the powerful and emotional effects of it: 'You can't see temperature - but light can change spaces.' For his msc at the Bartlett, he strayed away from the traditional concerns of a service engineer with an investigation into the 'aesthetic side' of services and the effects of daylight. His dissertation on the use of light in religious buildings considered the treatment of light as man's response to the divine, from the distant, dim light of Gothic cathedrals obscured by stained glass windows, to the intimate spaces for reflection and contemplation created by Le Corbusier at Ronchamp, where gentle shafts of daylight penetrate the thick walls.

At the Thames Valley University Learning Resource Centre (aj 10.10.98), designed by the Richard Rogers Partnership, daylight was an important part of the design. 'We just sat down with the architects and took a scalpel to the model,' says Billet, describing the creation of windows at the early stages.

Billet maintains that buildings are about people more than function. 'It should all start from the people on the inside.' Most models are made looking from the outside, but he is an advocate of the modelscope, a periscope- style camera which allows architects and engineers to appreciate scale models from the inside.

Working with Future Systems on the NatWest Media Centre at Lords (aj 29.4.99), Billet and his team were faced with the challenge of preventing large reflective surfaces blinding the players, while creating a comfortable environment for people to watch a day's play in hot summer weather. Sunlight simulation did some of the work: the inclined glass on the front of the media centre was to reduce glare on the pitch. But reporters would have to sit behind the glass panel in the sun to see the game. Billet imagined them as drivers heading down the m5 into the sun, and installed sun blinds and air vents, all operated individually: 'As the sun creeps round you see the journalists turning them on. It is the psychology: if you can control your environment, you are more tolerant of it.'

Billet has worked at Buro Happold since he graduated in 1989, although he has done other things, including spending a year travelling through countries such as India and Guatemala and studying part time for his msc. Two years ago, he moved to London from the company's Bath headquarters. (Buro Happold has about 600 staff in 13 offices worldwide). 'It has grown so fast that many people were anxious where we would all end up,' says Billet, who has now become a director in the London offices where there is plenty of space for development. His building services team has expanded from eight people in a small Praed Street office in 1997, to 30. The environment is constantly evolving. Billet finds he needs this change and stimulation, whether it is through learning or otherwise: 'There is something about learning that is a way of working.' He is likely to continue creating. His dream while travelling was to run a restaurant and club somewhere in Bath or Bristol - with a small design studio above it.

Billet is clearly adept at creating solutions to complex problems. He is helping Foster and Partners open up the Reading Room at the British Museum in a subtle and typically Buro Happold style, working with the existing building to keep intervention to a minimum, using pre-existing maintenance stairways for ventilation, for example. When complete, the renovation will show how a famously old, artificially lit, closed environment can be altered to allow natural light and atmosphere into one of the few public oases in central London. Billet's contribution shows that attention to service details is essential to the transformation of space.

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