By the mid 1990s the recession had prompted an increasing number of mergers, consolidations and buy-outs of engineering practices, with some consultants disappearing completely. It seemed to the trio who were to form Adams Kara Taylor that the 'A' teams in most of the better firms were moving very much in the same direction professionally, which suggested it might be a good moment for those who wanted to go slightly against the flow. 'There seemed to be room for another design-led structural engineering practice of the '30something/nearly 40'generation, ' says partner Hanif Kara. 'It was also the right moment to offer a 'hands-on' approach, based not only on a knowledge of design, but also on a reputation for delivery, something many designers are often criticised for not possessing.
'We had noticed an atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty within the industry, but we had a great confidence in our ideas, which came from our sense of commitment and belief in structural engineering, the new economy and its richest assets: knowledge and creativity.
'We had all worked together on projects like the New Museum of Scotland, the Royal Academy and Lloyd's Register of Shipping, but had slightly different views on where the industry was heading. Our good experiences to date were linked to being proactive and agile, not simply technically competent.
'I sold a successful dry-cleaning business to raise my part of the funds needed to set up the practice. I was considering whether to leave the industry at the time, but one lesson I learnt from the experience of running that business was that money removes certain scarcities but doesn't remove others. It was important to seek a higher meaning in what one does and if you choose to do what you enjoy the most (structural engineering design) - money follows (at least theoretically). I can honestly say I am no longer searching for nirvana - at least for the time being.'
Albert Williamson-Taylor was teaching tae kwon do (he is a fifth dan) and was representing the UK at about that time. 'This was a much-needed distraction, it demanded a positive disciplined attitude, unlike some of the negativity in the construction industry at that time, ' he recalls.
Robin Adams was busy planning to take over the world using engineering skills: 'My retirement plan was to be carried out of an engineering office. Put it another way, taking some economist's definition of leisure as 'doing what you want to do' engineering is leisure to me.'
From the start, the new practice worked with the production end of the industry, which (particularly in a recession) was highly interested in finding cheaper ways to achieve the same structural result, says Kara.
'Much of our first year was spent working for specialist frame, fabric, timber and glass contractors, where they were tendering contracts or had already secured work on tight margins. This work had a greater certainty of being built and allowed the firm to get a track record while generating the continuous cash flow needed by any new business. Fees were often based on the percentage of savings we could make by some reengineering of designs (in one of our most successful and profitable projects we reduced the steel tonnage by 30 per cent and shared the resulting savings equally with the contractor).'
The practice has retained this client base, with about 25 per cent of its work coming from this sector. 'As well as building a track record we were able to bring the skills of the 'makers' to the early stages of the design process. It is well known that structural systems prosper when design development and research - the more intellectual activities - are integrated with production, assembly and erection.'
Kara takes the lead in setting the vision and strategy for the firm. 'It is a case of being first among equals and working with the different strengths of the directors; this role also means being the spokesman and setting the standards for the team in the office. The design direction on projects is led by myself and Albert Taylor - it is an area we both feel comfortable with and enjoy. 'The delivery of the promise relies on methodology and management. Right from the start we invested in IT and we're keen to keep up with the leaps in technological advancement - Albert takes responsibility for ensuring this. There is also the business and management side. We all know designers need managing and organising, and this responsibility rests with Robin. We have attracted high-calibre staff (average age 32) through deliberate recruiting strategies; the five associate directors were headhunted - we had worked with them before and they share the same values and have a proven track record.'
By the end of its first year, AKT's approach seemed to be working well. The firm was beginning to secure high-profile projects such as Peckham Library and Hanover Rainforest. Commissions were won through competitive interviews, presentations, recommendations and, not least, design competitions.
'Among other things, design to us includes exploring design opportunities at an early stage - we try to make good architects look even better, and follow the results through to construction. These early stages are often chaotic and one has to think along several different routes at the same time - it can be a difficult stage for engineers because we are trained to solve problems quickly, not always the best way to develop a design. To work this way, you need to differentiate between 'optioneering'and 'engineering', looking to wider knowledge beyond engineering science - after all, buildings and spaces are physical manifestations of knowledge from a team of designers.'
The ideas shown in the following pages are drawn from a selection of schemes 'where the structural engineering aspects of the design are tangible, but most of our important contribution remains weightless: creativity, imagination, communication, vigour, passion, drive, research, aesthetic appreciation and effort'.
As to the future of the firm, Kara is clear that structural engineering will be the sole professional activity. 'There is no intention of expanding into other disciplines - we have learned that maintaining a single focus in a discipline we know best gives us an added advantage.'