Sailing is a popular hobby of architects and engineers, but few professionals have experienced such an intimate relationship between buildings and boats as Peter Heppel. Now aged 42, and trained as an aeronautical engineer, Heppel has spent his life tacking between designing racing boats and designing structures, circumnavigating the world before coming recently to harbour as an associate with Buro Happold. He is currently working with that most nautical of architects, Richard Horden, on his Glasgow wing tower. 'The wing tower requires a very integrated approach to the design, ' he explains. 'We have to work very closely together, and that includes the quantity surveyor.'
This is Heppel's second stint with Buro Happold. After studying aeronautical engineering at Bristol ('I looked for the highest-level engineering course - I wanted to be able to design any difficult lightweight structure'), he became the 17th member of the fledgling practice's team, working on Frei Otto projects. After three years he went to Cambridge, to 'develop the theoretical background to the lightweight structures', in a PhD. But he got side-tracked into designing for an Americas Cup yacht racing team and 'decided that it did more for my career than writing up my PhD'. This link with the Americas Cup has continued, to the extent that in the last race 'I had an intervention with three-quarters of the teams, mainly supplying software - the calculations needed are very similar to those on a Frei Otto building.'
Next Heppel set up on his own - 'Tony Hunt was very kind to me' - before being swept up in the Americas Cup again and spending four years in Australia. There he started working with Peter Rice, on projects in Sydney and London, plus engineering a racing boat for Martin Francis (the 'F' in RFR). He joined Rice at Arup's, involved with projects including Future Systems' MOMI tent and the Plymouth Sainsbury's by Dixon Jones. After Rice died, 'Arup's lost its interest for me'. He moved to Paris and worked a lot with RFR.
At the beginning of 1997, Heppel took a sabbatical - to build a boat, of course - and then, when Horden's wing tower got the go-ahead in November, he decided he 'didn't like running an office and came here'. He says it is 'good to be home' and 'I am very comfortable to be working with the resources of Buro Happold'. And guess what? Once he has finished work on the wing tower, he is going to set up a boatengineering team at Buro Happold. 'The relationship between boats and structures works brilliantly, ' he says happily.