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inventive thinker

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Mark Lovell, structural engineer of the Earth Centre's new conference building, did not have a conventional path to consultancy, and it is because of this that he is able to bring 'a wider sense of possibilities' to new projects

Built of 70 per cent recycled materials and generating 60 per cent of its own energy, the Earth Centre's new conference building must be a deeper shade of green than any comparable facility in the UK, so it comes as no surprise to learn that its architect is Bill Dunster. But behind every innovative building lies equally committed and often largely anonymous engineering: enter structural engineer Mark Lovell, master of materials and principal of MLDE.

'He is one of the few UK structural engineers who understands the challenge of building sustainably. How many do you know, ' asks Dunster, 'who would get excited about recycling a disused electricity pylon?'

The new centre may look familiar - earthsheltered, gabion walls, recycled timber, interseasonal heat store, massive insulation - but few things are what they seem. Take the gabions. Now patented and marketed under the name Trapion, they were developed with Tinsley Wire and use half the material of conventional counterparts. Filled with crushed concrete from a disused mineworks nearby, their green credentials are impeccable.

Lovell first worked with Dunster over a decade ago on the multi-award-winning David Mellor cutlery factory at Hathersage.

He was then a young associate partner at Whitby and Bird, while Dunster was cutting his teeth with Michael Hopkins. They have collaborated regularly ever since, on everything from office furniture to the vast Tokyo Forum competition, in which they were the only UK team to come close to winning a prize.

'Mark's body clock runs 12 times faster than anyone I know, ' says Dunster, 'and he has an energy level to match.' Lovell's passion for engineering is infectious, and his childhood is every Hollywood biopicmaker's dream. He grew up on Silverstone racetrack and has vivid boyhood memories of being taken for a spin by the likes of John Surtees and Jack Brabham. It helped to give him, he says, 'a gut feeling for high performance design'.

The track was close to a family timber business dating back to the 16th century, and to the even more venerable Lovell's Wood recorded in the Domesday Book. It seems only natural, therefore, that a 21st-century Lovell should get as excited about medieval barns as about floating five tonnes of plywood on structural glass at Radiant House in Milton Keynes' FutureWorld. Or that he enjoys detailing peg-jointed timber roofs for listed buildings as much as designing a gravity-defying bridge across the A4 - one of only eight in the UK to be partfunded by the Millennium Commission as a link in the Sustrans national cycleway.

As with so many inventive thinkers, Lovell's path into consultancy was unconventional and gave him, he now feels, 'a wider sense of the possibilities and practicalities of technology transfer'. After leaving school, he signed up for a traditional apprenticeship in the aeronautical industry, acquiring the kind of practical, hands-on experience that is rare among consultants.

Then came a spell designing silos and mastering pressed metal while being sponsored through Salford University, and after that, experience of designing cranes.

After seven enjoyable years learning his trade as a consultant at Whitby and Bird - which he looks back on as 'probably the liveliest young practice in Britain at the time' - Lovell left to run an office as a regional director with Oscar Faber. Highlights included the Greenock Waterfront leisure centre with FaulknerBrowns - now the second most popular tourist attraction in Scotland and instantly recognisable thanks to its colonnade of precast concrete columns shaped like giant elephant tusks - and a sadly unrealised 250m long by 17m high glass wall designed with Fosters for Glasgow's Kelvingrove Park.

In 1996 he decided to go it alone and opened MLDE in Devizes.He runs the office with his wife, Sandra, whom he met while at Whitby and Bird. She was a researcher with the Rykwert-Tavernor Alberti Group which, in one of its forays into design, was the only British finalist on the infamous Innsbruck ski-jump competition - won by a raincoat rather than a roof!

MLDE's workload includes the expected range of projects with architects, but also a significant number working directly for local authorities and private clients - anything from bridges to underground swimming pools. Lovell relishes the challenge of collaborating with manufacturers to tune materials - as near to genetic engineering as building gets. For a Philips semi-conductor plant, for example, he developed a rapidstrength-gain concrete which, at 159N/mm 2, he believes is the strongest conventionally cast material in Britain.

Not surprisingly, given Lovell's background, MLDE undertakes many commissions directly for builders and subcontractors. 'His practical understanding of all levels of the industry makes him more capable of innovating without risk than many larger, more academically based practices, ' suggests Dunster, and Lovell's talents often lurk unacknowledged behind familiar names.

Working to the architects' performance specifications, for example, both Will Alsop's trademark pods at Peckham Library and the deceptively simple ply-skinned, styrofoamcored panels of Nigel Coates' Ideal Home 'Oyster House' were developed for Cowley Structural Timberworks.

Designing cranes taught Lovell the potential of inexpensive hydraulic rams to move massive loads, and he admits to an unfulfilled longing to work on buildings with large moving parts. He came close with a 26m wide by 14m high disappearing glass wall for the Falklands Memorial Chapel, designed with Bere Associates, but they just missed first prize.

'The Pompidou Centre was supposed to have a large moving floor, ' says Lovell, 'and I am convinced that in an increasingly crowded world, we need to emulate the spirit of traditional Japanese houses and transform spaces to enable them to be used for more of the time and in more varied ways.' From concrete-filled gabions to hitech moveable floors, Lovell's restlessly inventive work spans the green spectrum.

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