'It's not easy being an architect at Arup Associates, ' explains Nick Suslak. 'You can't just say 'because I say so'.' The practice consists of architects, engineers, quantity surveyors, urban designers and product designers. Of the 14 practice principals, only half are architects, the other half are engineers. When I met three of the principals, Nick Suslak, Mike Beaven and John Roberts, they were keen to emphasise this unusual set-up.
The multidisciplinary approach allows for an environment which is genuinely cooperative and non-confrontational, where professionals collaborate from the inception stage of any scheme. Suslak explains: 'We want our work to be characterised by the quality of the ideas and are trying to create an atmosphere in which those ideas can be generated. Every issue is considered holistically from the outset. It's not a series of different thought processes joined together.
Because we all sit in one room and have shared experience and shared responsibility you can't say, 'well that was the architect's bit and that was the engineer's bit'. We have a shared responsibility for the idea. From a client's point of view, the whole team owns the problem. From a design point of view, no one can just walk away.'
This multidisciplinary approach allows Arup Associates to take full responsibility for large, complex projects. The practice is incredibly proud of its achievement, for instance, in successfully taking on and completing a building for a G8 conference in Birmingham (1998) in just six weeks from being given the job to completion on site.
The building, characterised by a dramatically mono-pitched solar roof, utilised the latest photovoltaic technology to be self-sufficient in power and even redirect surplus electricity to the local grid. A model of the project is currently on display at the Science Museum.
'That is the kind of project which could only have been delivered by a set-up like Arup Associates, and which greatly exceeded the client's expectations, ' says Beaven.
If the G8 pavilion presents one end of the scale - the SWAT-style rapid response end of architecture - then the City of Manchester Stadium, venue for this year's Commonwealth Games, is at the other. The principals use an example from this building to describe how the holistic design process kicks in. The roof support contains the plant rooms and access ramps, and is an expression of the way people enter the stadium. Roberts explains: 'The support for the roof structure is not necessarily in the most efficient place from a structural point of view but the engineers can see why it should be there and why it's the right answer.' These spiral supports are the most characteristic elements of a building which is a testament to how the multidisciplinary practice works - few offices could have so fully provided for such a scheme.
Arup Associates was formed in the 1960s, when it was heavily involved in the then fashionable game of integrating the construction process into the design process.
Now, the practice is once again exploring the possibilities of volumetric design as an alternative to the appalling (aesthetic and spatial) standard of contemporary housing.
It has been commissioned by the Peabody Trust to design a scheme in East Acton which attempts to show the validity of an approach embracing mixed-tenure, improved space standards, low-energy design and the advantages of a concrete volumetric prefabrication system. Suslak says: 'We're looking to be involved in actually designing the construction process and managing that process for our client. We're looking at new ways of delivering projects.' The practice prides itself on constant research and on using experience gained over decades.
'Having a past and being able to look back on yourself allows a constant evolution of ideas, and having a broad base allows us to engage a problem from a number of different viewpoints, ' adds Suslak.
The breadth of experience has attracted gargantuan commissions of the kind usually only undertaken by the large US commercial practices. Plantation Place in the City of London is a good example - an entire urban block built up in two stages; a sevenstorey city masonry base and a pair of skylineglazed cubes above, set back so as to be glimpsed from the tight streets below. It draws on re-bored wells for water and there is potential for natural ventilation at the upper levels. Arup Campus in Solihull, Arup's new regional office (see Building Study, pages 2433), is an unassuming set of elegant barns, embodying the environmental solutions which preoccupy the practice and a pragmatic, democratic Modernism which is refreshingly self-effacing.
The practice is also involved in the rebuilding of Bermondsey Square, where a mix of uses will surround a replacement market site and oval piazza. Buildings are supported on a complex network of knitting-needle struts which waltz around the remains of an 11th-century Benedictine abbey beneath the site. Further afield, it has been involved with a ground-hugging school in Ladakh in the dramatic setting of the northern Himalayas, an advanced appropriate-technology structure of timber and masonry, surviving with no imported energy or water, and no export of waste.
The practice principals are keen to point out that the office provides opportunities for everyone to achieve tangible results quickly.
'Half of the leadership are younger than the actual practice, ' Roberts points out. Suslak continues: 'What excites young designers is that they can see that they could be leading a project rather than there always being someone telling them how to do it. When you come into this multidisciplinary environment, you can learn really quickly and there are fantastic opportunities.'
As one of the few practices to make an international success story out of the multidisciplinary office, Roberts sums up their way of working: 'We have a range of age and experience and a range of disciplines which means that when a spark of an idea flies across the room, there's always someone there to catch it.'