As engineering consultancy Curtins and the AJ launch this year’s AJ/Curtins Inspiring Graduate Prize, Ella Braidwood finds out more about the business and how it champions young talent
For the third year running, engineering consultancy Curtins is collaborating with the AJ to run the AJ/Curtins Inspiring Graduate Prize. The competition celebrates an outstanding Part 2 or Part 3 architecture graduate who has helped take an architectural practice forward, or demonstrated a good nose for business on an independent project.
Last year, Charlotte Knight of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and Jayne Rosen of Tony Meadows Associates were chosen as joint winners, sharing a £1,000 bursary and receiving a profile in the AJ.
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The competition is inspired by the ethos of Curtins’ late founder, Bill Curtin.
Despite being expelled from school aged 14, Curtin went on to found his engineering consultancy in 1960, and strongly believed in the value young people could bring to his business. He employed both university graduates and young people from a youth centre in Toxteth, one of Liverpool’s most deprived areas.
As he once put it: ‘Youngsters can run this company. All they need is a guiding hand, to be encouraged, enthused, and then to be given their heads.’
To mark the launch of this year’s competition, the AJ spoke to Paul Menzies, executive director of Curtins’ Bristol office, about the future of the business and how the company helps young people to flourish.
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Menzies says the winner of the AJ/Curtins Inspiring Graduate Prize should be able to ‘prove themselves to be a capable, independent thinker.’ He adds that it is an ‘excellent endorsement on their CV, showing their skills and promoting themselves as potential future stars in the industry’.
And, Menzies points out, the award is also good for the winner’s employer, ‘in terms of attracting future graduates, and how they mentor them’.
He himself joined Curtins’ London office fresh from graduating from the University of Bath in 1996, having completed a placement at the office the year before. He relocated to Bristol in 2006, and has been office director since 2010. ‘From my own experience, every voice [at Curtins] is heard,’ he says. ‘You never feel like you are “just a graduate”.’
He says that, during his undergraduate placement at Curtins, his suggestions and calculations were always listened to and considered by the company. ‘There is nothing to ever be shy about,’ Menzies adds. ‘We encourage our staff to be vocal and offer feedback as much as they can.’
Curtins’ ability to nurture young graduates and help them achieve their true potential is best shown through the work of its Curtins Academy Training Scheme, which enables engineering graduates to receive chartered status within four years of graduating and is accredited by the Engineering Council.
Set up in 2014, the academy expects its first batch of 16 graduates to apply for their professional qualifications by the end of this year.
‘Graduates are very bright and computer-literate – they are often more technologically advanced than the senior staff,’ Menzies says.
Of course this technological skill set also applies to architecture students, who have been exposed to technologies such as BIM throughout their university education and are well-versed in it by the time they graduate. Menzies is a strong believer in collaboration between the two disciplines at the earliest possible stage. ‘I’ve said to young engineers that they need to work closely with young architects because in the future they will be leading those businesses,’ he says. ‘You create your networks at a young age.’
In addition to its academy, Curtins engages with universities to get students on board with the company before they graduate, a route also pursued by leading architect practices.
Its Bristol office, for instance, works with the University of Bath to secure placements for third and fourth year engineering students, often offering jobs prior to graduation.
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So, with the company sticking true to its roots and fostering young talent, where is the business heading? And what is its current outlook given the Brexit vote last June?
Menzies is optimistic. ‘We’re very positive about the future of the business,’ he says. ‘We are resilient in the way the business is set up and owned.’
He points out that Curtins is independently owned by directors and staff and that this direct decision-making and nimbleness means the company is growing – and will be able to continue to grow – despite the market uncertainty posed by Brexit.
‘We’re dynamic in that we can move our targets swiftly,’ he says. ‘We make our own way. We don’t have to answer to external parties. We operate for ourselves; we’re flexible.’
But he also adds that this growth is geared to the current economic and political climate.
‘We’re going for sustainable growth – it’s not take over the world growth,’ he says. ‘It’s sensible and focused.’
Curtins now has 14 offices in the UK and Ireland, the newest of which opened in Cambridge earlier this month, following its Dublin and Glasgow offices, which opened in 2016.
With the AJ/Curtins Inspiring Graduate Prize in its third year, what advice does Menzies have for aspiring architecture graduates? ‘Try and grab as much experience as you can,’ he says. ‘You’re always learning, so talk to lots of people both within architecture and outside.’
Bill Curtin founded his engineering consultancy, WG Curtin & Partners (now Curtins), in 1960 from his bedroom in Liverpool.
The company offers a range of services including civil and structural engineering, transport planning, infrastructure, environmental engineering, conservation and heritage, geotechnical engineering and principal designer services.
The independently owned company now has 14 offices across the UK and Ireland. Its headquarters remain in Liverpool.
Curtins was placed 17th in this year’s Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For, a rise of 17 places on the previous year.
The company’s biggest live project is the £300 million Midland Metropolitan Hospital in Smethwick, for which it is providing civil and structural engineering with TPS to the Trust and Carillion. Set to complete in 2018, the 669-bed hospital is being designed by HKS, Edward Williams and Sonnemann Toon Architects.
Curtins is currently working with more than half of the AJ100-listed architects.
How to enter
- Shortlisted entries will be invited to present their projects on 9 October in the M by Montcalm Hotel in Shoreditch, east London
- The overall winner will be announced on 3 November at the AJ100 Club breakfast in London (all shortlisted entries need to attend both days)
- The deadline for entries is 1 September 2017
- To enter, visit graduateprize.architectsjournal.co.uk