Read a full transcript of the Max Fordham roundtable - an indepth discussion about rethinking the meaning of ‘beautiful engineering’
Rory Olcayto This session is focused on your experience and talking about beautiful engineering. There are a few pointers where we can take that conversation. The idea is to try and tell some great stories about beautiful engineering and reset what we think about beautiful engineering. In many ways the professions within construction, the first thing they would think of when we say ‘beautiful engineering’ is a kind of structural expression of engineering. However, this is as much about the invisible aspect of engineering that makes great places great-built environments as well, so I think we should really try and explore that. I’ll chuck some questions in the air which you can think about:
- How can engineering help make architecture even better?
- What role does Research and Innovation play?
- Who is going to pay for that Research and Innovation? Is it the clients, do clients want it? What role should the government play?
- What new ideas are being generated that will impact on the quality of the built environment?
- How do we see technology in terms of generating comfortable internal environments?
It really can go in a number of directions.
- How do we find the balance between creativity and technology?
- How can we better anticipate the needs of people who end up using the buildings we make together?
- The bottom line is, how do we tell better stories about what we, as professionals within the industry do and the type of environments we make.
Could I start with you Jim? When we think of the project that you have won several accolades for, the Aquatic Centre designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, we think of the structural gymnastics involved in that project. The 3,000 tonne roof that is just floating above swimmers…I think I mean it is admired for its structural ingenuity. It is an example of beautiful engineering, but I wonder if you could tell us about the invisible engineering that is equally beautiful and allows that space to be beautiful. Like what is it about? What happens in that building that we can’t see that makes it such a great experience to be in?
Jim Heverin Well, let’s start with the fact that there is more tonnage in the ground than above the ground and that is all down to the engineers. Of course, we recognise we would be lost without engineers and how engineers work in a collaborative manner.
Their involvement at the very beginning allows us to pre-empt problems and be able to resolve and talk about the logic of the design and bring out the logic of our ideas to clients. It is all part of that partnership with engineers and the client.
You take people from a position where they are quite wary, as you say, of a proposal from an architect. But through iterations after iterations you can really show that there is a very sound logic behind it as an architectural idea which can then translate into very sound principals of how to build in functions and how all of this relates back to the fact that this is all about humans and using space and light basically.
I think the Aquatic Centre, for us, it was important that at the end we delivered a project that really enabled people to come in. It enticed them into this building. We were very clear that it had to have a “statement” let’s say. And that was the legacy of the Olympics. The fact that that building is so generous in space in its interior is clearly something. If this project has just been built as two 50 metre pools it would have not ended up that dimension, that volume.
A lot of the work we put into that project was in the concrete in the pools, in the ground. The fact that when the pools underneath the bridge structure, that it has this 50 metre wide road bridge going over the top of it. There was no opportunity to put daylight into that and we had to work very hard to get a diffuse, day lit space; an artificially lit space which also resolved in all the kinds of problems you would have in terms of acoustics and how that felt for people to use.
In the end, that pool, the training pool turned out to be as popular now with the public as the main pool which is a much more obvious statement of large glass facades basically. This is not something that just starts with a moment of inspiration. It was the fact that we worked for a very long time with the engineers and the contractors to really focus on everything being integrated.
Concrete, of course, is a very unforgiving material but it really is. I guess it is quite symbolic of how engineers and architects can work together because everything has to be planned from the beginning and then that translates to the care and attention that is given on site and, in the end, people appreciate this. People understand. They may not understand the logic of why something is square but they can understand the care and the craft that have gone into making a building and they respond.
Rory Olcayto I thought that comment that you made there about bringing out the logic of our ideas is really interesting and Jane, perhaps you could consider that given that you have worked with so many architects closely on remarkable projects.
Jane Wernick I su ppose that is what I most enjoy doing is, as a structural engineer, trying to understand what is the architectural thesis almost, ambition and aspiration. How that fits in with the brief and what the client wants and then try to propose structural solutions that work with it and, you are right, I do work with architects who have very broadly ranging styles, but actually the process is remarkably similar. It is really trying to get to a position where you can be invited into the conversation. That relies so much on trust and respect. The best collaborations do happen over a period of a time on a number of projects and it is always quite interesting, exciting, scary, starting with a new group of people and you are not quite sure which direction it is going to go in.
This thing of trying to find common aspirations I suppose and sensibilities.
Rory Olcayto I am quite interested in trying to “tease-out” this idea of invisible engineering and the result being a beautiful experience in the built environment. I am tempted to bring in Max Fordham here, so Neil, is that something you could explore as an idea?
What don’t we see that makes great buildings special?
Neil Smith Well in a way, we work with a lot of architects like Zaha Hadid and Jim to try and hide the engineering aspects of what we are doing. Whether it’s the ventilation system, the access for maintenance of the equipment we are putting in. Ultimately, what we want to try and do is react to what the architects are trying to produce in terms of their visual aspects without clutter.
Then we also want to express a lot of our engineering as well. Certainly when we are looking at “passive engineering” design, working with the architects to actually make the building work more effectively from an environmental perspective. Yes, we try to hide it
and also we try to show it off and it all depends on the aspirations of the team, architecturally, structurally, environmentally and what are the goals that the project is trying to achieve. We will look at both. We don’t always try to hide away the engineering but sometimes, from a beautiful engineering perspective, it is something you don’t even think about because it is working well. Beautiful can be working well, not just what it looks like. People don’t think “right, now where’s the air-conditioning because it is hot”. It is working well and, therefore they don’t think about it and that is really what we try to do.
Rory Olcayto Are there examples that you can give, because there is something quite powerful about that? You want to hide and you want to show at the same time.
Neil Smith I mean, a project I worked on that I am very proud of is the Maxxi in Rome with Zaha Hadid, where the idea was to have these really simple galleries that expressed the aspirations of what Zaha Hadid were trying to do, without seeing light fittings, the air-conditioning grills. We hid that all away in very subtly designed architectural expressions so that you didn’t realise “oh there is the ventilation system” or “there’s the cabling and the ducting”. It was all hidden away and that creates a better canvas for showing the artwork because you are not actually distracted from what the space was originally intended to be. It takes a lot of effort as a design team because we have to get the structure in there, we have to integrate with the architectural finishes and hide it all away and that was a very successful project.
When you go into those galleries you think to yourself, “well, where is the air-conditioning” because it is all hidden away.
Rory Olcayto So, Andrew, I could bring you in here now because you have got the idea of modernism where functionality is expressed but then you have this tendency, as well, within great architecture to feel that things should be hidden away. Architectural expressions have developed to encompass that idea and you could say that Grimshaw has partly explored that. Hi-tech architecture seems to be a balance between that. I know Grimshaw does more than just hi-tech, but I am quite interested in your take on that balance and how it is expressed most effectively in architecture and how you work with invisible and visible expressions of great engineering.
Andrew Whalley Well, I think the most important thing is having a very strong diagram to the concept because then it will take a lot of “bashes” as it goes along but it also has a clarity to it. I think both for architecture and the engineering that supports that, having that clarity is critical. Then it basically is a highly expressive form.
You are really are more interested, I think, in that balance between visible and invisible.
Rory Olcayto Yeah. For me it seems like an interesting tension at the heart of what everybody around the table here does. Like how you make those decisions…I am sure there are some compromises involved?
Andrew Whalley Well there are. We have just finished the Transit Centre in New York and there was a very strong idea which was about daylight and ventilation and, because there was no over-build on it, because of the way it was funded, very unusual for New York, we could have exposure to the sky. It meant we could have this large space and create an oculus and a dome to reflect light down to two levels below and the original idea was for literally that, a dome.
When you start analysing it, the cost of construction and so on, it actually became expensive but the diagram was right. In the end we worked with the engineers, Arup and Schlaich in this case and we went for a very lightweight cable net structure and put our reflector on that. It was a fraction of the cost of the original compressive structure but more elegant through that type of engineering and tuning. So that is what everyone sees, the hanging, very lightweight reflector but it also allowed us to incorporate all the environmental systems that are hidden behind that veil.
It does two things. It is a very expressive structure yet it makes a lot of the systems invisible.
Neil Smith That is beautiful engineering of itself, the fact that it is a lighter structure, more efficient, more cost effective. It is doing multi-functions, lots of different aspects of that engineering concept, something that is really powerful.
Rory Olcayto Are you familiar with the project Neil?
Neil Smith Well, I know of it and there was a similar strategy used on the Velodrome in London where weight, material, it’s costly, they have embedded carbon in it. From a sustainability perspective, trying to reduce down the weight, the cost, the carbon content is, in my view, beautiful. It looks beautiful as well so generally my view is that “when it looks right it usually is”. The form itself is doing a very good job and it looks beautiful because of that.
Andrew Whalley I guess the important thing for me is that every day, every morning, these thousands of commuters make their way through the space and they all look up and see the sky. So, hopefully it uplifts a little of their daytime commute. Essentially it is a public space.
Rory Olcayto Jane, do you want to comment here?
Jane Wernick I don’t think it is so necessary for everything to be hidden. I think it is important that a lot of things are seen but the effort that went into designing them is usually hidden and the important thing is what you do see.
Just thinking about what you see on the way in to work, that is what we should be focusing on all the time. Trying to produce delightful spaces and places that make people comfortable, happy, whatever. That will have a moment to reflect somewhere along the way. Very often, if we can integrate, this is from the structural point of view, the structure with what the finishes are, then that is efficient but it has to be designed very carefully. I do think it is important that engineers feel that they are contributing to the appearance of everything as much as they are just as responsible for making the details look beautiful as making them efficient.
Les Postawa I think this is an important point that, if it is appropriate to hide something then you hide it. If it is appropriate to expose it, then you expose it and it comes back to this whole collaborative approach of good design. I don’t see myself as the structural engineer on a project just to celebrate structural engineering and to promote our profession. We are there as part of a team to deliver a building, just as the architect shouldn’t get too hung up on creating his own ego. It is vitally important that, if it is an intrinsic part of the building design to expose the structure or the mechanical or electrical engineering aspects of it, then it is right to do so. If not, then you hide it away with some sort of finishes but perhaps it envelops the structure or the basic frame.
Hareth Pochee I don’t necessarily think we need to make such a distinction between architects, structural engineer, environmental engineer, services engineer, any other engineer for that matter. Just before I came here, I looked up the term “engineer” because although I claim to be one, I don’t actually know what it means and what it said was “someone that uses science to design things”. That was about it really.
Rory Olcayto So that’s not an architect no? LAUGHTER
Hareth Pochee I think that’s really the moot point. Science doesn’t have to mean equations and slide rulers, it can just mean reasoning and that is what architects do very well in actual fact. They use reasoning to gather and analyse evidence and then make a set of proposals based on that reasoning procedure. So, from the point of view we are all engineers and we just happen to be working in slightly different spheres that strongly overlap.
Rory Olcayto Equally, do you think we could all say we were designers?
Hareth Pochee Exactly. I don’t think there is any difference in the term really.
Les Postawa Absolutely. One could even say that engineering is an art form. It is part of the design and a design process is art and not science necessarily.
Hareth Pochee Definitely. I have a nice story about that, if you want it.
Rory Olcayto Yes please.
Hareth Pochee Do you know the story about Jackson Pollock in the fractals?
Rory Olcayto No
Hareth Pochee So, Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings you are probably familiar with. I don’t know if you have ever seen a video of him making them, some of them are quite large. He might be walking all the way around the canvas that is laid down on the floor and he is moving his arm and somehow, sometimes in a seemingly erratic manner. I think it is really moot as well for the definition of beautiful; it really is in the eye of the beholder. Some people find Jackson Pollock a complete waste of space, I don’t but some do. In fact there is one quote here, Robert Coates said “they were nearly explosions of random energy and, therefore, meaningless”. Sounds pretty good to me.
Anyway, he made those paintings and then in the 1990’s or 2000s a physicist called Richard Taylor analysed the paintings and thought they had a fractal quality meaning that they looked the same generally at different length scales. If you can’t see the border of the picture, you don’t know how “zoomed in” you are when you are looking at it. So he made a pendulum, a chaotic pendulum that dripped ink and the patterns looked quite similar so, in actual fact, one might say that Pollock was an engineer because he was subliminally making these fractal patterns to an algorithm that he’d invented in his head. I don’t how much of that was choice. I don’t know how much he was influenced by that notion and how much it just came out.
Jim Heverin I don’t think he was influenced at all.
That is a side issue I think but it brings you on to innovation because Jackson Pollock really struggled with where he goes after the drip paintings and that’s a clue. We are all trying to balance, innovation in design and how much innovation we bring to design. Particularly to buildings for which we are given a design life of 50 years but you hope that they last way beyond that and it’s is always trying to find that balance, isn’t it?
I think we come from a heritage which really went through a “white heat” period after the second world war and we are all educated almost, particularly as architects you are, you are brought up with these heroes from that. And then you come into practice and you have to really tone down that desire for innovation and trying solutions which are not going to really last over a long period basically. Whether it is from façade technology into systems, you come back into that interior. You come back to that core point about how people use space and the psychology of the interaction between space and people basically.
That is the interesting part for us. The engineering side of our profession is very much looking at numbers and the quantifiable arguments that add a great strength to the whole debate. But, on the other side, architects are struggling with the reasoning aspect of it. The actual justification for these concepts that you start with at the beginning. Sometimes it’s appropriate that you are very efficient in your structures and your systems but other times it is also appropriate that this is not the primary driver for the building basically. There are other aspects to the building rather than just what you are alluding to Les, than the expression of structure or expression of services. How people move through it, actually use the space is as important as those types of expression of technique and I think it’s what we are always working through.
Andrew Whalley I know often architects talk about innovation. I almost prefer the word ingenuity because often the test is money and doing things economically and it is actually often more exciting to try and do things on a tiny budget then it is to have a very big budget.
An example would be the Eden Project where everyone talks about biomes and the technology there and that is interesting, but I always take as much pleasure out of the use of rammed earth and so on. We had to construct the building for half the price, so we ended up using materials we found on the site, rocks and earth and so on.
So I think that is something that combines architects and engineers - this search for the appropriate response often working within constraints.
Neil Smith We do have other constraints as well. Risk in the construction industry at the moment is one of the biggest constraints we have preventing us from being really innovative or ingenious and that is where I see some big problems for our industry at the moment. Everybody is risk averse and nobody wants to take that next step…
Andrew Whalley And who owns the BIM model?
Neil Smith We are designing in a way that each building is its own single entity. We try to do something different because that is what we do, that is human nature, to make a difference and I think that, as opposed to 30 – 40 years ago, we have a bit more freedom. Now the risk aspect has really constrained us. Also regulation. Regulation does in a way, drive some innovation but also holds it back.
Rory Olcayto Let’s hone in on this subject of innovation and risk. I think it is interesting. We talk about architecture and engineering as if they are the only things that relate to each other and amazing things come out of it, but there are so many other factors, obviously. Risk is a big part of an insurance culture that we live in today. When people building the pyramids or the cathedrals, risk wasn’t an issue. So we have got to live with this culture. Is there any way that, as engineers, as architects, we can look at this and start to use risk as a way of generating innovation or ingenuity?
Les Postawa I think in some ways you have to embrace it. It is vitally important. You are talking of people’s lives and finances at stake here. It is yet another facet or another component of the building project. We can’t all go off and do what we like, when we like, otherwise that just develops into anarchy. So you have to have controlling measures and risk-averse is part of that whole process.
Jane Wernick Risk isn’t the opposite of innovation. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, to cope with the fact that people don’t want risk means you have to be more ingenious.
Rory Olcayto Does it drive innovation?
Jane Wernick Just like cost can be a constraint that makes everyone work a bit harder and come up with something better, I think risk can do the same. I mean what we sometimes get very annoyed about though is that when we are trying to explain to clients how we are dealing with the risk; we are not always able to convince them that we are dealing with it in a very logical and careful way.
Les Postawa Depends on that client, if they are prepared to listen and take on board what you are saying.
Jane Wernick It does depend on the client. But if you are in the public realm sector that becomes much harder but that is when we have to become more innovative.
Neil Smith And what frustrates me is not so much clients, but project managers, when they say “can you show us where it has been done before”? And that always makes me sink. To say “no, this is something we are trying to create which is new even though it is based on very sound previous experience, but we are trying to do something new”.
Les Postawa The obvious answer to that question is, “well, if you want that building down the road, move into that building or have that as your building”.
Andrew Whalley As an industry, we probably have to be the most inventive compared to any other engineering or design industry. We are constantly developing and tweaking. BMW just spend a year tweaking their headlights and changing some of the details whereas we are having to constantly come up with a new invention each time for each solution.
Hareth Pochee I think that is a really important point. In the context of beautiful and beautiful engineering, beautiful can mean aesthetically pleasing. Also it can mean it works very well. This is where risk becomes very important because, all the time you are asking the question “is it going to work, is it going to work, is it going to work”? Work can mean one of a 100 different things.
Now there is a really unique way that we, as professionals design that I think is quite different to most other design areas in the sense that we don’t get to prototype very much. We can a bit, but a prototype building is a building. Whereas, when a car manufacturer designs a car, they make the car in its entirety and they test it literally until it has fallen to pieces. We don’t get to do that.
I think, what would benefit our industry significantly is an acceptance and more implementation of experimentation within the design and construction process. It is not easy. We have done it on various scales. Neil and I worked on the Maxxi with Zaha Hadid, Neil mentioned that earlier. For that project a section of gallery was made at one-to-one that was the size of a small building. That was actually very successful. It flushed out loads and loads of issues that were then resolved in a positive outcome and, although it was expensive, it was certainly worth it.
One of the most difficult things to deal with when you do start incorporating experimentation into a contract is you have to make a plan for what to do if the experiment doesn’t turn out in the way that you would hope. And that is incredibly difficult to manage contractually because how can a contractor price an unknown.
Neil Smith Well you have made a mistake, haven’t you? That is how your PM will put it back to you basically.
Hareth Pochee Well that is what I am saying. We could benefit in trying to instigate some change. I have worked on projects where experimentation has been accepted into part of the design and construction process and I think it has been beneficial.
Jim Heverin Definitely, but it is the rare occasion, isn’t it? I mean, the pace that everybody is moving at in today’s market is so fast and the risk aspect is a key component of it. I think the ingenuity, how you respond to it is how you see the quality…
Les Postawa But I think that is the point. (It’s Les again). You do actually do prototypes. Every building is a prototype and the way you perhaps approach the prototype in the design is part of the design process. We don’t often have an opportunity to build a full-scale mock up and then test it to destruction. If there is an important component or there is a very high risk component of the particular building that we are designing then you do carry out a certain amount of testing. You do full-scale mock ups of cladding panels. That is quite often the case on many buildings and because it brings in the ingenuity into the conversation, you haven’t got the opportunity to do full-scale mock ups and test them to destruction, so you have to get the design right. That perhaps prolongs the design process.
Jane Wernick And Les, you said an important thing about each building is a prototype so it is not that different from the car industry in a way. We do just do very incremental changes because we do learn from all the other projects we have built.
Les Postawa Absolutely
Jim Heverin Which is what the car industry does anyway?
Jane Wernick Exactly
Rory Olcayto But is innovation like a red herring in some ways. Like we associate engineering and architecture with ingenuity and innovation, but why do we actually need to keep innovating on some basics? Are there not some fundamentals? We are talking about key note projects here that need to have part of their sell is that they are innovative and ingenious, but not every building needs to be like that and the vast majority of projects that everyone works on…Should we be talking about innovation all the time? Neil?
Neil Smith Well, I mean certainly from our perspective as energy engineers obviously legislations is pushing us to make buildings more efficient, use less carbon. Therefore, we are pushed to try and innovate to reduce energy, reduce the body energy as well as the actual operational energy. From an engineering spec that is great as it gives us the opportunity to try and make the engineering as efficient as possible. Not just the energy engineering but also the structure and the light which does push us to innovate.
Hareth Pochee I think it’s less us that are pushed and more our clients.
Neil Smith But there are problems with that because legislation does give you some solution and, by giving you those solutions, it reduces the innovation on ingenuity. So, from engineering, we are always trying to innovate to release energy but, at the same time, make the spaces more comfortable because ultimately the building space is for users and, if a building doesn’t work for the users, it doesn’t matter how low on energy it is, you have failed.
On very standard-type building, office buildings, it is quite prescriptive, what we can do to make them comfortable. Lots of research has been done on those types of building but other more public-facing buildings are much more difficult because the shape of the space is completely different from one building to the next. We use tools, building privet tools, computational fluid dynamics and the like but it is still an approximation. You are still having to put assumptions in. You say we could use our experience from building from the past, but because these spaces are so different to other spaces we have done, there is always a risk that something isn’t going to be quite as good as you would have hoped. You need to think carefully when you are making those decisions about the risk aspects of it.
We want to innovate because we are engineers and human beings and that is a natural …
Jane Wernick There is something about innovation that implies competitiveness. That we want to be doing something different from everyone else just for the sake of it and I am really not so interested in that. I almost like to think of it more as problem solving for each particular scenario. We want to try and find the best solution for that. I think that is much more interesting than trying to do something different every time.
Les Postawa Well, I think we innovate every day of our lives in every building that we work on. We don’t just think, “oh today I am going to appear innovative in what I am going to do on that particular project”.
If we go back to the argument on risk and cost, you have to be innovative to deal with all those challenges that are thrown at us on everything that we do. It can be overplayed, the word innovation and the innovative approach to what we do is overplayed by some marketing people terribly but if we actually analyse it, we do it all the time.
Andrew Whalley Over time, the science is increasing in buildings. Technology is increasing in buildings and so, from an architect’s perspective there are more and more consultants to work with. The team gets larger and grows, it becomes more complex. I guess one saving grace is now that we can actually share one model and work together collaboratively and that is where BIM has been a huge success I think. Sharing, really sharing and collaborating on one virtual building.
Rory Olcayto Andrew, could you tell us a little bit more about what you mean when buildings have more science and technology these days?
Andrew Whalley Yeah well, as it gets more sophisticated there are more consultants appearing so now, working on a building we will be working with structural engineers, environmental engineers but, a couple of the buildings we are currently doing, we are also working with ecologists and environmental scientists. Using natural systems and natural life systems as part of the overall environmental strategy for the architecture. So, it becomes more and more complex and more and more layered.
So, from an architect’s perspective, I think it becomes more interesting because you are actually collaborating with an even broader range of consultants, bringing different expertise into that one solution.
Rory Olcayto Do you feel that this atomised sort of approach to design is actually better for the end result?
Andrew Whalley I think it has become more sophisticated rather than atomised. Previously, if you look at the evolution of buildings over the last 50 years, they are becoming far more sophisticated with more complex systems.
Again, I see both sides of the point. The UK compared to America and America of course, they continued the way it used to be here. There is only one person responsible and that is the architect and they have to hire all the consultants. So there is the architect-client and then a team of consultants. This focuses you very much on co-ordination in one of the most litigious countries in the word. But, going back to our idea of innovation, it also makes you think twice about taking on new things and being inventive
I think it is interesting that in the UK I think there has been a much richer level of invention/innovation in architectural design. It has really led the world in many ways.
Rory Olcayto I was just thinking there it would be nice if we sort of rounded this off. We could come back on an email and ask you, but if everybody gave an example of beautiful engineering, I thought I would prime you know, we are going to finish up, probably about 10:50am, 10:55am at the latest. So just in the last five minutes if we could go around the table and have a line that sums up what you believe beautiful engineering is. If it doesn’t work out we will come back to you in an email and …LAUGHTER
Rory Olcayto I was interested in some of these primer questions we had at the start abut buildings getting more and more sophisticated. They have more complex systems as a whole and it is obviously going to be more expensive to bring these things about unless you have economies of scale in place. So, who actually funds and allows for this innovation and development to take place so that we get it right quicker and can build these economies of scale? Have we got the right partnership and financial models in place to allow this to continue in the way we want to take it? Is there a problem coming?
Hareth Pochee I think it depends what your aims are. One example is low energy. That has been a step change in the last 10 to 15 years. A building constructed now to the building regulations would have been considered a landmark environmental building 20 years ago and that really has been an innovation. Your question was, how pays for this? Well, society pays for it and I would like to think that society also benefits.
Rory Olcayto Well, I think you and your fellow professionals need to show society what the benefits are because the costs on contemporary living are getting higher and higher, services are being cut. It is all very well to say society must pay for this. What we need to do as a construction industry, together, is we need to tell better stories to the wider world about what it is that we do so that they are willing to pay for it because…
Les Postawa I think we already do. It wasn’t so long ago when you said to a client you wanted to design a green building, and he’d say “can’t afford it. I happily support the whole green and environmental approach to what we do, but it is costing me money”. So they only play lip service to it.
Once you showed that client the real benefits, financial benefits in designing systems that work and are much more economic to run and buildings that will pay for themselves over a period of time in their lifetime, then they all sat up and took notice. Gradually, the approach to designing efficiency into buildings became accelerated.
Jane Wernick Do you think that would have happened without legislation? Because we still don’t see it in the public sector. We still have clients who, at the end say “oh, but I can’t build this if you are going to spend that extra”…
Neil Smith You can have all the goodwill in the world but when it comes down to the hard choice between how much money you have got, capital investment where they are looking at a pay-off they will probably gone from the project basically.
Hareth Pochee I think that is in part [responsible]. As I mentioned before, a building constructed to building regulations now is a landmark in environmental building.
Rory Olcayto Let’s look at the smoking ban for example. That has changed British society in quite a fundamental way, even just 10 years ago…
Hareth Pochee Ten times more patio heaters…
Rory Olcayto Well, this has changed the public realm in that respect. But you know, it is having a real impact on health and longevity in the UK but it had to be forced as Hareth has pointed out a couple of times now. It is legislation that has brought about this incredible change. An average building today would have been super high performance 20 years ago.
Andrew Whalley But what we are missing though is actually describing and explaining the cost of operation versus the capital cost. Jim mentioned this, you know, there is that argument to be made for an additional cost to make it more environmentally responsive. If you took an office building and actually analysed its 20 year life and the cost of the salaries in that building, I would think the building itself was probably 5% of the owners’ overall cost. It is a tiny amount and yet we are constantly struggling and fighting about the actual capital cost of the initial investment and I think that is something that we need to do. Seldom does a client look and the problem also is the split between the developer and the end user, particularly in commercial buildings where the developer is only interested in the capital cost, what he can sell if off for, rent it for and is not really thinking about the holistic side for building and the total cost…
Jane Wernick And that is going to be a terrible problem for the residential towers where all those flats are being sold off on long leases.
Neil Smith I mean yes you are right I agree totally with all of this certainly in commercial buildings. The developer is there is to make money so he is going to do whatever he needs to do to pass the regulation, but no more, unless they are really progressive and there is a marketing element to it. The problem we have with buildings becoming more sophisticated actually is we are moving away from passive improvements which are reaching the peak they can probably get in terms of passive house, insulation and the like. It then moves more to technology and technology I think has potential problems in future in the nature of buildings working correctly because they become much more complex. People don’t understand so well and, therefore, over time the building performance, actually not over time but generally, the building performance is not as it was designed for. That is where we, as design teams, need to be more willing to stay involved with buildings once they have been handed over to ensure that they are working as the original design intended.
The original designers are the ones that know how the building should be working, not the contractor so much or the operators and, as technology becomes more prevalent in buildings, more sophisticated, there is more opportunity for the buildings not to work properly. So that is a big challenge for us as an industry. To make sure that our buildings that we designed, the aftercare and the term “soft-landings” we do engage with making sure that our buildings work. We spend a lot of our time in our lives designing buildings. Four or five years designing a building. Surely we, as a team, want to ensure that over the next three years once it is operating, it is doing exactly what we designed it to do.
Rory Olcayto Despite what you say Les, about the stories we are telling are being listened to by the wider public. I would dispute that. For the sake of the argument, if you look at the tech industry for example, that has managed through products like the iPhone, for better or worse, allowed that industry to get a foothold in the public imagination and now, seemingly, kids want to learn how to code. They want to create their own apps, they have got past this idea of being a passive user of the technology and they want to get involved with it. The government is pushing the idea of tech clusters in the UK. I understand that there is more coding being taught in schools, I don’t know for a fact, but I just wonder if there is something that can be learned from the way the tech sector, through things like the games industry and the iPhones has managed to make it popular.
Les Postawa They had a better marketing strategy from the outset. They were introducing to the wider public a whole new product and so they invested a lot of money in getting that product into the public domain and, because we are living in a technological world, it is vitally important that you train kids at a very early age to use technology as it is going to become an intrinsic part of their lives.
Rory Olcayto But, is there a way that we can make architecture and engineering have that same appeal so that 13 years olds are saying “…
Hareth Pochee Put tender and NDS back…
Rory Olcayto Maybe it’s not such a bad idea. Like the idea of programming and software and coding coming into the industry, I think is a big one. I mean something you have experience of and engineering around the table do as well. But I just wonder if the stories we are telling are actually exciting enough for the next generation of engineers and architects. So they are saying “I really want to get into this and explore the idea of beautiful engineering, work with architects” …
Jane Wernick This is interesting. We have these house building type programmes such as Grand Designs which have been catching the imagination but actually, they need to be a bit more sophisticated in the messages they are getting across. It is a bit too much about someone just building their own home and all the traumas they have and all the make overs.
Andrew Whalley They only appeals to the older audience though don’t they? For kids it is Minecraft isn’t it? Because they are all off building their own cities and building their own buildings and I think it is the Minecraft area that hopefully is getting kids into the built environment more.
Jim Heverin It is political isn’t it? You need more paternal oversight, long term planning basically for a lot of the things we deal with in the built environment. Whether it is looking at the green belt around London and the high rise and the lack of a plan for London and the fact that all the boroughs are pulling against each other. Obviously there should be an educational part to that in the curriculum but, I think you can’t compete with what is very fashionable; a kind of “gold rush” which is what is going on in the tech industry.
To get the momentum to build long-term plans and to have, not flip-flopping from one government to another, to have a consistent planning policy like we see in countries like Holland, it is very political basically. I guess the engineers and architects should be using their weight to influence party politics on that.
Rory Olcayto We talked about the influence and I think a really great example of legislation around energy, how that has transformed the construction industry. What is the next big idea in that respect that is going to transform the industry in terms of creating beautiful engineering and great responses to our built environment needs? The confluence of politics and design and engineering. Where are we going to see the next change in how we work and what will the outcomes be?
Les Postawa I like to think that we would see a lot more emphasis put on recycling and recycled materials in construction.
Rory Olcayto But is that not still in the same area of low energy?
Les Postawa It is but…
Hareth Pochee It could be distinctly different to how it is at the moment.
Rory Olcayto Okay. So, shall we explore that idea a little? How recycled materials can bring about beautiful engineering
Les Postawa Yeah, or even recycled buildings.
Jane Wernick Retrofit.
Andrew Whalley I think retrofit in existing buildings is going to be a key issue and particularly. We are talking about new buildings and how we bring them to code, but there are a huge number of existing buildings and, to make a city more energy efficient, more environmentally benign needs a huge amount of retrofit and rethinking existing building structures.
Jane Wernick And we need to become more sophisticated about how we deal with these historic, beautiful buildings specifically from that point of view.
Hareth Pochee I concur.
Jane Wernick How do we work with Buckingham Palace?
Hareth Pochee Bulldozer. LAUGHTER
Les Postawa Do you mean the occupants or the … building?
Hareth Pochee Both.
Hareth Pochee Now, I concur with the retrofit and recycling, recycling buildings for both material and their use. Even in 50 years from now, 70% or so of the building stock already exist now so if your goal is to reduce energy, focusing on new buildings is actually. Leave them alone, they are done. It is time to start looking at all the existing ones.
Neil Smith We also don’t know where the IT technology is going to take us. The Cloud is the biggest buzz word at the moment and we could find we take out all the heat-generating equipment, apart from the monitors, from our building and it is all out on other service located- Elsewhere where the energy can be managed in a better way.
Offices, especially the existing stock, there are problems in terms of how do you make those environments nicer places to work in. Do you start to make it all very IT intensive; it becomes very tricky as well.
Jim Heverin Conversely that goes against over engineered programmed-specific buildings actually doesn’t it? I mean we almost want “looser buildings”. The Georgian terrace is still being reused through several different cycles over many years. In terms of what we are doing, it is almost looking for a looser approach rather than putting in so many specifics into the actual building.
Neil Smith But our working habits change, or will change over time and that’s probably the biggest challenge we as building designers have, to understand how, especially in most of our stock in London is housing and offices. How are people going to change their working practice? Are they going to be working more at home, less in the office and how do the buildings have to adapt and change?
Jim Heverin But the Market drives this, doesn’t it? I mean you talk about the switch to the tech and you can see it in the commercial market basically but there is all this talk about the cottage industry. People are not actually wanting that. They are wanting to come back into the city into a workplace.
Rory Olcayto They want the mix, don’t they?
Jim Heverin Yes.
Rory Olcayto You know finance models are shaping are shaping our work patterns. We talk about “hot desking” but the truth is, people want to give less square meterage per person. It is as though there is something brutal underpinning these things and I think, in that respect, I wonder if we could frame this? We are going to be reusing buildings; we are going to have to find new ways to use them that match the work patterns that are being implemented. So, if we could go around the table. Jane, we will start with you and work clockwise. What is beautiful engineering in terms of retrofit because I think we have settled on this as the next paradigm of recycling and reusing our existing environment. So, within that paradigm, what is beautiful engineering in terms of retrofit? What does it mean?
Jane Wernick We do have to be very innovative in how we retrofit buildings where basically, what we are trying to do is make them able to accommodate a variety of uses. We want them to be fantastically energy efficient so they don’t cost so much for people to live/work inside them. There may well be innovative materials, applications, building techniques etc that we will develop and we will have to learn to understand what was good about the building as it was built and what key things can be changed without destroying those good characteristics.
Rory Olcayto That is great, thank you. Neil?
Neil Smith To make them better places to work in: how do we get more light into the space, how do we get more movement of air in the space so that people want to work in these buildings rather than them saying “oh, it’s an old building and I want to work in a nice, new, flash building”. But actually the Victorians, their building stock is incredibly well designed in terms of the environment. Very high ceilings with good amounts of glass, good daylight into them, good air movement and, from my perspective, beautifully engineering building is to make it a fantastic environment. Where it wasn’t potentially before, making it into an environment where people would want to work.
Rory Olcayto I mean, with the same question in mind, does smart technology figure in this kind of retrofit argument Jim? New technologies that are allowing us to get a more responsive data-led kind of environment which we can tweak consistently rather than at the start of a project and then 5 years later. Is that something that we should be thinking about?
Jim Heverin I was at a conference recently where people were talking about the users having to look at apps to know when to open a window or close it and I think it is interesting to have this loop where you get a feedback on how much energy you are using and definitely, what Neil was touching on earlier about post occupancy, coming back and really seeing how your building works. We would all like to do that and have the time to do it. We would all like certain clients to allow us back into the building as well. But, there is also a part of it that you have to recognise. Humans are humans basically. You put a window there they are not just going to go and be conscious of the environmental strategy that was worked out by the engineer and if they have to look at an app to check what temperature it is, they will just go and open it.
Jane Wernick And what happens if you have got dementia and you are living in one of these places?
Jim Heverin Exactly. So you can tie these things up too tight and in the end we have forgotten the basic premise that we are still…Everything else might have evolved, technology but the humans are different and it is debatable how much we have evolved. In a lot of the cases many of these old buildings that we all love are still operating in the same way they have since the very beginning basically and there is a fundamental relationship with how people, what they want in terms of comfort and opening windows etc. and daylight. So we need to remember this. I think the challenge is to have quality for us. All of this technology in terms of BIM modelling and being able to predict things before you get to site is that we would be able in terms of aspiration, to build a building as durable as a Georgian terrace basically. That really is the challenge for me and that is the real output of beautiful engineering and architecture is, if we can achieve, with all the cost parameters that we have, all of the pressure to deliver quickly, the risk, all of that at the end of it, we have buildings that will last over 200 years.
Rory Olcayto It is amazing that Georgian terraces are so often cited because it was a speculative build. It wasn’t even a design-led or, what we would assume today as a design-led programme, it was just well built, baseline stuff.
Jim Heverin But the technology was such that they could only build it in that type of material, at that type of span, at that type of space. That restriction meant that it was optimised. Whereas today we have such choice in materiality, very cheap cladding systems and very cheap ways of building and too often we are taking that route.
Les Postawa But it is interesting, because a Georgian terrace is a building built from a catalogue. All the book of patterns and a catalogue of components that every developer/builder simply picked up and implemented. So, someone obviously got the design absolutely right the first time around.
Jane Wernick Who did the first catalogue? LAUGHTER
Hareth Pochee Well, I am glad you mentioned Georgian terrace because I think it is terrible. Not at the time, I think at the time it was designed and made it was excellent, but the energy credentials are terrible and that is really important for reasons I am sure you all understand. Specifically, the heat. So, in the UK, about two thirds of all the energy we use is for heat. Nearly all of it is used for heating houses and these Georgian terraces are one of the number one offenders. I live in one, I know, it is freezing even when the boiler is on full. To me, beautiful engineering should be a solution to insulate these buildings. Now nearly all of the heat is leaking out the walls and quite lot out of the windows and to me, what would be beautiful engineering would be if you could insulate these buildings at one tenth of the cost than it currently costs and it would be beautiful. I think it could be radically different as well. There are generally two choices for walls. Inside or outside. Georgian terraces have solid walls. Now inside is problematic if the insulation has any depth because you lose space inside and people don’t particularly welcome that. I think go for external.
Neil Smith Good luck with that!
Hareth Pochee Now planners aren’t so into this idea, many people are not into this idea as a concept, but I think we should embrace it. We should embrace change, we should radically change the way that a typical Georgian terrace street looks and it can be creative, it can be beautiful it can be radical.
Jane Wernick Robin Nicholson has done a fantastic montage of that.
Hareth Pochee It can be challenging and so to me that would be an illustration of beautiful engineering.
Rory Olcayto That’s really interesting. One of the aspects that people love Georgian terraces for is their appearance, so if you are going to fundamentally change their external appearance then is it still a Georgian terrace? That is quite an interesting…
Neil Smith But is that a damage to society in taking away all that beauty?
Hareth Pochee Well, I think that is where a really exciting design challenge lies. To do that in a way that is…it doesn’t have to please everybody all of the time, that would certainly be a failure.
Jim Heverin I think you need to go back to the drawing board on that. I think you would have to be able to innovate them in a way that didn’t lose the whole character and we are not learning from history here basically, because we demolished these after the war and we really struggled to come up with anything better. They have a whole heritage and cultural aspect which needs to be retained.
Hareth Pochee I don’t necessarily think it needs to be retained.
Rory Olcayto Well I am so glad you said that because this is going to bring a lot to the feature. I have always thought the Glasgow tenement was a slightly better model anyway.
Andrew Whalley The problem is not just the energy use it is the density isn’t it? Fundamentally, for a city spreading out and sprawling isn’t a long-term sustainable city plan.
Hareth Pochee I have got another solution for that, extra storeys.
Jane Wernick But that is not sustainable.
Andrew Whalley Actually, could we just leave them there and just build air rights over it and leave them there as an underplay of decoration with a denser overbuild.
Neil Smith But isn’t it part of Britishness - having our urban sprawl?
Andrew Whalley Yes, gardens, everyone has got to have a garden and their own front door.
Jane Wernick But the tenements have gardens.
Rory Olcayto Yeah, they have big back courts.
Jane Wernick I mean the tenement is a very good model. It is like the Paris block is a very good block.
Jim Heverin But that is what we are heading towards in lots of London developments now, is the mansion block.
Andrew Whalley The Glasgow tenements are very flexible and they have refurbished very well and again it goes back to the high ceilings and the opening windows you are talking about. I liked the story, was it last year, with the new double-deckers which are becoming more and more sophisticated and of course the air-conditioning all broke down and the fundamental problem was, if only they had opening windows like they used to have, it wouldn’t have been such an issue. But, because no one could open the windows
Neil Smith You would think to yourself, surely, when they were in the meeting they must have thought of that?
Andrew Whalley Yeah, so there is a lesson to be learnt there isn’t there and that is to do with flexibility and often simple options.
Andrew Whalley I mean, simple is beautiful
Neil Smith Something that works and is simple…
Andrew Whalley Is elegant by its very nature. Yeah.
Rory Olcayto Can I ask you about BIM? I think another paradigm, shaping tool is BIM. If we think of the early1990’s its CAD and you know today it’s BIM and you were talking earlier about the beauty of that shared collaborative model.
Andrew Whalley Well there is obviously the education side of course. Who owns the model and, if there is a mistake in it, whose fault was it and so on.
Rory Olcayto But it [BIM] is not associated with beauty at the moment and I am sure it could be because it such a terrible word, it is even worse than CAD.
Andrew Whalley I think if it is used properly it should be because ultimately, you asked about elegance in engineering and I think it is doing something that is optimised. The best engineering comes from nature and the reason is it is always an optimised form and that gives it a beauty and an elegance and poise as there is purpose behind the thing. So there is a tendency in design to start shape making and that is where computers are bad, because it is a shape and form that has no function and I think where there is inherent beauty in engineering it where the form and shape is actually all part of how it operates, works and performs. Where BIM, I think, is proving to be very useful is actually finding that optimised form and sharing it working in a very collaborative way with engineers.
So, it is not just about the structure and form but also how it works environmentally and you really develop quite a sophisticated and tuned response.
Les Postawa But you have to use it wisely because you can find that it goes completely the other way. Over optimising things and you get back to something that isn’t quite as beautiful as you first imagined.
Jim Heverin BIM is very “clunky”. So I think there is a danger that it really stops the iterative part of a design process because, maybe that story about the double decker bus was that it got so far down the line with that design that they didn’t want to go back on it. You can see this with BIM. People don’t want to revise the model because they have invested so much in it. That is what we all, traditionally, have done. We have been throwing things away and there’s nothing to be scared of.
Andrew Whalley I think the key is to keep this at the same time. So I think, as long as you keep designing and sketching and keeping light on your feet, as you say throughout the process and just use the BIM model as a part in pulling that information together.
Les Postawa Absolutely, so you use it as a tool. I have had countless arguments with BIM technologists in my own organisation where they are saying “oh this is great, it can help you design this”. It is not a design tool.
Neil Smith It was designed for the automotive and aerospace industries where, yes it is very useful.
Rory Olcayto BIM or CAD?
Neil Smith Well the interactive sharing of CAD. So in the aircraft industry when you are designing an aircraft you have this huge model, exactly the same as a BIM model with all the components in and you can work on simultaneously on it. Because you are designing a single product, it is very, very useful for that.
What I am finding with our engineers, obviously we are investing heavily in BIM at the moment like everybody else, but we are finding that the younger engineers and are just “bang” straight with it. Amazing how they embrace it and think it is easier working in 3D and tagging every single component instead of drawing it in 2D.
I come from an industry where we did originally design in 3D and I have gone back to 2D. I find 3D now very very difficult because of my age, but the younger generation with their technology driven lifestyles. Whether that prevents innovation is an interesting one.
Jane Wernick I think it gets in the way of them understanding what they have designed.
Neil Smith That’s right.
Hareth Pochee I started at Max Fordham 15 years ago and when I first started, not every engineer had a computer. Some of the senior engineers did. One thing I have noticed during that time is conversation has reduced, particularly on telephones. When I first started I spent half my day on the ‘phone to architects, to structural engineers, faxes, hand drawn faxes, loads and loads of them, they were flying around.
Jim Heverin Nobody is sorry to see the end of the fax.
Jane Wernick But the telephone conversation is really important for everyone else. You learn so much by osmosis.
Les Postawa It is a whole social issue, isn’t it? People sit across from each other on the settee and they are texting each other. They don’t communicate verbally anymore.
Andrew Whalley I noticed over the last few years, as you said, the younger generation using 3D more and more and rather than sketch, go straight to using Rhino or something and building a 3D model. We actually fought against that and all our studios have quite big model shops and really pushed, particularly the younger generation to go back into using model making as a design tool and sketching. There is a tendency to lose yourself in the computer and it goes back to what Jane was saying about osmosis as well. When you are making models in the studio, everyone else sees what’s going on and that filters through to all the other teams and it becomes a much more social think. That is ultimately what the studio is about I think, that social context and breaking down the computer and headphone culture. People just sitting there in rows lost in their own space.
Rory Olcayto We do need to wind up now, so that’s an hour fifteen that we have been talking and it has gone pretty quickly so I think it has been a good conversation and there is obviously a lot more to say. If we could just have a closing statement from everybody. It doesn’t need to be as specific as I was asking, but just if there was something that you wanted to say but didn’t manage to say that would just highlight what it is we need to do to continue and expand upon the culture of beautiful engineering in a collaborative way, what would it be? Hareth, let’s start there.
Hareth Pochee Well you already said my answer. It is collaboration; I think that is the key.
Rory Olcayto Does it always have to start with the architects?
Hareth Pochee No. Not at all. I think simple concepts that everybody signs up to and collaborates towards the same end goal produce beautiful engineering.
Rory Olcayto Thank you.
Hareth Pochee I can give you an example if you want.
Rory Olcayto Please.
Hareth Pochee So I worked with Adam Khan on the Brockholes Wetland Centre. He’s an incredibly talented architect, and there was a concept we developed together for that building which was that every space should have great daylight. Not just the main spaces, every space. That meant the toilets, the kitchen, the corridor, lobbies and all the main spaces. Once we decided to do that, that led down a really interesting design route. If you think about how challenging it might be to get daylight to interior rooms and I think it produced some really interesting and beautiful results.
Rory Olcayto It’s a great building, yeah. I think that is really interesting that every space should have it from the toilets, the lobby, the corridors and you could see how that would just completely channel a whole series of …
Hareth Pochee …It really does. It doesn’t mean they have the same quantity or quality of daylight but yeah, once you decide…
Rory Olcayto … Yeah, a nice simple concept as you said. Les.
Les Postawa Yeah, my idea of a beautifully engineered building would be one that is highly adaptable over its life and its future use. Take a swimming pool. Even a swimming pool adapts. A good example was the Aquatic Centre. It was designed and constructed to host the Olympics and now it is downscaled in size and now offered back to the community as a community pool. That is the way that the industry is going. It goes back to this refurbishment and renovation of projects as being the next challenge I suppose or the way of the future. Having a building that is highly adaptable, it touches on your point, it is a collaborative approach. You don’t, to say it is highly engineered doesn’t put all the onus on the engineer to come up with something that can be re-engineered and changed in the future, everyone involved in the building, including the architect. So, the architecture is the most important part of adaptability in a building.
Rory Olcayto Thanks Les.
Andrew Whalley I was thinking about what you were saying and, I remember when Fleet Street went digital. We did the Financial Times building and there was the latest technology, digital printing presses in the Financial Times building. All made in Germany, brought over and then it was less than 10 years before all those presses were ripped out and it turned into an internet switching centre. So that is the lifespan of times and technology in buildings. So you are absolutely right, flexibility is the important thing.
We talk about invisible engineering, ultimately what we mustn’t lose sight of is the architecture is there to contribute to create and enrich a city and they are just components which make a rich city and really, the main vision must be “what is the complete city and what are the elements that make that city”?
Rory Olcayto That is a great point. Jane.
Jane Wernick That touches on what I want to say and I felt we haven’t spoken about which is, we should be talking about the wider built environment and it is the external spaces as well. We are not just designing objects that are floating around nowhere. For me the most beautifully engineered projects are the ones where every member of the team and the client is really focused on what brings delight to human beings in every single part of every single build they are working on.
Rory Olcayto Thank you. Neil.
Neil Smith It [delight] is still my word. LAUGHTER. I think the buildings must delight the people that use them and we as design teams must make sure the spaces, the building itself and the spaces which people are using, work. We must make sure we follow through and ensure that whatever we are designing is fit for purpose, it delivers delight to the user in the most efficient way.
There is a building I worked on at Lee Valley. An indoor athletic centre and the users, the clubs, the users just say how fantastic it is, the daylight, the environment, the way the building looks. That is what gives me joy and, as engineers and as architects and designers, if the person or people using whatever it is we designed are delighted with it and it has been done on budget, efficiently, then we have succeeded. That to me is beautiful engineering.
Rory Olcayto And Jim to close the debate.
Jim Heverin Nothing much more to say. I am just coming back to the durability, I think the buildings that last way beyond their design life. That really is a beautiful construction, beautiful engineering and beautiful architecture because, to last way beyond means that building is connected and had a value. It was part of the city and it has been retained because it has that value that has been gained beyond just the numbers that were originally given to the design team as their central object.
Rory Olcayto And, on that note, if I could just thank all of you for participating in what I think has been really interesting debate. Jane, thank you, Neil and Jim, thank you very much, Hareth and Les and Andrew, thank you very much for coming in today. Much appreciated.
- Rory Olcayto, AJ editor
- Jane Wernick, founder, Jane Wernick Associates
- Jim Heverin, director, Zaha Hadid Architects
- Andrew Whalley, director, Grimshaw
- Les Postawa, principal and UK director, Thornton Tomasetti
- Neil Smith, senior partner, Max Fordham
- Hareth Pochee, senior engineer, Max Fordham