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The AJ/Curtins Inspiring Graduate Prize: five profiles

Bill Curtin
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Ella Braidwood meets five Curtins employees who demonstrate the qualities needed to win this year’s award

For the second year running, nominations are open for the AJ/Curtins Inspiring Graduate Prize. Organised by the AJ and built-environment consultancy Curtins, the contest recognises a Part 2 or 3 graduate who has made a significant impact on an architecture practice’s business, or demonstrated good business sense on an independent project. To mark the competition, The AJ has spoken to five of Curtins’ most entrepreneurial staff to see how they got started in the industry – and what qualities they needed to succeed.

Diarmuid Healy, associate, Dublin

Diarmud healy london

Healy’s early interest in engineering came from working on his father’s farm in Ireland, where there was always something to be built or fixed. He describes his ‘biggest breakthrough moment’ coming when he was a 19-year old structural engineering student travelling to Edinburgh with his friends. Expecting nothing more than a bar job, Healy managed to bag a placement at Curtins’ office there. This experience reassured him he had chosen the right profession. On his last day Healy joked to Phil Richardson, the branch’s executive director, that he would open the company’s first office in Ireland within 10 years.

After working for an international firm in Jeddah for a year, and despite the UK being in recession, Healy rejoined Curtins at its London office and started work on its City Road Hotel project in east London. Healy says landing the position was a turning point – ‘forget about money [or] rewards, it’s about quality of work,’ he says. His advice to aspiring graduates is that working in a ‘major hub’ like London is ‘probably the most valuable thing’ they can do.

Healy worked on the 20-storey hotel, designed by 5plus Architects, from start to finish, describing it as ‘one of the best jobs’ he’s worked on. ‘It was incredibly satisfying to enjoy a gin and tonic on the 19th floor overlooking the city,’ he says of visiting it at Curtins’ Christmas party last year.

On top of his work at Curtins, Healy also founded his own business, Set Workshop, which produces concrete furniture.

As well as upcoming projects – such as Allies and Morrison’s 13-storey Bio Medical Engineering Research HUB for Imperial College London – Healy is most excited about finally fulfilling his pledge to Richardson a decade ago. This year he has opened the company’s first international office – in Dublin. Entering a new market means Curtins will deliver projects with a local presence in the country for the first time. ‘What could be more satisfying,’ he says, ‘than in 10 years’ time having another gin and tonic in another new building to which we added value?’

Alison Horton, structural engineer, Birmingham

Alison horton birmingham

Having studied civil engineering at Loughborough University, Horton found herself in a job that wasn’t challenging her enough. In less than a year, after deciding things ‘weren’t progressing’ for her, she decided to join Curtins’ Birmingham office.

Since moving two years ago, Horton says she has been given varied experience, challenging jobs and more responsibility. The company also supports her extracurricular work as an ambassador for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning – she visits schools and tells children about the opportunities in her field. She says: ‘School-kids don’t necessarily know what I do and I think it’s important they know about different career paths.’

Horton is pleased to note that more than 20 per cent of staff in her office are female, but admits: ‘One of the biggest challenges I can face is gender stereotyping in the industry. As a woman I have a different set of skills that I can bring to a team, a different way of looking at a problem; a different way of thinking. This makes me no less of an engineer, and my colleagues at Curtins realise this.’

Still, she says she gets on well with her colleagues: ‘You do feel part of a family and it’s really nice to watch it grow.’

On top of her work in STEM, Horton runs the office engineering focus group, helping colleagues solve problems and improving the working environment. She is also involved with Curtins’ new thought leadership platform, Podium, for which she recently gave a talk on Birmingham’s past and its struggle to gain respect in the build environment.  

Horton is currently working on her biggest project to date: the Collaborative Teaching Laboratories at the University of Birmingham, worth £25 million and designed by Sheppard Robson. She is particularly excited about the project because it will provide a space for STEM subjects. It also gives her more responsibility when previously she worked under other engineers. ‘This is the first project I’ve been able to do myself,’ she says.

Andy Macfarlane, director, Birmingham

Andy macfarane birmingham

Macfarlane owes much of his career at Curtins to a chance conversation in the pub, while watching his favourite club Liverpool play Manchester United. Macfarlane got talking to his friend’s dad, who was a director at Curtins, and from that conversation he began a summer placement at Curtins’ Manchester office. Unlike his friends on placements, who were ‘doing filing for 12 weeks’, Macfarlane says he was allowed to work on projects from day one.

After graduating with a degree in civil and structural engineering, he joined Curtins’ Liverpool office. Thrown in at the deep end, his first project was a £30 million refurbishment project for a huge derelict tyre warehouse, Fort Dunlop, in Birmingham. Designed by Shedkm, it went on to win an RIBA award. Macfarlane went on to deliver the British Council for Offices award-winning One and Two Snowhill office buildings in Birmingham, which are part of a £500 million phased masterplan.

During his time at Liverpool, Macfarlane was instrumental in implementing new technologies – including BIM, even though many architects had not adopted it at that point. ‘We were probably four or five years ahead of anyone in our market at that time,’ he says.

When Macfarlane moved to Curtins’ Birmingham office three years ago, he says it presented a ‘great opportunity’, but admits the decision to move away from his long-term friends was a ‘big challenge.’

He became director of the branch at the age of 35 with the encouragement of his chief executive. Currently, he is overseeing work on the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, due to be completed in 2018, which he believes will be a ‘Birmingham landmark’ and ‘a catalyst for regeneration’ in the area.

What advice does he have for innovative graduates? ‘Don’t hesitate to get involved in big, complex projects,’ he says. ‘My thought always is that if I’m not doing it, someone else will take the opportunity. Roll your sleeves up and get stuck in.’

Gordon McPherson, senior engineer, Glasgow

Gordon mcpherson edinburgh

Before joining Curtins, McPherson worked as an engineer for several years in Scotland after graduating from the University of Paisley. In 2008, he moved to London and started a job in the Curtins office, where he worked on a number of large-scale projects in the capital.

One of these was the centre for translational and experimental medicine at Imperial College London’s Hammersmith campus. The large concrete-framed building was primarily designed by Sheppard Robson, and completed in 2011. He has since worked on another 11-storey building for Imperial College, which is now used for research and as a laboratory.

In autumn 2014, McPherson returned to his Scottish homeland and worked in the company’s Edinburgh office. Between moves he started work on a teaching block for the schools of science and technology at Middlesex University. The structure – due to be completed for the next academic year – was designed by BPR Architects. It is being built with green walls and surrounding shrubbery, and McPherson says it is ‘very much based on the environmental side of things and sustainability’.

For McPherson, one of the best things about Curtins is that the directors he worked for in London still call him for updates and to ask him how he’s getting on. ‘It’s quite friendly in that way, it’s not corporate – it’s a nice place to work,’ he says.  

One of his most recent projects, a £13 million new office block for West Dunbartonshire Council, started on site last month. It will provide a new high-quality office, which will retain a Grade A-listed facade and aims to aid the regeneration of the town centre.

Since April, McPherson has been running Curtins’ new Glasgow office. Of the new role he says: ‘It’s a bit of a challenge at points, but it’s interesting.’ In particular, he is excited about the arrival of a graduate next month who he hopes to teach ‘the Curtins Way … to me it is about progression and trying to promote the younger staff.’

Paul Menzies, executive director, Bristol

Paul menzies bristol

Before even graduating from Bath University, Menzies had already secured a job at Curtins’ London office; the company got to know him after he worked a six-month placement there during his studies. ‘It felt like a massive weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I had security,’ he says.

One of the schemes he is proudest of working on is the Sophos Headquarters Building in Abingdon. The scheme, designed by Bennetts Associates, involved a new 19,000m2 three-storey office and warehouse facility built on an old landfill site. For this, Menzies was required to engineer dramatic, exposed, steel brise soleil cantilevers around the perimeter of the building and a 90m-long lime mortar raking boundary wall. The steel frame was exposed throughout internally, without any visible connections, requiring great attention to detail.

After 10 years in London, and with an eye on promotion, Menzies relocated to Curtins’ Bristol office. For him, moving around is ‘part and parcel’ of how Curtins grows its business, and

is a good way to work up the ladder. Menzies was soon promoted to executive director of the branch – ‘It felt like recognition that I was putting in the effort for them and people valued my ideas,’ he says.

Given the support Curtins provided him with as a student, Menzies is aware of the importance of graduates in growing the business so helped set up the Curtins Academy in 2014, which trains graduate engineers over four years.

‘They bring amazing ideas … they are very tech savvy and into social media,’ he says. Menzies has also helped to raise awareness of the importance of investing in research and development.


About Curtins

Bill Curtin

· Bill Curtin (left) founded his engineering consultancy, WG Curtin & Partners (now Curtins), in 1960 from his bedroom in Liverpool.

 · The company offers a range of services including structural engineering, transport planning, civil and infrastructure engineering, geo-environmental advice and stakeholder engagement.

· The independently owned company now has 13 offices across the UK and Ireland. Its headquarters remain in Liverpool.

· Curtins was placed 34th in this year’s Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For list. In 2015, it was voted in the top 50 of the Building Good Employers Guide.

· Curtins is currently in charge of transport planning for an entire block of homes within the Covent Garden Conservation Area in central London, after architect Piercy & Company won permission to replace the block in April.

How to enter

Entries are now open for the AJ/Curtins Inspiring Graduate Prize.

 · Shortlisted entries will be invited to present their projects on 24 November in Manchester.

· The overall winner will be announced on 25 November at the AJ100 Members Lunch in Manchester (all shortlisted entries need to attend both days).

· The deadline for entries is 30 September 2016.

Click here to apply 

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