A new programme for architectural-engineering collaboration is waiting to be written, says Paul Finch
Bath University was host to an intriguing reunion of environmental engineering alumni last week, all of whom had undertaken the combined course in architecture and engineering invented by Ted Happold.
The engineers each presented some thoughts on where environmental engineering is going, through case studies of their recent work, and reflected on the influence of their student days and teachers, including Max Fordham and Derek Croome (both present and presented with awards by their protégés).
I had the pleasure of chairing the event, devised by Patrick Bellew of Atelier Ten and Peter Clegg, himself a Bath architect alumnus. A pleasure because of the truly impressive range of work and the thoughtful panel discussions which took place over a four-hour event. The other speakers comprised Neil Billett of Buro Happold, Klaus Bode of BDSP, Dave Richards of Arup, Guy Battle of Deloitte (previously Battle McCarthy), Ant Wilson of Aecom, Andy Ford of Mott McDonald (previously Fulcrum), two other Bath-trained architects, Selçuk Avci and Keith Bradley, plus low-carbon design professor David Coley, whose original speciality is nuclear physics.
The longer the afternoon went on, the more the question loomed as to why the Happold course failed to survive. After all, it resulted in brilliant individuals carrying out wonderful work across the world. The answer seemed to be that for many engineers, the architectural element in the course was simply not to their liking - an aptitude for numbers not supplemented by an interest nor desire to write essays about the Baroque, for example. Drop-out rates were high.
With the premature death of Ted, there was a feeling that the course, always understood to be something of an academic curiosity, ceased to have the champion it needed. On the other hand, in conversation afterwards, it was apparent that engineering at the university is doing very well, even if environmental engineering still has a long way to go before it jumps up the engineering status pecking order. That seems curious, given the importance of this branch of engineering to the built environment. Perhaps CIBSE, the building services professional body, should call in some Wolff Olins types to think about its own name, and indeed an updated name for environmental engineers, since few in the outside world have any idea what they do.
But, by the end of the day, a sense of optimism was apparent in a room packed with engineers and students. That the Bath course no longer exists didn’t mean an insoluble problem had arisen: the University of the West of England now runs an accredited undergraduate course, Architecture and Environmental Engineering, similar to the old Bath model. The concept has made a comeback.
For another, professional relationships have matured, compared with the bad old days, and it may well be that the lack of integrated teaching should be regarded as a condition rather than a problem, acknowledged and addressed in practical ways when it comes to the making of buildings. A good example is the Gardens by the Bay project in Singapore, which won the completed building category of the World Architecture Festival; it was a seamless collaboration between a range of professionals.
If we want students of construction in its broadest sense, including surveying, planning, engineering, architecture and so on, to have some common frame of reference, there is an approach that could do the trick: a first-year course of construction history, explaining who built what, where, when, how and why, across the world - an introduction to the cultural, technical and, of course, climatic explanations for the built environment we have made across the world. It is there to be written.