chris wise engineer

Why small practices are genetically important

If I were a rhinoceros not an engineer in a little practice, I’d be on the WWF’s endangered species list. My contribution to global diversity would be gazed at in wonder on national telly with David Attenborough. But it isn’t. Again, as a rhino, princely patrons at the head of worldwide organizations would try everything they could to feed and water me so I didn’t become extinct. Why? Because genetic variation is healthy. So why is the construction industry remorselessly driving out such diversity. Through the procurement environment, through globalization, we’re being BIMmed into conformity, our design DNA is being sanitised, our buildings homogenised.

There are still some little practices, supported by enlightened clients, doing their own thing. “Because it’s there” in the words of George Mallory not long before he fell off Everest.  And because they have at least some intellectual freedom. In my personal uncommissioned risk assessment of our industry, I find our diversity is under threat, and while big might mean consistent, we need the counterpoint of the little practices to stay genetically healthy.

Little people do good work,  such as arguably the cuddliest concrete building ever made, London’s National Theatre. Back in 1977, Mr Flint and Mr Neill said their client commanded them to “devote their personal attention to the project….in which earth, air, fire and water are to be so regimented as to verve the architecture.”  In short they were to be individuals, and not just individuals but alchemists. Their elegant work on the National epitomizes Fritz Shumacher’s “Small is Beautiful” philosophy. In his final book, “A Guide for the Perplexed”, finished five days before he died, he wrote how the creativity of individuals like Flint and Neill should keep pushing upwards, because if the higher powers of man atrophy through lack of use, our problems will become insoluble.

In nature, it’s not just the rhino under threat…there’s the newt, mahogany, the Purple Emperor butterfly, anything in the way of “progress”. Just the same in buildings nowadays, where practice is tough. Take just two small examples surviving purely on talent. In funky structures, there’s Neil Thomas of Atelier One, the rock-and-rolling engineer for U2 and more recently the amazing swaying Dune Grass sculptures in front of Blackpool Tower, with Aran Chadwick. In turns genetically glorious and daft, Atelier One once engineered a 150ft stage modelled on Mick Jagger’s tongue, but they also engineered the beautiful Gardens-by-the-Bay in Singapore. Nearby we glimpse the strong figure of Doug King of King Shaw, Royal Academy of Engineering’s Silver Medallist 2012 “for an outstanding demonstrated personal contribution to British engineering”. King is the man behind the RAEng’s seminal “Engineering a low carbon built environment: The discipline of Building Engineering Physics” arguing right at the centre of the engineering establishment for a serious reshaping of building practice.  Where would we be without the likes of Thomas and King? A few moments with either, the first shy, the second forthright, but both passionate, convince you that here are minds of rare capability, of precious worth.

They may have talent and guts, but can they find clients? At the recent Structures Awards, I asked a friendly project manager whether such highly creative small practices make much difference to him.  Of course, he nodded, it’s always nice to work with the best individuals but, to be honest, most projects don’t actually need them. Or perhaps, we like their thinking, but our business case doesn’t understand it.  So despite their talent, Atelier One and King Shaw and their kin are business-cased out of helping humanity with its “insoluble” problems.

From our corner of the planet,  we recently struck another blow for little people, when we won the Structures Supreme Award for the second time in 3 years. Afterwards the senior partner of a big consultancy said well-done, and sweetly asked us not to enter a project next year so a hard-pressed big consultancy could win. The next day we had a short noisy celebration at my desk. Immediately, one of our engineers asked me to shush, because he was talking to a big consultant representing a new client. Apparently the sound of Queen’s “We are the Champions” meant the hard-pressed big consultancy man couldn’t hear him. Good, I said…3 minutes of reflection and then explain why we’re celebrating.

As I’m told AECOM have become indistinguishable from Balfour Beatty and it’s Design, Build, Operate from now on, I realise the rhino analogy is wrong….. because rhinos are endangered by habitat changes outside their control. In building, the changes in our working habitat are actually within our control.  So, although our Supreme Award scores one for the endangered little people again this year, let’s have an environment in which our rich diversity of small practices is not BIMmed and OJEU’d out of existence.

(Clients please form an orderly queue)

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