Stirring the pot

Jeff Willis and Craig Gibbons, co-directors of Arup's Dubai office, talk to MEA's Jeff Roberts about egos, academic curricula and the importance of an integrated approach in the built environment.

Craig Gibbons.
Craig Gibbons.

Jeff Willis and Craig Gibbons, co-directors of Arup's Dubai office, talk to MEA's Jeff Roberts about egos, academic curricula and the importance of an integrated approach in the built environment.

In your opinion, where does the world of architecture end and that of engineering begin?

JW: It doesn't really. Engineers, both structural and service, should be involved in the building process in order to make the building as sustainable as possible.

I used to demonstrate about the environment in the late 60s and early 70s.... The whole issue [of green buildings] seemed to be gaining a lot of momentum and then it just died for 20-odd years....But now, all of a sudden, it's the thing to do and for the first time in 40 years, I'm actually able to do something about the things I wanted to do then. - Jeff Willis.

When I began in the industry, I was given something that was effectively finished from an architectural and structural point of view and I needed to find a way of making the services fit.

We were expected to accept everything and just design systems to suit. Now, that's all completely changed. Nowadays, we should start together and be in constant contact with each other and we should listen to each other.

I think the important architectural element is vision; that's what makes buildings different. As engineers we like to strive to maintain that vision, even if it means we've got to be a bit clever with the building. It makes the difference between a really good building and one that's just mediocre.

CG: That's a difficult question to answer. We get involved in quite a lot of funky stuff, but the key is making sure that the projects you work on come together to create good, meaningful architecture.

They've got to run in parallel. With the scale of projects today, the two disciplines are too integrated to operate independently.

There is a lot of publicity surrounding the large iconic developments, but that shouldn't be the driving force of a project. Architecture for architecture's sake is not something I'd subscribe to.

From cooling loads to wind efficiency to mechanical/electrical connectivity, there is a whole host of issues that need to be factored in to make a building work.

Good architecture is nothing without fundamental engineering principles.

What's needed is a holistic and integrated approach in order to get the best from a design and, ultimately, create the best building.

I'm not too keen on the visual add-ons that are sometimes put on buildings to convince ourselves that its green, when in fact it's just making a silk purse out of a sow's ear. - Craig Gibbons.

Do you struggle with competing egos on some of the world's high profile projects?

JW: Sometimes. Anybody who is in this business and enjoys taking part in leading a team that is building something has an ego. We've all got them. Egos are inevitable. Managing those egos is something that we could probably be better at.

A number of the battles we have along the way are because people say things the wrong way. If your first words are, 'that doesn't work', all you're doing is challenging someone to prove that it can and does work. We lose a lot of time arguing when people feel challenged rather than part of a team.

Sometimes, however, I have to say that I enjoy the challenge of working with demanding people. I remember one project we did with a major diamond company.

The architect had a concept that, when we began, we thought would be impossible both structurally and from a services point of view.

He told us we were going to have to do a lot of work to convince him that it cannot be done. That was a tremendous challenge and we really got into it and we achieved it. The client and architect both thought it was fantastic and we really enjoyed it.

CG: In today's building environment, architects are usually the first to receive credit, but that's changing a bit. Some of the really complex or innovative jobs-Watercube in Beijing springs to mind-are using engineering solutions that have never been seen.

Often, in those situations, engineers receive a significant amount of the credit for the overall project.

Despite what the public perception might be, in fact, a lot of the architects we work with have a very sound approach to delivering the design.

Architects and engineers are generally working hand-in-hand on shaping these forms.

How has Sheikh Mohammed's decree, Abu Dhabi's Estidama and Dubai Municipality's Mandatory Progression affected business?

One of the reasons I joined Arup was because of an Ove Arup speech where he said that we should consider the impact of our buildings on the environment - and that was in 1974. - Jeff Willis.

JW: They've had two effects. First, it has meant more work because we've got experience working with strict environmental guidelines. But the work tends to be at an advisory level; it's almost pre-project stuff where we're being asked to advise on sustainability at the very beginning and, from that, comes a set of guidelines.

It's fair to say that the heightened interest in the subject has probably introduced stakeholders to a lot of the aspects that make a certain building greener than its neighbour.

In the masterplanning of large areas-which is where these issues has the biggest effect-how energy is supplied to the site and how water is dealt with allows individual projects within the development to have a much better chance of being truly green because they're part of a bigger consideration.

It's a more macro approach to sustainability and we often provide significant input at these stages.

Point blank: does it cost more to build a green building?

CG: No. If things are done right and planned right and there's a good common sense approach to design and materials are procured in a responsible fashion, you can achieve a green building quite easily at no extra cost.

The problem comes when you try to make something green that doesn't lend itself to being green.

That comes from the active sustainable items in terms of energy provision, i.e. PV panels and wind turbines. I'm not a big fan of those visual add-ons to elevate sustainability.

When you look at the big building market and consider the challenges in the context of the UAE, we're talking about thousands of buildings, not just one iconic one.

It's these add-on active systems that cost money and if that's the route you take, it will cost more. That is not, however, the route we subscribe to.

JW: That's the big question. The answer is not a direct one. If you have Foster [+ Partners] doing the architecture and Arup or Atkins doing the engineering, and building to an international standard of building, with an international contractor, then it will not cost you any more money.

But, if you've got a small local developer, perhaps backed by a local family with some money, that buys a piece of property and wants to build a building and sell it or rent it, expectations tend to be pretty low in terms of quality and performance.

The amount of work you'd need to do to turn that into a green building would be extensive and probably pretty expensive.

Achieving LEED Silver is about little more than good architectural design. Does it take engineered solutions to turn that into LEED Gold or Platinum?

JW: I think it's safe to say that a standard design team, doing solid design, would probably get LEED Silver without too much difficulty.

When you're talking about what happens beyond that, it's paramount to get engineers involved at the beginning to give their advice on a number of different elements.

What will it take to make existing buildings eco-friendly?

CG: I'm not an expert in sustainability so perhaps I'll leave that answer to Jeff, but as an avid user of buildings, I think there's quite a lot that can be done.

But, I don't think there should be a heavy burden on existing buildings.

When whole swathes of stuff are ripped out and replaced with new things, it's difficult to convince ourselves that the building is green.

JW: I think you're dead right. We're going to have existing buildings around for a long time and I think we need to be doing something about it.

The EGBC is looking at that issue in great detail at the moment. Estidama will also be producing something for existing buildings as well.

At the moment, Dubai is in a bit better shape than Abu Dhabi in terms of existing office space.

One of the reasons is because a lot of the existing stuff there is pretty unusable, whereas in Dubai, a lot of the existing office space is still being fully utilised.

Sometimes, with existing buildings, the best solution is to just knock it down and start again.

Everyone agrees that getting architects and engineers together very early in process is crucial. Perhaps the new breed of builder-in the mould of Santiago Calatrava, for example-should be all-in-one engineer/architect hybrids...

You don't get many Calatravas. You've got to be somebody pretty special to be able to deal with all of that and lead others in that process.

What's probably more important is to train people to deal with others better. We have traditionally trained people in boxes and we just need to change that.

In my projects, I try to help the architects understand what the engineers want and vice versa. We need to be much more formal about that; it needs to be part of the educational curriculum.

CG: I don't think so. But those characters exist. I don't think we shouldn't necessarily force people to be dually qualified but those that are, are clearly quite exceptional people.

One thing that is very important, however, is that at the university level, we need a significant stirring of the pot.

We need people that understand buildings, not just the components within them.

Is Arup losing engineers and top recruits to the Russias, Chinas and Indias of the world?

JW: Our biggest threats are probably Russia and China. But the Middle East still seems to be the preferred location.

The kind of things that persuade people-i.e. language barriers and convenience-are both favourable here.

The Middle East tends to win the recruiting battle when people know enough about it.

CG: We're not losing anybody at the moment. I think there is a lot of interest in this part of the world.

There is a lot of interest in exploring what the Middle East has to offer.

Part in parcel of this is the kind of buildings that are being done here.

They're the kind of buildings that intrigue the imaginations of young engineers and architects who are interested in travel and exploration.

In your heart of hearts, what are your favourite projects?

CG: One has to be CCTV in Beijing. That project found a fundamentally different way to do a tall building. It didn't get involved in the height race; it will achieve its iconicism because of its form.

It was particularly rewarding because, as a building, it does take a big step forward. The work in Beijing in the lead up to the Olympics was all very challenging but very rewarding.

Another one is Two International Finance Centre in Hong Kong, which is 420m high.

Bearing in mind that it is the same height as the World Trade Center in NYC was, that project is particularly memorable because we were half way up the building when the planes struck on 9/11.

So, we were half finished when the client wanted to change the whole design. It was a knee-jerk reaction to what had happened, and quite understandably.

We convinced the client that they didn't need to change the design and we were given three weeks to demonstrate that.

Ultimately, the client agreed that we had a building that was very robust and the design continued as planned.

In this part of the world, my favourite would have to be the Aldar HQ in Abu Dhabi. Working with Aldar and Lang O'Rourke has been fantastic.

Our collaboration with them allowed us to go from a blank piece of paper to completion of the cores of the building within 12 months. It was a tremendous fast-track environment.

If you could have been involved in any project, anywhere in the world, at any time in history, what would it be?

JW: There are so many. I was always quite fascinated by the achievements of Brunel. Being next to Brunel while he was building some of his bridges would have been wonderful because he was a remarkable individual and engineer.

I wouldn't go back to the Pyramids or anything like that because it would have taken too long to see what you're doing...the idea of spending hundreds of years on one project doesn't intrigue me at all.

CG: For me, it's the Empire State Building. That one was such an achievement at the time.

It's become a fantastic icon that's recognised throughout the world and it was done faster than we can build most buildings today. It took 12 months top to bottom.

To achieve an iconic building that exceeded the maximum height of the day, and to do it so quickly, is to achieve the best of what we strive for. That's one that the people involved should be very, very proud of.

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