Exclusive interview with Aecom's David Glover
On the day of my interview with David Glover, Aecom’s Global Chief Executive, Building Engineering, the London skies were grey and threatening. Ironically set in the same week that the British architectural press were celebrating the collapse of talks between Aecom and NBS, Aecom themselves were celebrating a coup d'état, having just won the prestigious Serpentine Pavilion contract from under the noses of Arup who had been engineers behind all the previous 12 pavilions.
It also seemed fitting that the Aecom building in which the interview was to take place was formally the HQ of Davis Langdon.
Aecom is interesting. It’s a huge corporation. It’s also a fact that it’s not universally loved. Having some 45,000 staff, from the outside its sheer scale is hard to comprehend for many architects. It's easy to pigeonhole as a dinosaur but of course it’s not, or at least it’s a highly evolved, highly efficient modern day incarnation, reflecting the needs of the global marketplace in the same way that mega malls have changed our retail experience.
But what is even more interesting is what’s happening inside, trying to understand what makes it tick and find out which direction it’s heading in.
The word multidisciplinary is a façade for a multitude of sins and isn’t a new concept at all. However what is does do is throw an umbrella over the shifting boundary between architecture and engineering. When does an architect stop and an engineer start? Or is it the other way round? David Glover is passionate about buildings. His passion is fired by a desire to make buildings that perform better and run more efficiently, buildings that are more cost efficient, use less energy and get built quicker.
Controversially, his vision transgresses boundaries. Boundaries that were, in part, once delineated by technology limitations, forms defined by straight lines generated by processes that are now redundant. As recently as the eighties, most architects were working with drawing boards and set squares, everything needed for drawing straight lines. After the design came the engineering.
The Sydney Opera House was one of the first buildings to make a jump into the dangerous new world of curves. The ground-breaking project pitted its architect firmly against his engineer. Jorn Utson wrote to Ove Arup, just before walking off site: “Everything an engineer does is calculated, nothing an architect does is. So let me get on with designing my building.” That project pushed design way beyond the technology of the time and highlighted the limitations and dangers of a non-integrated approach to construction.
The advent of computers and more recent advances in 3D technology and BIM have ushered in a new era of collaborative working practices.
Glovers’ vision is of a brave new world of Building Designers, where engineering and architecture is ultimately morphed. Today BIM is one the frontiers between architecture and engineering, allowing the line to shift depending on a multitude of factors: the set-up of the contract; liability; model ownership; the complexity of the geometry, etc etc.
Glover’s work with Sou Fujimoto on this year’s Serpentine Pavilion provides a stark example of a changing world where Aecom’s huge resources can be brought to bear on even the smallest of projects. Technology now facilitates a level of complexity on a small project hitherto totally unimaginable. A frantic time scale and over 7,000 miles between engineer and architect called for state of the art BIM technology (Autodesk Revit) and very close collaboration between all parties from the earliest stage.
“We’ve just completed the concept design of nine buildings down in Rio with fantastically complex steel roofs but the Serpentine was even harder.” Sou’s vision included over 9,000 nodes which maxed out Aecom’s analysis computer, forcing an unplanned IT upgrade.
Glover’s passion for the Serpentine project is infectious and judging by the way he interacts with his team - the architect, the fabricator and the client - in the seemingly daily list of trade-offs required to get the job done, he is clearly motivated by the challenge the insane timeline presents. Aecom don’t need this work but what it does do is provide them with a high profile test-bed to push the boundaries yet further.
Meanwhile technology is still relentlessly marching ahead and Aecom are clearly determined to be at the forefront of the next wave of hyper efficient buildings with dramatic step changes happening in a host of key building elements from elevators through lighting (Glover foresees fluorescent tubes being replaced by user-controlled LED desk lighting) to intelligent façades and reactive building envelopes.
At the close of the interview, I asked David Glover how he felt about his role in the design world. His reply was interesting. “It’s a great time to be an engineer…”
Editor in Chief at WAN
Listen to David Glover’s podcast on the Serpentine Pavilion in next week’s News Review.