First principles

Atkins clinched the coveted title of ‘Consultancy of the Year’ at the 2007 and 2008 MEP Awards. We speak to Richard Smith, group chair of carbon critical buildings at Atkins, about what makes a winning firm.
First principles
By MEP Middle East
Wed 09 Sep 2009 04:00 AM

Atkins clinched the coveted title of ‘Consultancy of the Year’ at the 2007 and 2008 MEP Awards. We speak to Richard Smith, group chair of carbon critical buildings at Atkins, about what makes a winning firm.

Smith comments that “some people would have had long faces a long year ago when we won a job, because then they would have to deliver, and sometimes you just cannot say no. It is quite the opposite now. Someone said that actually this feels like the UK now, with a three- to four-month work horizon.

“Previously this would have run into years for consultants in the Middle East. And it was a false world. We have just returned to what most of our life has been like. You have to work hard to win a job, and you are delighted when you do. But the rapid transition has not been easy,” says Smith.

He says “a lot of clients and organisations are using this period now to re-evaluate their processes. [Green] legislation is being put into place, and we are learning from the lessons of the past. We were moving incredibly quickly before as an industry, and did not have the luxury of stopping to think.” This is the time to revisit ‘first principles’, to return to the fundamentals of best practice in both design and building. Complexity

Smith describes the current situation as “quite complex”, and stresses “we are not under the illusion that things will just bounce back to what they were. What will come out of this is that things will be different to what they were before.” In this regard, Atkins is exerting considerable effort in trying to understand the current situation and marshal its resources accordingly.

“The Atkins business model is totally dynamic, and is always being reviewed. Some of the larger contractors I have spoken to have not been that affected. They lost work, then won other work on the rebound. Their turnover is down a bit, but not fundamentally. Then there are people who have had horrendous experiences. And then there are those still recruiting because they have work in Saudi Arabia, for example. It is kind of how the dice fell.

“The market has probably stabilised, but it is hard to call. There are a lot of enquiries, but not many of them are converting into projects. You have one story here in Dubai and then another completely different one in Saudi Arabia. So it is a very difficult question to answer in its totality.” Smith does concede, however, that there are signs of a “slight improvement”, as opposed to “signs of it getting it worse and worse, as it might have been two to three months ago.”

The ‘back to basics’ approach intimated by relooking at first principles poses significant opportunities for the MEP sector, for example. This means that the business outlook is actually “very positive in the medium term because of the uptake in carbon critical design, and the ability of MEP engineers to step sideways into that.

Starting to turn

“I am not so sure that globally it is good for architects, on the other hand. Generally the building industry will follow the economic situation globally. The US is starting to turn. UK house prices are starting to rise. It remains very difficult to predict in the Middle East, where I do not think there is a single answer.”

Smith acknowledges that the experience to date has been akin to a crucible of fire for the construction industry in general. The industry grew in response to the market requirement, which was to produce design solutions for very large numbers of buildings. But the question is if that is going to be the case in the future?

“We are certainly going to see more due diligence and consultancy work. I suspect clients are going to tread a little more carefully at the formative stages of projects, and engage in more consultancy to validate design decisions.

Different market

“This is simply because it is a different market out there. Previously it was so buoyant. If you go back to 2003, it was really difficult to present a business case for a hotel. Then we went through the dizzy period of 2005-2007, where any hotel in Dubai would be full within a month of opening and would have no problem in turning a profit.

“In this scenario the business case potential was a no brainer, which is no longer the case. The people who make those sorts of investment decisions are now going to make sure they obtain the best advice and look very carefully at how they procure the solutions they need,” argues Smith.

The market in terms of MEP specifically has also changed drastically. “The market has obviously gotten a lot bigger, a lot faster and a lot more complex, especially in terms of buildings going through technological step changes. We had reached a point where buildings as single entities could become so big that the primary focus was no longer building services but infrastructure in the vertical plane.

“ICT converged, and a whole range of new and emerging technologies has to be incorporated. But most of all was the sheer scale of it. Our industry is essentially not scalable; you cannot just make buildings bigger and taller. The general complexity has accelerated exponentially.” Smith adds that everything got ‘greener’ as well.

“We have pursued this agenda quite aggressively for over four years now, as we perceived this would be the direction the market would take. And it is still moving in that direction.” Smith says the ‘green trend’ came onto the agenda officially around 1987. “Throughout the 1990s we tried to get our heads around it, as that was when all the building environment assessment methods like BREEAM, for example, were formulated. Uncertainties

“But the industry really did not engage fully with this, largely because it was so complex and there were so many uncertainties. Climate change is the predominant concern right now, as there is no doubt that excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a problem for the future if it is not addressed at present. There is scientific consensus on this, and that is really making a big difference. What is likely to make an even bigger difference is when the Stimulus Funding aligns itself with green projects globally,” comments Smith.

“For years I have studied what makes Switzerland different. Design teams there take integrated solutions for granted. Sustainability is not even on the agenda; it is just a way of life. Our goal is to make it a way of life for us as well. The priority at Atkins is carbon critical design, of which I am the group chair.” So what does this mean, and how does it fit in with MEP?

“We single out all the elements of sustainability associated in one way or another with climate change, and then put these into a manageable 2D model. MEP fits into this like all the other disciplines. You cannot deliver a carbon critical solution without all the disciplines engaging and working together.

“But I have to say MEP has a very key role, as what it is able to do is leverage the biggest result. The MEP engineer, by training and background, has a fundamental advantage over other designers, in that he already deals with energy flows and is able to visualise such issues, that others find difficult. So we have to give design teams targets and KPIs so they can obtain the results directly. Thus at the end of the day it is all about creating the right environment for people to be able to deliver sustainable solutions,” argues Smith.

Carbon critical design

Smith says an MEP engineer is especially qualified for carbon critical design in that he or she can already model a building ‘virtually’ in order to better quantify its ‘green’ performance. “However, this is something that MEP as a profession has not done a great deal of.

“We are starting to do a great deal more now. So an architect will come up with various design ideas, and we can model them virtually to tell which are good ideas and which are bad ideas. We will then work with the architect to optimise the good ones.”

According to Smith, this has opened up an entire new arena for MEP professionals to exploit. “At Atkins we term this ‘building physics’, and MEP engineers are invariably its main feedstock.” An implication of this process is enhanced interaction with the client.

“If you look at a highly sustainable project in Switzerland, it will take up to a year to do a concept design, whereas here you might get a month or two. This is not because they are slow, but is due to the large number of iterations that are run through, combined with constant interaction with the client. We definitely need to spend more time on design at the concept stage.”

Real world

However, Smith cautions that this does not mean “getting up into our Ivory Tower and telling clients what to do. It is not that easy; there is a real world out there. There is a specific process of working to raise a client’s awareness and understanding of the issues. We need the client to understand in the early stages that more time might be needed for additional iteration, but it is a difficult issue because clients so often want things done so quickly.”

What happens if a client eschews ‘green’ design because the perceived cost is too high? “There are shades of green, and there is no standard definition. At the beginning of a project we will produce a definition of sustainability for that particular client.

“If it is 5% better than ‘business as usual’, it has some carbon critical value. If it is 70% better, then it is an utterly amazing project. Most projects lie somewhere between the two. The key is to get the team totally on the same page with regard to the definition of sustainability for a specific project.”

Smith explains that carbon critical design comprises a gamut of measures, some of which will not cost the client any extra at all, and which will even save money in the long term. “We start with passive design, which means shadowing, insulation, putting in a smaller air-conditioning system, making better use of daylighting, and so on. We also eliminate systems where they are not really necessary, such as a hot-water supply in a washroom, or ventilating car parks mechanically that will ventilate naturally.

“A car park consumes about 40% of an office building’s total energy requirement, requiring a high level of lighting and ventilation in a traditional design solution. So all these things are being revisited. You are never really sure what the solution is going to be if you go back to first principles. It is surprising us all,” says Smith.

Atkins in the Middle East

According to Atkins 2009 Annual Report, the Middle East business delivered further significant growth in revenue and operating profit (up 82% to £17,3 million.) Trading conditions worsened in the second half of the year. With the cancellation of projects, Atkins also experienced a significant slowdown in payments by clients.

Despite the slowdown, a number of projects were completed, including the 360-m-tall Al Mas Tower, housing the region’s first diamond exchange, and the 306-m-high Address Hotel. Atkins’ policy of diversifying its business away from building design towards infrastructure has mitigated the impact of the downturn being experienced in the property market.

The company has also been able to protect key resources by redeploying them in less affected areas such as Abu Dhabi and Oman. Despite the continued slowdown in the third quarter, £45 million worth of new work was secured in the fourth quarter. Work in hand represents 53% of budgeted revenue for 2009/10 (2008: 51%).

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