As Arup project director on Beijing’s National Stadium, Darren Paine oversaw a large team working on a highly complex building that hosted 91,000 spectators.
Now he, his wife and business partner Deborah and eight staff are working from loft conversion offices in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.
Their firm DP Squared is a world away from today’s big engineering consultancies which employ tens of thousands of staff.
Thumb img 2489 1024
But despite its size, it is working in a pretty impressive major project. DP Squared’s current project is the UK’s fifth largest skyscraper. It is on the Owen Street development in Manchester which comprises four skyscrapers, the tallest of which will soon feature the tallest structure in the city at 201m. Construction began in July 2016. “For a company like ours it’s a big thing to take on,” says Darren. “You have to say to your staff: ‘this is going to be the next three years, are you sure we can do it?’”
Civils-trained Deborah and structures-trained Darren both worked for Arup for more than 15 years. Some career highlights during this time include working on Allianz Arena for Bayern Munich and the aforementioned Beijing National Stadium. But by around 2003 the couple started to feel like a change. “Once it got to the detailed design [for Beijing] I felt at that point that I could see Arup was starting to change, due to the influence of other larger practices. It was the start of the global, multidisciplinary model,” he says.
I liked the model of six people sat in a room just designing things, it’s what I enjoy, it’s what I’m good at
Darren Paine, DP Squared
Part of why they walked away was a change in working culture, he explains. At meetings it was the name of companies, rather than those of individuals, that were being bandied about. “The bigger they get, the more layers are created, and the more remote the decision makers become from the end client,” says Deborah.
“When I was doing the Beijing stadium, I’d get rung up by the vice chairman asking: ‘have you consulted Hong Kong, or Australia?’” says Darren providing an example. “And I’d think, ‘I do know what I’m doing here’. But it’s not your thing, it’s Arup’s thing.
“I suppose as those practices get bigger and bigger… you’ll have more than 50,000 staff… I liked the model of six people sat in a room just designing things, it’s what I enjoy, it’s what I’m good at.”
Beijing national stadium, beijing 2008 olympics
So, 15 years ago they moved to the North for quieter pastures and set up DP Squared with no plan, no clients and an office run out of a bedroom.
“Now when we talk to a client about what we’ve done, we’ve actually done it, not some guy a million miles away in a San Francisco office,” says Darren.
The projects started small, including public art sculptures, but soon grew to multi-storey residential developments.
Growing the business
In 2006, Darren says the business “came to a crossroads” as projects grew but the firm was still run from home. “We thought, either we’ll need to really grow this business, or go back into mainstream engineering.” At the same time, consultant WhitbyBird was setting up a Leeds office and Darren took an offer to join. Then in 2008 came the recession, and Darren took voluntary redundancy. It was motivation to redouble efforts on DP Squared.
“At that point the industry was quite up and down. You didn’t know which way it was going to go. And then we managed to grow off this one particular client… they’ve grown massively. And they brought us along with them,” says Darren.
While such a personal connection to a client like the Owen St skyscraper’s Renaker Build is a major benefit, building a small firm has had other unique challenges.
Chief among them involves cost structures: while office overheads are low, big one-off investments, like software licences are tough to stomach. “It used to be that PI [Professional Indemnity insurance] was the biggest chunk [of the budget], but it’s smaller than software now,” Darren adds. DP Squared’s six Revit licences cost around £15,000 per year. But earlier in the firm’s life, when there were fewer staff, these software costs were a higher proportion of the budget and were “hideous” to think about, says Deborah.
“I think the first software we bought was something like £9,000,” says Darren. “And what do you get for it? A lovely little USB stick. I could buy a car for that money. We were sat looking at our meagre cash flow asking: ‘Can we do this? Can we afford it?’ But looking back and you see the return on investment.”
Finding the skills
Another challenge has been finding skilled employees. The pair were able to draw on their contacts to find a handful of engineers and technicians, but bringing in a few apprentices was more difficult. They have managed to find a few by reaching out to Calderdale Council’s local business assistance arm Business Growth Calderdale and Leeds College of Building. “While the government is very keen on apprenticeships, there’s not a huge amount of information on where to go, for a small business,” says Deborah.
And what about the next recession? Would their small enterprise survive a slowdown in work better or worse than a large one?
Deborah says one bonus of starting small and growing has been that the firm has never needed to borrow money. “I think that is one of the things that makes companies come a cropper, is that they borrow money, set up, the money flow stops, and they are left with debt.”
And there is a buffer built into the budget, Darren adds. “We make quite a conscious effort: with eight full timers, the cost of that felt manageable, and if work fell off you could keep that maintained, without, for example, simply losing 25% of the staff.”
DP Squared has turned down projects in the past because it felt unready for them. It also has no marketing budget and relies on personal connections built up in the industry over decades. Fees are negotiated rather than bid for. “We feel we compete at a very competitive fee level,” says Darren.
Darren says he worries for the big consultancies now and is concerned about how far margins for engineering services are being cut. “We’re at the other end, we don’t really have a margin because our overheads are so low.”
Taking on a project as large as the Owen Street skyscrapers, Darren admits to “slight nervousness, and some bravado I guess. We’re not cavalier. If something goes wrong [structurally] we’re probably out of business.
“But the actual structural design of a building like this is relatively straightforward: all the columns run down to foundation, they’re relatively closely spaced, no massive cantilevers. Stacked up and up and up. The complex bits are in comfort and wind analysis. Then comes delivery – can you deliver something at this scale?” The project has kept DP Squared busier than ever, issuing thousands of drawings through the project’s digital portal.
Things are looking busy in future. The consultant’s next big projects include a 50 storey tower, a bridge in Leeds and some work in the United States. But do not expect any major new hires.