The London building boom is driving growth at NCE Consultant of the Year award winner AKT II.
AKT II defies the rule that says SME consultancies tend to work on small-scale projects. The firm, which recently won the UK Consultant of the Year Award for firms with fewer than 250 employees, has delivered a variety of projects of a scale and a complexity that would befit some of the industry’s more
On selecting AKT II for the award, the judging panel said the firm “stood out for its use of experimental projects to not only demonstrate great engineering for its clients but also to push the boundaries.”
“We want to use our projects to challenge the definition of an SME,” says director Gerry O’Brien. “We actually think we are the perfect size to be able to deal with very large and very complex, technically intense projects.
“But whereas very large companies are faceless and there’s no real chain of personal responsibility, we can’t afford to mess up because everybody knows who we are and personal reputations are on the line.”
The London market, in particular, is driving growth at the firm. Its most technically challenging project in the Capital is perhaps the Francis Crick Institute - 1M sq ft of laboratory space in a constrained site behind the British Library and to the side of St Pancras International railway station.
When it opens towards the end of this year, the building will house the largest laboratory of its kind in Europe and the philosophy behind it is to consolidate the research of six of the country’s leading academic and research institutions in one place. These are the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK, Imperial College London, King’s College London and University College London.
“Part of the main challenge was how to provide an internal architecture that promotes cross fertilisation of ideas between these six institutions,” says Rob Partridge, another of the firm’s directors.
“We can’t afford to mess up because everybody knows who we are and personal reputations are on the line”
Gerry O’Brien, AKTII
“The site is very constrained and there are all sorts of interesting things below ground such as a 120-year-old cast iron gas main to the north - which effectively feeds Camden Town - and the buried structure of the Thameslink railway station to the east.”
As one of only three government-backed projects not to be shelved during the recession, the pressure was on for AKT II in its role of structural engineer to come up with the optimum sequencing for its design of a four-storey, 16M deep, basement.
“If the basement construction methodology was to change when the contractor came on board, the structural engineer would have to re-do its designs and you could be incurring a significant delay,” says Partridge.
“We had to evaluate the different options against cost, against programme, against site logistics, against risk, against health and safety, client brief, all of these things. It’s almost as if structural engineering was, in a way, a small part of that list of variables, but we kind of took it upon ourselves to carry out this rigorous evaluation,” he adds.
One design flourish was a decision to increase the thickness of the floors in the building to 400mm rather than the 300mm you might typically see in a standard office building, to deliver the enhanced vibration resistance capability required by the laboratories across the whole Institute.
“The traditional way is to prescribe certain areas in the building for enhanced vibration capability,” says Partridge. “It might have cost more money and taken longer to build, and possibly even pushes the building up the way we proposed, but the value that gave the Institute compared to capital cost was massive.”
While the Francis Crick Institute looked downwards to resolve space constraints, AKT II is also engaged on a number of tall buildings in the capital. These include 240 Blackfriars for Great Portland Estates, one of the first new buildings to emerge in a spate of development on the South Bank.
O’Brien explains how the decision to build the structure using a concrete frame defied previous trends in office design, created more space and saved money.
“If you go back eight to 10 years into the speculative London office market, people were pushing for bigger and bigger spans, so when you look at More London and places like that, there were 15m to 18m spans going in all over the place,” he says. “In recent years there’s been a movement away from that as people start to take sustainability more seriously and actually start to think about the appropriate building that fulfils all of the developer’s needs.”
In Great Portland Estates, O’Brien thinks the firm was fortunate to have an educated client. “The client knew its market and understood that it would still rent its building by going to the 10.5m grid that we had proposed,” he said. “We were then able to show that by going to the shorter span we could actually move away from something that would have to be a steel building and in that one move we would manage to put another two floors into the building, within the same height.”
Fellow AKT II director Paul Scott, thinks all of the London developers the company works for have very distinct and clear ideas about the client bases that they serve, and decisions about which materials are used are taking an increasing prominence. For the 70,500 sq ft Turnmill development on Clerkenwell Road for client Derwent, structural engineering was only part of the equation.
“Derwent knows their client base very well, to the point where they might reference the British Council for Offices guide but they are prepared to push the boundaries,” says Scott.
“Another important point of their buildings is not just about obtaining value on the site, although it’s a very important part, it’s also about the materials they choose and the detailing to their buildings which gets the tenants in and gives longevity to the building.”
A case in point was the detailing to the masonry façade which came with a number of technical challenges because of the depth of the structure and the impact that could have on the net areas and thermal performance of the building.
“The structural solutions that were developed to allow us to get that junction between the column floor plate and the façade and the façade supporting structure were quite complex and we developed them quite early with the architects and façade engineers,” says O’Brien.
Such work will become more commonplace for the firm as it launches a new division - AKT II Envelopes - to deal with this type of challenge in-house.
“We moved into this after clients repeatedly asked us to do it,” says O’Brien.
“The time is right to make the move properly. Façade engineering is not what we want to call it, we want think about envelopes much more holistically and that’s why we’ve called it AKT II Envelopes.
“As the industry continues to consolidate itself into smaller numbers of large companies that back away from the things we used to find challenging and inspiring about projects, we want to move in the opposite direction.”
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