AKTII has built its reputation on advanced geometric shape-making with Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid and other luminaries of the architecture world. More than 200 design awards in 18 years testify to its success as a high-end structural engineer totally at ease in the firmament of London’s architecture scene, with an office in design central Clerkenwell where its engineers clink glasses in the trendy bars and eateries of St John Street.
But in one of the worst recessions in living memory, AKTII has filled its coffers by promoting its pound-stretching, unsexy side. And this is what helped it win this year’s Small and Medium Sized Consultant of the Year Award at NCE’s Consultants Awards last week.
Since re-emerging as an independent consultant after a management buy out (MBO) from owner WYG in April 2011, the company has thrived on the more frugal premise of helping commercial developers eschew extravagant redevelopments and instead squeeze every last drop of value from their existing estates.
A rise in turnover from £10M to £12.1M, an increase in fees earned from £9.6M to £11.5M and growth in the number of civil and structural staff from 126 to 139 in the past year demonstrate the success of the MBO, in which founding directors Robin Adams, Hanif Kara and Albert Williamson-Taylor and two new directors, Gerry O’Brien and Paul Scott, took control of the company, with the Swedish engineering group Tyréns also taking equity. The quintet shrewdly took the chance to buy back AKT for a reported £3.75M five years after it was acquired for a reported £10.75M, taking advantage of WYG’s well-documented financial difficulties following some disastrous acquisitions in Ireland.
“When the recession kicked in, the world changed and we needed to operate more independently”
Paul Scott, AKTII
According to Scott, the group had largely retained its independence at WYG and was not doing too badly. But perception is everything and the practice was being increasingly thought of as a larger multi-disciplinary concern. Its re-emergence as a small to medium sized independent consultant, with a new name of AKTII, has gone down particularly well with clients.
“When the recession kicked in, the world changed and we needed to operate more independently,” says Scott. “The MBO has enabled us to focus on our core structural engineering expertise and secure our long term future.
“Rebirth is too strong a term,” adds Scott who has been with the practice since it was started in 1995. “When we joined WYG, projects were driven by very different values. The world went through a huge change and we’ve come out of that clear where we are going now.”
The key has been to provide engineering innovation to help large commercial clients through the recession. “Recession favours reworking existing buildings and refurbishment. That might be creating more capacity within the building by introducing new materials to make it work harder,” explains Scott.
The Angel Building, shortlisted for the Stirling Prize last year, Birmingham New Street Station, Agar Street off London’s Strand for Legal & General and King’s Reach Tower in London are schemes where AKTII has reworked and is reworking existing structures to create more capacity.
New builds, such as the much-vaunted new headquarters for media giant Bloomberg in the City, reuse old foundations. “As an industry we can’t afford to spend so much time in the ground taking all that stuff out,” says Scott.
“We must find clever ways of working with those foundations so we can get above ground as quickly as possible.”
Such reuse has been a fruitful enterprise that certain other consultants have been loath to touch, he claims. It has been made possible by AKTII’s development of software to analyse existing structures in unprecedented detail - an evolution from a consultant that was using building information modelling (BIM) as long ago as 1997 on the design of Peckham Library. “We can analyse a building in such fine detail compared to 20 years ago - the difference is dramatic and it is very attractive to developers,” says Scott.
Meanwhile, AKTII has also done very well out of the boom in high end residential schemes in London funded by foreign investors who see the capital’s property market as a safe haven in uncertain times.
But the company is also developing design methodologies for fast construction of lower cost housing. “There is a big housing need in London,” says Scott. “We worked on plots nine and 10 of the Athletes’ Village in Stratford to an immovable deadline and very tight costs. The quality and speed at which village was delivered will be useful not only for London but also the national market.
“Even in the digital age it is still very important that engineers know how to express themselves with drawings”
Paul Scott, AKTII
“We’ve also done a lot of affordable student housing, which is about working with contractors to devise ultra-quick programmes. We are known for our advanced geometry and that’s the stuff that tends to get picked up by the magazines, but I think there might be the perception that that’s all we do. We drive low cost projects just as hard and with just as much passion.”
But that’s not to say the company does not still have a pipeline of prestigious projects.
Forthcoming completions include the largest research facility in Europe: the Francis Crick Institute in King’s Cross. Here the challenge is to eliminate vibration of the floorplates so that sensitive equipment can operate unhindered by railway tunnels underneath and the pounding of traffic on roads at ground level. It is the latest in a string of science and research projects, which includes the Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge, winner of last year’s Stirling Prize.
The practice tests new ideas on smaller high end projects. The BMW and the Coca Cola pavilions, built at the Olympic Park for the 2012 Games, were used to test innovative connections between elements that enabled a lighter touch and a faster build. Some of that thinking was applied to the John Lewis scheme at Highcross, Leicester.
AKTII has recently been experimenting with modern composites, such as reinforced carbon fibre strips bonded to floor slabs to enhance their structural loading. It has used modern composites to strengthen Ditherington Flax Mill in Shrewsbury - the world’s oldest cast iron-framed building - to the point where it no longer relies on brick arches for its structural integrity.
Despite the consultant’s recent growth, the directors are determined to conserve AKTII’s tight-knit culture and have given equity in the company to a second tier of engineers who they hope will lead it into the future. Meanwhile, all design work remains strictly in-house.
“All our design work is done in Clerkenwell,” says Scott. “We would rather turn work down than bring in extra capacity. All the directors are working structural engineers and that’s quite unusual.
“Usually when a consultant grows to our size you find that the directors focus on managing the practice.”
The engineers represent 40 nationalities and 30 languages. This has been helpful with international projects, which have included the spectacular Zayed National Museum in Abu Dhabi and current projects such as the Central Bank of Iraq in Baghdad, a football stadium in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup, a cricket stadium in India and an opera house in Morocco.
Younger staff members are groomed early to engage in industry forums and are encouraged to lecture to engineering and architecture students, run design workshops and write articles, which all helps to improve how AKTII communicates as a practice.
There is no division of engineers into teams or sectors and everyone is encouraged to take courses in drawing and sketching, says Scott.
“Even in the digital age it is still very important that engineers know how to express themselves in this way because ideas should still be generated from a blank piece of paper at the beginning of the design process.”