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Thriving in the design arena

Working lives - Moving jobs in search of a challenge, Nick Ling was astonished to land design of Portugal's Benfica stadium.

'A building is an expression of art that is much closer to people than paintings or sculpture, ' muses Nick Ling, structures manager at consultant SKM's London office. 'That's what engineering comes down to for me.' Ling is currently immersed in the creation of Milton Keynes' new football stadium (see feature, page 20) and is excited by the structure's less is more, stripped down beauty. In some ways, the project is an eloquent synthesis and expression of Ling's dual lifelong passions: engineering and architecture.

'As a child I was hugely proud of my [civil engineer] grandfather, who I thought had single handedly designed London's Post Office Tower and Waterloo Bridge'.

The University of Bath's school of building engineering offered Ling the opportunity to study engineering and architecture.

'I liked being someone who designed not just beams and columns, but who got involved in the holistic design of buildings.' On graduation, Ling got a job assisting with the architectural project management of a large refurbishment job for theatrical producer Cameron Macintosh.

'It was a rundown 13th century priory in deepest Somerset. It was a fantastic restoration job, with some new build thrown in - a swimming pool, a grotto harking back to Roman archaeology, and reconstruction of an old church.

It gave me a good grounding in how things are built and put together and how design influences what goes on, on site.' But two years into the project Ling was itching to use the engineering skills he had learned at university.

'More by luck than good judgement I applied to [consultant] Alan Baxter in London. The firm is renowned for bringing in graduates and training them - they put a lot of effort into developing their staff, and they apparently saw something in me.

'During my five years with the firm, I absorbed the Baxter approach to engineering. In a nutshell, that approach is about putting your ideas down on paper in a way that anybody can understand; doing things in a simple way. Baxter's engineering isn't cutting edge, but it is good, solid, sensible engineering, based around making structures buildable - thinking about how they're put together at an early stage and thinking beyond your role to understand how building services work and integrate.

They do a lot of thinking about sustainability and the future.' But Ling wanted to 'spread my wings a bit and challenge myself much more'. He applied to consultant SKM and was interviewed for a job by stadium design wunderkind Stephen Morley. 'That really sold the company to me. He was working on fantastic projects.' Joining SKM, Ling reported to Ian Thompson, 'who is a pretty hard nosed guy. He likes his structures mean and keen'.

Within a fortnight, Ling was roped into scheme design for Portugal's Benfica stadium. 'At Baxter I had probably designed beams of 12m span maximum. I was now doing 200m spans for the 2004 World Cup.' In late 2001, less than a year after joining SKM, construction started, and 'for the next two years I was designing the stadium as it was being constructed. Within days you saw your designs being built'.

The project advanced too fast for Ling to feel frightened by the scale of the undertaking - constantly anticipating the contractor's requirements and eliminating possible causes of trouble. 'We came up with the idea of making the roof independent from the rest of the structure, so that we could concentrate on refining the roof while the stands were built without having to worry about how the two would interact.' He was rewarded at the opening ceremony by the experience of 65,000 people jumping up and down in unison.

'With most structures you may have to wait before you see it under its most extreme load. I got to see Benfica at its maximum on its opening day. You know there and then if you've done your engineering right.' As Benfica was winding down, Ling joined Morley on the frenetic redesign of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava's design for the 2004 Olympic main stadium roof in Athens. 'It took a solid year of work to get the roof sorted out to the stage where the contractor could go hell for leather on building it in time for the games. I don't think I'll ever work on such a complicated structure again - a 300m clear span roof that has to be designed for construction loads as well as permanent loads.' The roof's twin trusses were built outside the stadium and slid into position days before the games opened.

Now aged 35 and a father of two young children, Ling says he has never planned ahead.

'Five years ago I'd never have though I would be working on these kinds of projects.' He says he loves working on high profile schemes - 'It's great to say 'I built that', ' but is equally happy to work on projects that are small but beautiful. 'Stadium Milton Keynes is a wonderful job.'

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