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Wembley wizard

Lateral thinking drives EEDA winner Tim Snelson's approach to engineering, he tells Andrew Mylius.

A car designed by an M&E engineer would have two engines.

They'd want one extra for back-up, ' smiles Emerging Engineering Design Award (EEDA) winner and Arup associate Tim Snelson. 'Both would have huge housings to make maintenance easy.

'And if you put a structural engineer in charge of car design there'd be no doors. They'd say: 'You can't put holes in the body, because they'll mess up its structural efciency.' Automotive design synthesises different engineering disciplines, and that's what I'm trying to do with our buildings.' After 13 years at Arup, Snelson has just joined the firm's architectural arm, Arup Associates.

'I've been drafted in as one of two senior engineers with responsibility for building the engineering team up, ' he says.

To help him along, Snelson has just self-financed a one week course in advanced leadership techniques.

'Ove Arup coined the term 'total architecture' to describe a seamless interaction between all of the engineering disciplines and architectural design. I want to deliver total architecture inhouse, ' Snelson says.

As he talks Snelson doodles.

Each idea and each turn of conversation is illustrated with its own cartoon-like sketch.

He tried, tested and demonstrated total architecture on his EEDA winning project, the reconstruction of London Underground's Wembley Park Station. Snelson was project manager from inception to completion.

'One of the things I aimed to show with my EEDA entry was how the design was made appropriate to the site. That was done through rigorous analysis of the constraints - the site geometry, the client's budget, and construction time.

'By sketching out a range of different options it became clear that doing certain activities in certain places would add millions of pounds to the cost.

'Parts of the site are packed with signal cables. Because there's a shortage of signalling engineers, we knew it would be expensive if we touched those, and that dictated where we could and couldn't build.' Snelson continues: 'The ticket hall we inherited was triangular. That raised interesting questions about how to divide it architecturally, and how to construct the roof. For structural efciency you want to nd the centre of the shape and design the roof around that: We put a mast at the centre of gravity supporting steel roof trusses - the mast also satised the Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment, which demanded a strong vertical element that could be seen in what's a very dense urban environment.

'From an engineering viewpoint we'd come up with a highly effective solution.

But we had to give ground on structural efciency to meet the requirements of way-nding.

Placed in the middle of the roof, the mast was not visible enough.

We therefore moved it to the edge of the roof, making it far more prominent. It also cleared the internal space.

'We raised the roof by over a metre to give greater headroom internally. That was a building services requirement.

'Yes, the roof's less efcient than it could have been, but its design is holistic. Engineering design is not purely about ef ciency.

'Moving the mast didn't ruin the roof. If it'd been a problem we'd have come up with another solution or made a convincing argument for the initial solution.

'The evolution of a good idea involves communication. A good engineer or architect needs to be able to demonstrate why it's good.' Snelson has thought more than most about how engineers communicate. He is a design group tutor at Arup, tasked with improving communication throughout the organisation.

'The idea is to plant seeds about how to communicate differently - better - in the minds of individuals and that they'll carry those ideas out into the organisation more widely.

'It can be tricky communicating highly technical ideas to non-technical clients, so I encourage my colleagues at Arup to use metaphor, analogy, simile. . .

'One of the people I work with needed to explain to his client why, for considerable extra cost, he should put acoustic isolation under his building. The client had put design of an ofce next to a railway out to competition.

Arup believed that ground borne noise from the railway would be a problem, but was the only rm that proposed acoustic isolation.

'To demonstrate why the client should pay for rubber pads under the building's columns my colleague took a music box and put it on the client's table, which hugely amplied the sound. He then put a lid over the music box, but you could still hear its noise.

That demonstrated that sound amplied through a structure is very hard to suppress.

'He then put a mouse mat on the table under the music box and it became silent. The client bought our design.' To get his fellow engineers to communicate creatively Snelson hands them challenges.

He give people object such as a can opener produced by the chic Italian design house Alessi.

'It's an object that has design characteristics and qualities beyond its simple function of opening tins. The idea is that there's a Japanese delegation visiting, with a very limited grasp of English. I give people 20 minutes to come up with a way to communicate the opener's function and other design qualities and values. It forces them to think in a visual way and to focus on fundamental issues.

'There's a tendency among engineers to cover all the bases and write a report dealing with everything. The report comes out ve inches thick. The exercise is about getting people to ask whether ve pages will do instead.' Snelson subjects his tutees to the subtle torture of brainstorming ideas, for example for James Bond gadgets, without being allowed to write anything down.

He gives them model making materials and asks them to design demountable, transportable stage sets for rock group U2. They are asked to design entirely visual cook books for Delia Smith.

'It's all about getting people to have a go at doing things differently, to nd new modes of presentation.' Snelson is a fan of Ed de Bono, the psychologist who coined the term lateral thinking.

De Bono's website states: 'The majority of mistakes in ordinary thinking are mistakes in perception. Our traditional emphasis on logic does little for perception. If the perception is inadequate no amount of excellence in logic will make up for that deciency.

'Perception is a matter of directing attention. If you are not looking in the right direction it does not matter how clever you are, you will not see what you need to see.' Snelson araphrases: 'Engineers too seldom ask: 'Have we met the brief or exceeded the brief? Have we looked at things from the client's point of view?' Engineering's not about how clever we've been but how much we've beneted the client.'

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