Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Who, how and why he got there

Working lives Michael Dickson

New IStructE president Michael Dickson wants engineers to think about and explain why they build, not just focus on how.

Returning home to Bath from an unusually long two week holiday in the western isles of Scotland, Michael Dickson has just played his first game of cricket 'in years' when he meets NCE, so he's looking relaxed but feeling sore.

Dickson has recently stepped down from his post as chairman of consultant Buro Happold, a move that has briefly handed him comparatively huge amounts of free time. Next Monday, though, he throws himself into a year long presidency of the Institution of Structural Engineers.

Dickson has juggled his nine year chairmanship of Buro Happold with participation in a staggering number of committees and organisations - chairman of the Construction Research & Innovation Strategy Panel, deputy chairman of the Construction Industry Council, visiting professor at the Universities of Bath and Innsbruck, Austria, and several more besides. But he is surprisingly reticent about why the IStructE has recruited him as its next president.

'I think I've been asked to do it because I'm a designer who responds passionately to the products we build, ' he ventures.

'The structurals are looking to be more closely associated with the engineering products that improve our built environment.

One of the things that the IStructE - and the ICE and Royal Institution of British Architects - has to do is associate its name not so much with the how of producing a design or building, but the why, ' he adds.

'Value is one of my dread words, but the wider public needs to know what value engineering adds to the built environment.' Dickson picks out Buro Happold's headquarters building for Wessex Water 'just up the hill' in Bath to illustrate what he means by the 'why' of engineering. The offices were built with a high proportion of locally won and recycled materials to minimise embodied energy. They are thermally efficient, provide lots of natural light, and offered a dramatic improvement on previous Wessex Water working conditions, making for a happier and consequently more productive workforce. 'We were looking at how engineering could respond to an economic brief but bring planetary issues to bear.' Dickson also professes never to have had a career plan.

The 61 year old says he has been carried along by being 'totally occupied by what I'm doing at the time' - whether that be working with German architect/engineer Frei Otto on pioneering tensile fabric structures in the early 1970s, the Al Faisaliah Centre in Riyadh, the Weald & Downland Museum's timber gridshell near Chichester or British Airport Authority's Heathrow business centre.

A BEng at Cambridge led Dickson to postgraduate study at Cornell University in the US, where he met engineer Peter Rice. Rice introduced Dickson to Arup, where he worked as a project engineer on lightweight roof structures with Rice, Ted Happold and Arup partner Povl Ahm.

Dickson broke away from Arup with Happold in 1976, and spent 20 years as a design partner at Buro Happold, 'doing projects that any engineering firm would give their eye teeth for'. Dickson says the structural and civil engineering firm grew organically, but by the late 1980s it was becoming clear that it would have to expand far faster to keep 'the brightest and best of our new recruits engaged'. When Happold died in 1996 Dickson was elected as chairman of the partnership and set about accelerating Buro Happold's rate of expansion.

In the same way that the pioneering structural work done by Dickson and his colleagues became established over time in mainstream engineering, he wanted to give engineers specialising in areas like fire, security, transportation, geotechnics and software design the opportunity to develop their niche interests into substantial departments within Buro Happold's business. His reward has been to see the firm expand into a multi-disciplinary organism, capable of meeting all the challenges complex projects throw up.

Dickson's chairmanship of Buro Happold forced him to step away from designing. 'I was responsible for design of the Japanese pavilion at the Hanover Expo, and it nearly killed me, ' he says. He found himself fighting for enough time to manage the company at the same time as 'sorting out the crises of a project'. The pavilion was constructed of cardboard tubes, yet had to withstand snow and wind loading and satisfy German public entertainment regulations.

Freed of the chairman's responsibilities, Dickson is throwing himself back into hands on design, 'my great passion', as well as touring Buro Happold's 13 offices to conduct design reviews, again 'focused on the why, not just the how'.

Andrew Mylius

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.