Anecdotes from Simone Starnini Head of Façade Engineering at Sir Robert McAlpine
One of the questions I always enjoy asking colleagues and people I meet for work is “How did you end up in Facades?”.
The answers I get are as diverse as one could possibly imagine, ranging from a clear focus on personal aspirations to a romantic attraction for a façade lecturer or simply pure coincidence. The latter matches perfectly my circumstances. Coincidence for me was in the form of a letter I found in my parents’ post box a few days after my graduation in Civil Engineering. It was my first (and only) invite for a job interview and it came from a company that specialized in “design, manufacturing and installation of bespoke curtain walling systems”, a combination of words I had never heard before.
I obviously replied enthusiastically and went for the interview. As it turned out, the business owner had a degree in Medicine and Surgery, with a post-graduate specialization in Psychiatry, and I ended up having my first job interview with a psychiatrist at the other end of a desk asking me to talk about myself.
I was definitely in for a great start.
About a quarter of a century later I am still thoroughly enjoying the journey, which I hope will still involve a number of exciting projects to work on and interesting people to work with. Projects and people.
It is sometimes difficult to explain what is so cool about facades, especially to people who have never been involved with its combination of architecture and engineering, or maybe engineering at the service of architecture. A comparison I like is the young boy passionate about football, who actually enjoys playing football, and finds himself playing in an international League with top players in cup finals….and even manages to score goals, or save some. Would he not be passionate about playing as many matches as possible and trying to do the best for the team?
Most of us remember with a smile their days as a student and surely, I’m no different. But, one of my clearest memories was an exam about the history of architecture and urbanism. One of the questions in that exam was about the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the work of a world-renowned architect. Quite a few moons after that exam I had the privilege of working with his practice on some of London’s most iconic projects, such as One Hyde Park, Guy’s Hospital and the Leadenhall Building. The young footballer is now playing in the Champions League finals and he’s taking home the cup!
Even the most glamorous projects, though, hide an untold side of hard work and challenges during their design and construction phase. Anecdotes would occupy many issues of this publication, but a few are worth remembering. During the delivery phase of King Health Partner Cancer Care at Guy’s Hospital, the site office was on the ninth (and last) floor of the existing hospital. Taking the lift to the office meant stopping at every floor, seeing people coming in and out of various wards with all sorts of health issues. That was in itself a powerful reminder to refocus on real priorities, especially when children with serious conditions entered the lift. As a father, that has always been hard to take in, however it has also been an additional push, an incentive to work even harder to contribute to building a new hospital where these people could be properly treated and return soon to their lives.
Building envelopes surely generate a mysterious charm, an attraction that keeps us at work till late or on weekends. It’s the same appeal that captures our eyes when we walk past a newly completed building, and it’s probably a combination of various disciplines we have crossed during our studies. Mechanical engineering, structural engineering, building physics, electromagnetism, optics, chemistry, and even mathematics, particularly in these days where algorithms seem to be the key to resolving many problems. There is another fundamental factor though, an adhesive matrix that holds together the various components, which is human interaction, the indispensable ingredient that makes the difference between just a project and a successful one.
Coming from a small village on the North-Eastern coast of Italy I would have never thought I would have met so many inspirational characters from such various backgrounds. I did not even know there was a country named “Lesotho” until a young man from that country with a degree in Engineering came for an interview…by far one of the most enlightening interviews of my life (no psychiatrists in sight this time) and the distinct feeling of betting on the right horse when offering him a job. His career in facades demonstrated once again that “people” make the difference between a successful project and just a project. Projects and people.
Two recently completed buildings could be considered exemplar in my view, a large medical research centre in central London, and a “wedge-shaped” office tower in the city. In both projects, a solid bond was established within the entire design team since the early tender stage, a bond grown and made stronger as the design developed. Everyone in the team was affected by what we called the “Concorde” feeling, the awareness we were part of a team tasked with designing and building a landmark, a one-off project, a piece of architecture, and most likely the most important project of our careers. Rivalry, one sided interests or antagonism never found their way into meetings. The entire design phase was long and complex, with inevitable bumps, but grounded on a solid pavement of joint effort, reciprocal support, empathy and synergies that extended even outside of the working hours. It should not surprise that still to date we meet regularly, for drinks, not for work. The young footballer is proud of his teammates.
Another fascinating aspect is the feeling of continuity that construction can give, the idea of leaving a noticeable trace of our work, playing a part in shaping the built environment that quite likely will outlive us.
Unsurprisingly, some of the largest or tallest buildings are visible from a distance. Window seats on planes flying over London during takeoff or landing are therefore perfect viewpoints. It is obvious then why I am not particularly talkative at the beginning or at the very end of flights in and out of London. I just can’t stop meticulously scrutinizing the capital’s urban fabric like a kid looking for the right piece of a jigsaw puzzle.
Surely the young footballer would be more interested in what’s coming next rather than reviewing old matches, so what is ahead of us?
As an engineer, I feel entirely represented by a quote from an American jurist (yes, a jurist), Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, who said: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity”. To me, that is exactly what engineers are there for, to find a way to simplify complex problems. Façade engineers are no different, our mission is to find technically viable solutions to allow architectural requirements to become practically feasible.
In façade training courses I often ask attendees why professional tennis players still make double faults after so many years of exercising and serving practice. The answer is very simple, because hitting a little ball in that square of the court as fast and angled as possible is extremely difficult. Equally, in facades, combining all various disciplines to achieve multiple demanding requirements is invariably complex and difficult, hence challenges can only be minimised but they are endemic to the process. Double faults are part of the game.
The continuous innovation in technology has provided us with powerful tools we could not even imagine a couple of decades ago. We now have new highly performing materials (hi-tech insulation, UHPC, Fibre Reinforced Polymers, etc.) and sophisticated computer programmes to run complex structural, thermal and fluid dynamics FE calculations. We can now design and build articulated spatial geometries and stretch materials to their maximum potential and the ultimate limit of their physical characteristics. The time also appears promising to start using these tools to support our safety and our health.
It would be great if we could think of a single computer file containing all the available information on a project, a 3D model that could be used at design stage to ascertain how the building will look and work, at tender stage to identify required performances and during the design phase to be implemented with additional parameters as the design develops. Tender documents would be a single BIM model with gates that won’t allow progress unless compliance with the requirements is granted.
A single “live” model could then collect every sensitive information on the building. This would serve a dual function, providing direct access to the “golden thread” which is so popular in the UK, and also keeping track in real time of the performance of the building during its service life. A variety of self-powered systems are now available to collect real time information of each and every façade unit, to be analysed by the building maintenance system and to adjust locally the input required from Mechanical and Electric systems.
The amount of information we could collect over the next thirty years would be invaluable to validate our current designs and to remove some of the uncertainties and risks involved with designing, manufacturing and installing bespoke facades.
A structured collection and analysis of available data would result in the identification of KPI’s to be monitored during the early design phase to make complex envelopes more predictable. Personally, I don’t see this as utopian or futuristic at all. A couple of Master or PhD dissertation studies might be sufficient to fine tune data analytics to be suited to façade monitoring and we could have another very powerful arrow in our quiver.
Bespoke and highly engineered facades are indeed complex systems and as such should be dealt with, as it commonly happens in other scientific disciplines (meteorology, astronomy, etc.). However, building envelopes also hold less scientific roles, such as shelter, protection, enclosure, appearance, attractiveness, cultural and geographic identity, acknowledgement, emphasis. When technology is complemented by emotions then young footballers can stop warming up, as it’s time to go on the pitch and play this match. Projects and people.
“Unsurprisingly, some of the largest or tallest buildings are visible from a distance. Window seats on planes flying over London during takeoff or landing are therefore perfect viewpoints. It is obvious then why I am not particularly talkative at the beginning or at the very end of flights in and out of London. I just can’t stop meticulously scrutinizing the capital’s urban fabric like a kid looking for the right piece of a jigsaw puzzle”
This article was originally published in IGS Magazines Winter 2021 Issue: Read the full Magazine here for more thought-leadership from those spearheading the industry
Simone Starnini is a Civil Engineer from the University of Bologna (Italy) and PennState University (USA). His career includes seven years with curtain walling specialist contractor Focchi, during which time he occupied senior positions and delivered a number of large and prestigious schemes in London and Singapore. These include the London Stock Exchange Building in Paternoster Square, a large city block on 30 Gresham Street, and the RBS building in Devonshire Square.
In 2005, Simone joined Laing O’Rourke to establish and run its Façade Engineering Department operating in the UK and internationally. He was responsible for delivering the envelope for world-class projects including One Hyde Park, The Leadenhall Building, the Francis Crick Institute, and Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospital.
In August 2019, Simone joined Main Contractor Sir Robert McAlpine to head their Façade Engineering Team and support tenders and projects throughout the UK.
Simone also represents SRM in the CWCT Board and Technical Committee and within the Society of Façade Engineering of which he is a fellow member.