Brief Encounters - Royal Academy of Engineering's new Enterprise Hub

Veronica Simpson visits the Royal Academy of Engineering to discover how it has made its commitment to mentoring young engineer entrepreneurs more than virtual with its new £4.1m Enterprise Hub.

The UK is suffering a massive shortage of engineers – this fact has been in the headlines fairly consistently in the past decade. But who can blame youngsters for failing to realise what a great career engineering offers?

What discipline does this even tap into in our current GCSE and A-level curriculum? Physics and maths are obviously key, but none of their engineering applications are flagged up at school. Of course, there’s Design Tech – but how many schools now teach that? And do engineers themselves do enough to demonstrate exactly how this complex specialism sits within the design family – or within the wider world, in general?

While so much focus is put on the architects, the most celebrated buildings of today couldn’t have been constructed without the involvement of skilled and creative engineers – never mind the bridges, stations and transport infrastructure. As for product design, many of the household items that have won an eternal place in our hearts – such as cordless kettles or Dyson vacuum cleaners – could not have happened without the spark of inspiration from their engineer inventors. So, hats off to the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) for realising that there is a key role to play in mentoring young entrepreneurs, and doing their bit to make engineering seem – dare I say – as sexy as it clearly was in the Victorian era, when we turned the creators of our sewers (Bazalgette), tunnels and railway bridges (Brunel) into heroes.

Basement space at the RAE off of Pall Mall has been transformed by Wright & Wright into its Enterprise HubBasement space at the RAE off of Pall Mall has been transformed by Wright & Wright into its Enterprise Hub

The RAE’s Enterprise Hub was launched a few years back, connecting esteemed Fellows to young engineering graduates and PHD students with innovative ideas, but none of the contacts necessary to get them off the ground.

It remained a virtual entity, until earlier this year, when Wright & Wright Architects completed the restoration and refurbishment of two (and a bit) floors of disused basement at the RAE’s opulent HQ: two conjoined white, John Nash-designed, Grade I listed mansions, on Carlton Terrace, just behind Pall Mall (for non-Londoners, that’s the road that leads to Buckingham Palace).

The physical presence of the new £4.1m Enterprise Hub means that they can take the online connections and mentoring to the next level, bringing in venture capitalists and other specialists to meet here and support the budding inventors, across all professional fields. Says Wright & Wright partner Stephen Smith: ‘A lot of (the innovation) is product design. A lot of it is in medical. A lot of it is in computing technology, and these young engineers haven’t got the connections or the means to start their businesses.’ Now, those on the mentoring programme (for which they have to apply) have access to some really lush hot-desk, meeting and event spaces.

It may not look as flashy as some of the glass and steel pavilions that fill the pages of architecture magazines, but the work involved in the Hub was a really complex project of unravelling the boxy, cellular additions of the past two centuries which had fouled up the original, beautiful brick vaults. These elegant arches have been revealed in full, sometimes as double-height ceiling voids, improving daylighting and legibility.

To highlight the sculptural qualities of the restored vaulted ceilings, and bring in as much light as possible, they have been skimmed with white plaster. The restrained background palette of white walls and ceiling, with grey carpet, is offset by the warmth of bespoke cabinetry and furniture, and some nicely chosen contemporary art pieces. In the double height central hub space, which acts as a foyer and meeting point, Wright & Wright sourced furniture from Vitra, Magnus Long and James Burleigh to convey the right tone of crisp, contemporary informality. Smaller meeting rooms of varying size occupy the restored vaults, their services and state-of-the-art AV equipment concealed behind oak screens and cabinets, detailed to soften the acoustics. Near the meeting rooms, a break-out space supports hot-desking or co-working, looking out onto two newly revived courtyard spaces.

The space's vaults with barrelled ceilings and bespoke cabinetry now house small meeting areasThe space's vaults with barrelled ceilings and bespoke cabinetry now house small meeting areas

A new commercial kitchen was added, boosting the RAE’s ability to cater for all manner and scale of events – a key source of revenue - in the grand rooms of the upper floors

Wright & Wright’s speciality is the sensitive restoration and enhancement of ancient buildings, which often means that the really skillful work that has gone on – removing what isn’t necessary to enhance what is most beautiful – seems invisible. And a lot of this, aptly enough, requires an understanding of the vital role of engineering. One of the most important but demanding elements (especially given the fact that the RAE had to remain open throughout) in the scheme was a new connecting corridor, which has been precision cut through the mezzanine-floor's brick vaults, creating a direct link between the buildings.

In addition, a services engineering feat was required when it came to rainwater drainage. Says Smith: ‘In the basement there is no way you can stop water coming in. We provided a drain cavity, so when water comes down there’s a channel that is hidden in the floor and it gets pumped away.’ It was also something of a challenge, Smith says, given the building’s Grade I listing, to convince the relevant authorities to let them dig trenches beneath the basement to bring air and services through. It says a lot for Wright & Wright’s negotiating skills that it was eventually allowed to create the necessary openings, in order to retain the vaults. The negotiation process took a year, while the actual structural and architectural work took only nine months.

At the opening, the building was filled with prototypes and finished products the RAE was assisting through its mentoring scheme – something which would have made the Hub’s key funder very proud: Dr John Taylor – best known for his invention of the bi-metallic thermostatic controls used in cordless kettles.

All Images: Helene Binet

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