With the passing of Max Fordham, Britain has lost an icon of sustainable design and environmentally friendly engineering. Stephen Hitchins examines his life and legacy.
SOME OF the comments that appeared following the announcement of this year’s RIBA Stirling Prize shortlist were not very nice. ‘My word, this is the worst Stirling shortlist ever, by some distance. Not a decent scheme amongst them, terrible indictment of British architecture and its fall from grace into the mire of D and B, project manager meh rubbish. Makes me really sad.’ ‘I kept scrolling to see if any would inspire or excite but, alas, no!’ ‘Is this really the best we can do?’ ‘Another no on so many levels...’ ‘I’m sure the community centre has redeeming qualities but...’
Two on that list were the New Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge, by Níall McLaughlin Architects, and the new Sands End Arts and Community Centre in London designed by Mae Architects. Sands End is a collaborative development with a ‘loose fit’ flexible interior, as adaptable and recyclable as possible, comprising several new connected pavilions arranged around an existing disused building that had become a popular landmark, and was refurbished as an exhibition space as part of the same project. The new library building had drawn references to the work of Louis Kahn and McLaughlin’s own work at Somerville, Oxford.
Recycled bricks from construction waste were used for the external walls at Sands End Arts and Community Centre. Image Credit: RORY GARDINER
What the comments sadly reinforced was the inevitable knee-jerk reactions that plumb the depths of envy, malice, and hate in the age of abusive messages on social media. Unwavering fury of people with a score to settle find new life in social media storms. No matter than Simon Allford, president of the RIBA, had noted that, ‘as we grapple with housing, energy and climate crises, these projects give cause for optimism, each offering innovative solutions to the challenges of today and the future’. This is not the year of the optimist. Yet innovative solutions to the challenges of today and the future from a list of both new and established names, all firms that had never previously won the Stirling Prize, are surely something to celebrate.
What those cheap comments, based no doubt on a couple of Instagram photographs, had failed to do was look beyond the façade. Constructive criticism is beyond such comment. Instant defenestration gives some people a thrill. Seeing beyond the glittering novelty of form to assess and promote the positive effects the design of new buildings can bring to society and the wider world remains in a hopeless battle with those who are blind to environmental consciousness, and to looking beyond the surface appearance of anything. Reflecting on the depressing economic prospects facing this country and many parts of the world, I am reminded of a line in PG Wodehouse’s ‘Much Obliged, Jeeves’. The narrator – that Boris Johnson-like figure Bertie Wooster – sinks back in his chair, face buried in hands. ‘It is always my policy to look on the bright side,’ he says, ‘but in order to do this you have to have a bright side to look on…’
The Entopia Building in Cambridge is a world first for a deep retrofitted sustainable office building that sets new standards for low energy use, carbon emissions and impact on natural resources. Image Credit: CISL
Well, there is a bright side. As Allford hinted, you just have to look for it, beyond Instagram. The biggest surprise package on the horizon that does not appear on that RIBA shortlist, and the most significant project for the future, is the least photogenic imaginable – a 1930s telephone exchange in Cambridge, the sort of building that was new about the time the electric fireplace became the basis of civilisation. Entopia is a word with a history. It is the name of a butterfly farm in Malaysia; in Greece, a natural food company; and in New Zealand, a motion graphics firm. The farm in Penang chose the name because, they assure us, entopia means ‘an idyllic and magical destination that helps people reconnect with nature’. According to others, it means ‘a green alien or ghost that invades your dreams’. However, way back in the 1960s, Constantinos Doxiadis, the celebrity architect and planner of the day, coined a number of terms, and entopia was one of them. ‘What human beings need is not utopia (no place) but entopia (in place), a real city which they can build, a place which satisfies the dreamer and is acceptable to the scientist. A place where the projections of the artist and the builder merge.’ Now, in Cambridge, it is the name given to the new home for the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) at 1 Regent Street. It is the UK’s largest office refurbished to a passive energy standard (EnerPHit) and the first to combine EnerPHit, BREEAM Outstanding and WELL standards for sustainability, health and wellbeing. It is a world-first for a retrofitted sustainable office building setting new standards for low energy use, carbon emissions and impact on natural resources as well as user experience and wellbeing measured against multiple benchmarks. As such it exemplifies and enables CISL’s mission to support and inspire the leadership and innovation needed to transition to a sustainable economy.
An interior shot of the MAXXI in Rome
Seizing on the opportunity to retrofit its own building, Tim Forman, a course director for the sustainability leadership for the built environment postgraduate programme, summed up the situation during construction: ‘Decarbonising a building requires investment, fine-tuning and thoughtful operation and maintenance. The cost and complexity of retrofitting, particularly “deep retrofitting”, to achieve low or zero operational carbon emissions, are challenges vast enough to fuel a “space race” of innovation and development in the building sector. Deep retrofitting requires buildings to be treated as complex systems, in which energy, air and moisture flows are managed together to reduce carbon intensity – we need to develop industry’s capacity to do this cheaply and effectively.’
It should come as no surprise that Max Fordham was appointed to deliver the M&E engineering, sustainability, Passivhaus, wellbeing and acoustics consultancy for the delivery of the building. As Gwilym Still, the Passivhaus leader at Fordham, has said, ‘It is an exciting example of what can be achieved with a combination of an engaged client, a forward-looking brief, and a design and delivery team who commit to building for the climate emergency.’
Environmental engineering has been the core business of the firm for over 50 years. Max Fordham started his own practice in a spare bedroom in 1966. He was 33. After Dartington Hall and national service in the Fleet Air Arm, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge where he met Leslie Martin, architect of the Royal Festival Hall and head of the university’s architecture department. Martin suggested engineering as a career, and within four years Max went to work for Weatherfoil Heating Systems, where he also met his future wife, Thalia. She later introduced Max to her landlord. Here the angel of history appears. It was Philip Dowson. One of Ove Arup’s partners, Dowson worked in the firm’s Building Group that integrated the skills of architects, quantity surveyors and services engineers. He needed a heating engineer, and offered Fordham a job. Three years later Dowson was one of the partners responsible for turning the Building Group into the architectural practice, Arup Associates. There Fordham had to get to grips with drawing services in complete detail. Later, Fordham took on the public health and electrical services as well, so the services disciplines could be represented by just one person at meetings.
On especially bright days in the Musée d’Arts de Nantes, blinds close to preserve the artworks from any damage from the sun. Image Credit: HUFTON + CROW
Three years after that, Fordham left to set up his own business in the bedroom. It was one of the first firms in the UK to conceive of building services as a single discipline, combining previously siloed trades. As Fordham said in 2017: ‘I remember going to meetings with engineers for electrical, public health and mechanical ventilation – it seemed bonkers.’ Instead, his office would be a onestop shop. Very soon, the work outgrew their home and the Fordhams moved out to share a building with the architect Ted Cullinan. In 1974, the practice became Max Fordham & Partners. In the years since, the firm has grown to about 200 engineers in five offices around the UK, an employee-owned business over half of whom are partners. In 2001, it became Max Fordham LLP, the first business in the British construction industry to become a Limited Liability Partnership. Phil Armitage, one of the directors, commented on those five offices: ‘Being on the ground helps win business. We would win it even if we were not here, but not nearly as much as we do. We certainly would not be able to sustain the amount of work that we do in Scotland, for example, without having an office there.’ The Edinburgh office opened on the back of Telford College, completed in 2006, designed by HOK, the largest purpose-built college in Scotland for over 30 years, at the same time as Fordham’s project for the Bridge Arts Centre at Easterhouse was opened, and the National Museum of Scotland was underway (both Gareth Hoskins Architects).
There is an art to being a good client. Good clients build good projects and pay good fees. Never was that more true. Sitting in Cambridge, Phil Armitage is just a short walk from several of the firm’s major projects. ‘By setting up in various locations we managed to keep the benefits of a smaller community with the stability of a larger organisation. Setting up in Cambridge, for example, was not a particularly brave thing to do as we had several projects in the city. Yes, you can service it from London, and we have done that for a long time, but the colleges do like people to be readily available within hailing distance. Over 20 years, we have worked for most of the colleges and the university and that has been very successful. They are good clients because they take the long view, so they can make sensible decisions.’
Controlled natural lighting to the Musée d’Arts de Nantes is provided through rooflights, reducing energy consumption. Image Credit: HUFTON + CROW
Despite being responsible for a considerable body of work outside the UK, the firm has not established offices overseas. Projects such as the Arter Gallery in Istanbul with Grimshaw, Musée d’Arts de Nantes with Stanton Williams, Levantis Art Gallery in Cyprus and the development of environmental design, electrical infrastructure, photovoltaic energy, stormwater drainage and water supply for a village in Burundi (both with Feilden Clegg Bradley), and in Norway (the Kistefos Sculpture Park with BIG), have not tempted the firm to maintain a permanent presence abroad. No stranger to working with big names on a range of projects, Fordham has maintained a strong relationship with the creative powerhouse that was and is Zaha Hadid’s practice. From the Tour Generali, and CityLife Shopping District above Tre Torri metro station in Milan (2018), to the Napoli Afragola high speed station (2017), and the Investcorp building, an extension to the Middle East Centre at St Antony’s College, Oxford (2015), ‘we had the great fortune of working with her and her colleagues on a range of projects…and we are deeply proud of that association’.
Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI (the Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo) won the Stirling Prize in 2010. It is a national museum of contemporary art, that along with MACRO (the Museo di arte contemporanea di Roma) designed by Decq and Cornette, are the Italian capital’s flagship contemporary art museums. The MAXXI was built on the site of the Montello military barracks and wrote its name into the history of architecture as soon as it was built. Like the Guggenheim Bilbao, it is a work of sculpture cherishing grandeur and elegance – both buildings being considered by many to be the best their creative spirits have ever produced. However, neither building exactly cherish their contents. Neither of them favours the slow and measured contemplation of works of art – which is their purpose. They are all about spectacle and display, and changing perceptions of their respective cities. They were designed to make a noise. In that, they succeeded.
The Stephen A Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities, University of Oxford. Image Credit: HOPKINS ARCHITECTS LIMITED
Nevertheless, at MAXXI, the clear, fluid architectural spaces have been emphasised by hiding away the engineering that makes the building work. It is rare to see blue sky in a modern gallery, but here the roof serves as an intricate array of shading devices to modulate and filter the daylight and buffer spaces to manage heat gain. The vent, shading and duct design all add to the impact of the design concept. With 2,600 sq m of glass, unmanaged daylight could harm the artwork and be inefficient in its demand for energy. The roof serves as an intricate array of shading devices and buffer spaces to manage daylight and heat gain to exacting standards. This connection to nature delivers the architect’s dynamic spaces and a feeling of wellbeing inside the building. In hot, sunny climates, natural processes alone cannot deliver the environment that artwork and people enjoy. A high efficiency air-conditioning plant has therefore been integrated into the very fabric of the building, so nothing is on show. These systems allow the internal environment to change in response to the changing of the seasons, further reducing energy cost.
There is never a silver lining without a cloud. For most professional services organisations that cloud is often management blight: the unending process of reports, meetings, agreements, finance, mission statements, process, procedures, presentations, targets, tenders, and timelines, especially when running a multi-location, multi-disciplinary business. And, on top of everything else, you have to prepare those presentations, travel, win business and manage people. It can be quite uncomfortable. That is one reason why so many professional services business do not survive through many generations, especially architects and designers. At Fordham, Armitage explained, ‘people who have grown up with the practice have been running the practice. They’ve done it because it needed doing or they have a particular enthusiasm for it. We have become more formal about it now, and at director/ management level [the business side of things] is often executed by people who are not engineers.’ Today, the largest specialist M&E consultancy in the UK has 48 people working in administration. That growth, Armitage continued, ‘presents a challenge, but it has been worth it. We have grown to around 250 people and will continue to grow organically. It’s more about giving opportunity to people in the practice than creating a mega business. You have to be viable to survive, and you want to have influence and be successful, but growing a business for the sake of it is something that has never really interested anyone in particular, it has never been a driving force for the business. Max was all about passion for engineering. The business just happened. What we are all about as an organisation is having influence to make a difference. It’s driven by enthusiasm.’
The entrance hall to Lambeth Palace Library and Archive. Image Credit: HUFTON + CROW
The connection to Dowson and other former colleagues such as Peter Foggo, plus the links formed with Cullinan, served the Fordhams well. Fordham would later work with Ted Cullinan on the RMC headquarters in Surrey, ‘an exemplar of sustainability’ in 1991, given Grade II listing in 2014. With all the small projects that a new business takes on in order to survive and become established, those contacts paid dividends. In 1963, a group of five three-storey, three-bedroom terraced houses in Winscombe Street, Dartmouth Park, were designed by Neave Brown to the Parker Morris space standards that had just been published (and that within five years would become mandatory for all council housing). The project was built on behalf of a small cooperative housing association whose membership comprised the architect himself and four of his friends, plus their respective families. One of them was the engineer Tony Hunt, who went on to become a leading structural expressionist of high-tech architecture. By the time the building was completed in 1965, Hunt and another member had left to be replaced by the architects Ed Jones (latterly of Dixon Jones) and Michael and Patty Hopkins, with whom Fordham would later work on a science centre at Abingdon School, and currently a centre for the humanities at Oxford University, due for completion in 2025.
In terms of materials, details and plan, Winscombe Street was the prototype for later schemes by Neave Brown, when he joined Sidney Cook’s architect’s department at the newly-formed London Borough of Camden, one of the most architecturally ambitious and innovative local authorities in the country. Alexandra Road (designed 1968, built 1973– 78) was the most famous. It was also the breakout project for Fordham. The building itself forms an acoustic barrier from the railway it backs onto, while it’s orientation embraces ‘free’ heat and daylight from the sun. The innovative heating system had pipes embedded in the structural concrete walls to ensure that heating was as economical as possible and to hide everything away. It was the first post-war housing estate to become listed. Once seen as futuristic, then as anathema, it is one of Cook’s 38 housing projects at Camden that are now viewed with nostalgia, left to grace coffee table books on residential landscapes. The extraordinary run of architectural achievement would prove short-lived.
The interior of the Tate St Ives gallery. Image Credit: HUFTON + CROW
Prior to that Fordham’s first major project had been the 918 local authority flats in the inner city district of Hulme in Manchester, four seven-storey deck-access crescent blocks that was one of the largest housing complexes of its kind in Europe, and seen as a municipal dream when it was completed in 1971, representing the best of modern social housing. Designed by the architectural partnership of Hugh Wilson and J. Lewis Womersley they were nevertheless demolished in 1994, the system-built structure was a disaster, the blocks had been erected too quickly and their construction had been inadequately supervised. Nevertheless the heating system Fordham drew up in minute detail as opposed to the outline plans usually given to contractors at the time cemented his reputation for the design of services with architects.
While at Arups, Max had worked on the conversion of a disused malthouse in the fens of East Anglia into a concert hall, the centrepiece of the Aldeburgh Festival, since 2006 known as Aldeburgh Music. The Maltings at Snape was not only a visual success but also an aural one. The great interest and strength of Fordham in designing buildings in which sound was a critical consideration was of course that, as in the case of structure and services, acoustics could be considered continually in parallel with other aspects which make up a building design. When a suite of new spaces at Snape was designed in the 1990s by Penoyre & Prasad, Fordham was again retained as services engineers. Later still, the environmental design for the Britten- Pears Archive in Aldeburgh was undertaken for an award-winning building by Stanton Williams, a sustainable archive that houses the extensive collection of music manuscripts, letters, photographs and recordings.
Interior view of the New Library, Magdalene College in Cambridge Image Credit: NICK KANE
More recently, another Max Fordham library project in line for awards this year was designed by Wright & Wright at Lambeth Palace. A red-brick bunker close to St Thomas’ Hospital and Westminster is the new home to a 400-year-old collection that includes lavish illuminated texts and the execution warrant of Mary Queen of Scots. It is the most important religious archive in the UK and, after the Vatican in Rome, the largest in Europe. At last this precious hoard will be preserved in a stable environment for which Fordham provided MEP, acoustics, lighting and sustainability consultancy from project inception to completion. The firm had previously worked with Wright & Wright on the redevelopment of the Geffrye Museum (now the Museum of the Home) and a home for miniatures at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester.
Max pursued a new approach to engineering based on his insatiable curiosity about how buildings work. This led to many inventions and innovations across a wide range of sectors, from social housing to galleries, office buildings to concert halls. A unique, ambitious, seven-sided theatre-in-the-round, designed within the grand Edwardian Cotton Exchange in Manchester, the Royal Exchange Theatre designed by Levitt Bernstein was a vision for an immersive theatrical experience for both audience and actors. The project was a true collaboration, and through a constant exchange of ideas, a building slowly emerged – a building within building that looked like a NASA lunar module. All of the services were fully exposed, in sympathy with the architecture. The hot air supply reached the theatre from a remote plant room via ducts, designed in recurring tree-like patterns that made an essential contribution to the visual impact of the building. More recently, in the Theatre Royal in Glasgow, the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool, and the Playhouse in Leeds, the firm has specialised in the M&E for theatres old and new.
The New Library, Magdalene College at night. Image Credit: HUFTON + CROW
The partnership of Eldred Evans and David Shalev was formed in 1965 to enter a number of competitions. Neave Brown invited them to work on two buildings at Alexandra Road and thus the connection to Fordham was made. Evans won a competition in 1968 for a major comprehensive school, Bettws High School near Newport, Gwent, and then completed a sequence of major commissions including the Truro Courts of Justice (1986–1988), the Tate Gallery, St Ives (1990–1993) and the Library at Jesus College, Cambridge (1995). Fordham worked with them in Newport (where conduits threaded through preformed holes in the structural columns, so that sockets appeared to emerge seamlessly from the concrete), Truro and St Ives where the main material for the project was daylight, thus glazing apertures were designed like a camera lens to control the daylight reaching the artworks, and glazing panels incorporating ultraviolet filters and specially designed fluorescent lights and blinds were installed to enhance the unique light of the dramatic coastal setting.
The relationship with the Tate continued with the extension to St Ives (Jamie Fobert 1993), the major refurbishment to Millbank (Caruso St John 2013) with custom-designed lighting fixtures integrated with a daylight system, external ventilation shades responding to changes in the conditions via lux-level sensor-controls, plus the roof has a fixed shading system integrated into the glazing that allows the galleries to be filled with natural light; and the Switch House at Tate Modern (Herzog de Meuron 2016) where the brief required the building to be ‘agenda setting’ and to take a ‘leading role in sustainability’ that resulted in an energy demand of 50 per cent less than for a typical gallery.
The practice went on to work with Caruso St John again at the Newport Street Gallery for Damien Hirst, providing engineering, lighting and acoustics services, and currently with Jamie Fobert on the biggest redevelopment of the National Portrait Gallery since it first opened its doors to the public in 1896, due for completion in 2023. Of the many other gallery projects, the cultural highlight of 2021 was the Courtauld Institute and Gallery (with Witherford Watson Mann), the most significant redevelopment since its relocation to Somerset House turning the formerly fragmented and idiosyncratically complex warren of spaces into a coherent building, historically literate and institutionally aware.
The concert hall at Snape Maltings on the banks of the River Alde in Suffolk. Image Credit: MATT JOLLY
As with Cambridge University, Armitage says it is the ‘long-standing relationships, such as Tate and Sevenoaks School where we have worked for over 15 years across several buildings, where you evolve ideas over a series of projects and buildings, build up trust with a client that allows you to generate some change that is beneficial over time…When you are able to demonstrate savings in running costs by making an investment in the building, [you can make] the economic argument to developers and present it to those who might not otherwise be interested because of their short term objectives. That’s why only clients who can take a longer view are even better clients as you get more sensible outcomes. Yield to balance long term benefits over short term pain really does help promote good long term energy efficient design.’
In the shade of the yew trees at Magdalene College, Cambridge, the Pepys Library could not be altered. The diarist gave strict instructions that his library ‘be kept intact for posterity, without addition or subtraction’; its contents arranged ‘according to height’ in the bespoke glass-fronted bookcases he had especially commissioned. The responsibility came with an added threat: if one volume went missing, the whole library must be transferred to Trinity. The sanctity of Pepys’ collection meant that a functional library for students to study in always took second place, tucked into cramped side rooms of the 17th century Grade I-listed building. The new Magdalene library, by contrast, is an accomplished reinterpretation of tradition. ‘Settled’ was the adjective that the then-master of the college, Dr Rowan Williams, kept returning to during the design process, to describe how he wanted the library to feel – a place that would delicately traverse the college’s traditional identity as an ancient community with a conservative character and something both new and timeless, and that the function of a college library is to be a domestic place of study rather than an institutional cathedral of learning. The result, according to Simon Allford, is ‘a solid and confident, yet deferential new kid on the college block’. He was speaking at the RIBA Stirling Prize award ceremony on 13 October at which the library was announced the winner. Allford described the building as ‘the epitome of how to build for the long-term’ saying that it offers universities ‘an exemplary model to aspire to’. Picking up on Williams’ aspiration for the new library, Níall McLaughlin commented: ‘It is a challenge to make a building that is distinctly modern that speaks about aspiration and what the college is going to be like in the future, [when] at the same time the building next door to you is the Pepys Library. You have to try to make a building that feels settled and fit into that context. Getting that right is a challenge.’ Facing the Fellows’ Garden, the library takes an almost Jacobean form, filtered through a stripped, modernist lens.
The new staircase inserted into Tate Britain at Millbank. Image Credit: HELENE BINET
With its ventilation chimneys, gabled roofs, skylights and bright interior of wood and exposed brick, this library is decidedly modern with a nod to its 17th century neighbour. The grid of chimneys support the floors and bookshelves while carrying warm air upwards and high vaulted windows allow natural light to flood in. Presenting exceptional engagement with environmental design principles, its predicted energy performance exceeds the RIBA 2030 benchmark to be one of the best performing buildings of this year’s submissions, and one of the best in terms of whole-life carbon considerations. It offers a more comfortable and spacious place to study, catering to all tastes, from extrovert to recluse. A mix of large tables, cosy corners, windows to gaze out of, and one highly visible reading desk known as the prima donna: for the student who wants everyone to see that they are actually doing some work. The building has received rave reviews from students.
However, of all the projects Fordham is working on today that have most significance for the future of buildings, it is the Entopia Building in Cambridge that holds the key. Armitage reflects: ‘1 Regent Street is really important, because it is looking at the elephant of the room. Designing new ultra efficient low carbon buildings is challenging, but it is not the issue. The big issue is all the existing buildings…Developing commercial approaches to improving existing buildings, CISL is one example of how that might be done. Understanding the challenges, generating some insight into solutions to the problem that can be easily applied to other buildings once you have done that initial research is why I think it is an important project.’
The science and technology building and 6th form centre at Sevenoaks School. Image Credit: HELENE BINET
Looking back, Armitage continually observed that ‘Max was driven by a passion for doing things really well’. He explained: ‘The practice is based on three ideas. You should look at problems anew, go back to first principles, and develop really good solutions to those problems. Secondly, quality of design is really important and makes a difference to the quality of the product and the quality of people’s lives. It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of time to create something that is simple and elegant. Thirdly, you should treat people decently as individual human beings. The combination of those three things led to the team being what it is today…Max was pretty courageous actually. He was driving change in the industry, driving change in the approach to the design of building services… his ideas were considered revolutionary and even dangerous by some. He celebrated them. But some people thought they were a bit too scary. In those early days, the larger firms all wanted everything faster…He got on really well with people who were passionate about design and passionate about changing things for the better. I think that never sits well with commercially-driven practices that need to work quickly in order to generate their profits.’
Does he have an unfulfilled dream? ‘One of the biggest problems at the moment is getting thermal mass in lightweight buildings. I think water is an amazing material and so implementing water as active thermal mass in a lightweight building is something that I have got close to in Cambridge, but it was not quite the pure application of it that I was interested in.’ One day.
If you ask what makes Max Fordham’s partnership tick, it would probably produce the Alec Guinness response to that question; I wasn’t aware that I was ticking. But ticking Fordham certainly is. Engineering has reinvented itself and this firm has played no small part in leading those changes. It is never all about intelligence. It’s about passion, enthusiasm and endurance. And never giving up.