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James O’Callaghan

He is a structural and facade engineer with over 20 years of experience & numerous awards under his belt… Widely acknowledged as an authority on structural glass, he is perhaps best known for his highly innovative designs for glass envelopes, stairs, bridges & other structural elements in Apple’s iconic retail stores around the world…

Here’s an insight into the brilliant mind of James O’Callaghan, Co-founder, Eckersley O’Callaghan…

You are known to be a formidable authority on the structural use of glass. What led you to choose this path?
I have been captivated by glass for my entire career as an engineer, and it’s a fascination I share with millions (whether they realize it or not) because the material forms the backbone of our built environment. It has been used since ancient times and is the fundamental gateway for light into our habitats.

The qualities of glass are relatively unique, particularly, in its transparency. However, it is the material properties, such as its purely elastic behavior which offer the potential for structural use in specific ways.

From my early career, I was exposed to opportunities to use glass in structures. I really got into the science of it and began to question its untapped potential, which subsequently led to our adventures in glass over the years. This curiosity is a fundamental part of being an engineer. I was curious about glass and it has proven to be an incredibly interesting material to build with.

In early 2004, Brian Eckersley and I formed the engineering consultancy Eckersley O’Callaghan (EOC). We had known each other from our previous endeavors and found ourselves looking for our next step. We both share a love of architecture and how structural engineering can best enhance it. This continues to be the motivation for everything that our practice does today.

It has been an immensely rewarding journey and I have had the privilege of collaborating with some very talented people while exploring the limits of structural glass. I firmly believe that innovation in engineering is the key to unlocking the potential of materials and, ultimately, the advancement of society.

Art and purpose are two elements that go hand in hand when it comes to usable structures. How do you decide and balance between creativity, technicality and purpose, (i.e., usable elements of the structure)?
Successful structures embody a sense of art as much as efficiently fulfilling their purpose. As engineers, we need to remember we are also artists and while technical requirements are crucial, creativity is what sets designs apart. Creative designs can attract attention, spark imagination, and inspire people. By incorporating creative elements, you can make the structure more engaging and memorable.

However, it is essential to ensure that the creative elements do not compromise the functional requirements of the structure. There needs to be rigor around the detailing, as well as a solid appreciation of the site, its conditions, external forces, and ultimately its purpose. All these parameters need to be analyzed in the context of a funnel toward an elegant solution.

Eckersley O’Callaghan is well-known for pushing the envelope further than anyone expects. Can you share with us what goes behind the scenes of such breathtaking structures and what challenges you face while creating and implementing your out-of-the-box designs?
We are creative thinkers and look for interesting ways to solve structural problems using appropriate materials, while also keeping an eye on alternative materials and how we can use them in the future. Many of our major successes have revolved around the development and use of structural glass and associated materials. We certainly leverage and exploit innovation and I think it is this that really sets us apart.

Whilst we are not completely different from other engineering companies, we do have much more of a focus on research and innovation as our core offering. We’re always looking to leverage internal research if it is appropriate to the challenge at hand. We are true believers that there is a right solution to any challenge and we have the willingness to exploit new ideas in order to deliver the right solution.

At EOC, we are fortunate to work in an environment where collaboration is at the heart of our culture and interest. We go to work to collaborate because it is working with others that brings the best out in anyone. Typically, as a cog in the design team engine, we have a duty to share our ideas about any particular design challenge in a coherent way, which may include everything from a discussion to a well-crafted presentation. The feedback to this exchange is the most important part of these discussions because that is how we take things forward iteratively to mutually find the best solution we can within the parameters set.

In your experience, what role does steel play in creating glass structures and how different is it from other building materials to work with?
Glass is produced industrially as a two-dimensional material. In order for it to become a structure, we have to connect it together to form a three-dimensional object. We cannot weld glass together, as we can with steel and that is one thing that sets these two materials apart. Therefore, steel has a significant part to play in glass structures because it is the best material to form connections. We can machine steel (and cast it) into many intricate forms in a way we simply can’t with a brittle material like glass. This allows us to really refine the steel connection language and function, which in turn allows us to develop sophisticated connections which have the least interruption to the overriding ambition of transparency in the glass structure itself.

According to you, is it possible to use glass as one of the major structural elements in seismic zone structures? If so, what extra measures does one need to take to make the structure sturdy and earthquake resistant; if not, which geological zones are best fitted for it?
We have successfully used glass in structures in high seismic zones including California and Japan, and as such, we know the challenges involved. Ultimately glass is a purely elastic material and having no plasticity means that we need to engineer a level of plasticity into the structural system where we expect seismic forces to go beyond that of the elastic limit of the glass. This is typically achieved through the connections of the glass, often with its interaction with an existing structure or foundation. We often also regularly employ base isolation systems where the structures are buildings and seismic mitigation is needed. This ensures the glass remains within manageable stress limits. An example of this is the Steve Jobs Theatre in Cupertino, California.

What are the latest technological advances that make the structural use of glass more feasible today?
A number of advancements in technology have significantly released opportunities for the ambitious use of structural glass over the last 30 years. Perhaps one of the most important of those is the development in computer processing power.

For example, we can now analyze solid finite element models in a fraction of the time with increasingly more accessible and developed software on an everyday personal computer. This has made it easier for us to predict the behavior of glass under different conditions and loading scenarios, thus, enabling us to be more refined in engineering, rather than needing to conduct many tests or make conservative assumptions that lead to overdesigned solutions.

In terms of fabrication, technology has made it possible to create complex glass shapes and structures that were previously difficult or impossible to produce. The processing of glass can now accommodate more accurate cutting, polishing, drilling and forming, all of which have massively benefitted from the advance in processing power.

Which is the best work you have done so far and which are the structures by others that inspire you the most?
Some of our best body of glass structures around the world are for Apple which was made possible due to the team that has grown with us. I look at it as a story of the evolution of structural glass over the past fifteen to twenty years. There are buildings within this collection that I particularly like, such as the Steve Jobs Theatre located at Apple Park in Cupertino, California, which is probably the most ambitious glass structure ever built, and the culmination of many years of experimentation through other buildings.

In the world of engineering, I am constantly amazed and influenced by the work of other structural engineers such as Schlaich(s), Knippers, Ney, Block and Dieste.

How is EOC working with the market in India?
In July 2021, we set up Eckersley O’Callaghan India Pvt. Ltd. to help us establish a stronger presence in India and to better support our local clients and collaborators. Our office in Delhi together with our London office has been involved in local projects of various scales providing structural and facade engineering services. These include Bharat Vandana Park in Delhi, the Athena retail and commercial complex in Gurugram, and Max Super Speciality Hospital in Delhi, as well as a number of private residential projects. Given our long-standing relationship with Apple, we are now involved in the development of their growing presence in India.

What message would you like to give to the young blood stepping into the industry and wanting to follow in the footsteps of the likes of you?
I am lucky enough to be a visiting professor at TU Delft in the Netherlands and so I get to speak to students a great deal. My advice has always been that they should never stop being curious and should never be concerned about expressing any ideas they have. Ideas are often fragile; it is important that they see the light of day because it is in those ideas that innovation and progress exist. The younger mind is a more fertile place, and as such, I encourage any student or young engineer to embrace this fact and speak out with their thoughts and ideas.

What is your mantra for success?
To put it in a single sentence, my mantra is to be optimistic with everything you take on; pessimism stifles innovation.

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