“His passion for his work reflects in his work…
He has never settled for anything less than what he finds exciting… He is a man who pursuits fulfillment…
With decades of experience under his belt, He still truly enjoys every project he undertakes…
Here’s a sneak-peak into the brilliant mind of Francis Archer, Project Director, Arup, London.”
From a Ph.D. in physics to a structural engineer, what made you switch to this field after years of academic pursuit in a completely different subject?
I have always been fascinated by science, empirical physics, and mathematics, and I pursued them as far as I could. I completed a Ph.D. and engaged in some postdoctoral research. However, I found myself drawn to the most challenging questions, which I knew I wouldn’t be able to solve. Partly out of frustration with the difficulty of the subject and partly because I desired to settle in London, I realized that staying in academia would require me to pursue further postdoctoral positions primarily in America for several years before securing any permanent position. Additionally, I discovered that teaching was not a passion of mine- I was more inclined towards research. Considering these factors, I asked myself, “What else can I do?” That’s when I decided to transition into the field of structural engineering.
Arup is known across the globe for their majestic skyscrapers and unique designs. As you undertake a new project, what is the thought process that leads to such iconic designs?
Indeed, Arup has gained international recognition for its awe-inspiring skyscrapers and unique architectural designs. We strive to push the boundaries of innovation and create structures that captivate both visually and functionally. Our focus is not solely on erecting buildings but on crafting architectural marvels that leave a lasting impression. We combine cutting-edge technology, advanced engineering principles, and creative aesthetics to bring our designs to life. The result is a portfolio of remarkable structures that stand tall across the globe, making our group a symbol of excellence in the industry. As you embark on a new project, one’s thought process leads to the creation of these iconic designs. Designing iconic structures is a collaborative process that involves a collective effort rather than solely relying on one individual’s thoughts or the engineer’s expertise alone. Typically, we work in close collaboration with other professionals who possess complementary skills. For any building project, including the tallest skyscrapers, it is crucial to have a talented architect with whom the engineer enjoys working. The best results are achieved when architects show genuine curiosity and interest in the subject matter, including the structural aspects. Architecture and structure are intertwined, and both parties should be genuinely interested in each other’s domains. Ideally, this collaborative group extends beyond the architect and structural engineer and may include the client’s input as well. It is during the initial stages, often in competition scenarios where we have a blank canvas, that we come together as a team, bouncing ideas off each other, and envisioning the possibilities. This dynamic exchange of ideas can lead to wonderful outcomes. It is worth noting that our firm has had the privilege of designing structures all around the world, in multiple countries and every continent.
Arup has designed structures for almost every country of the world. Which country according to you is at the lead in the global steel construction industry and why? Where does India stand?
Steel as a preferred structural solution varies across nations. The trend initially started in the United States, particularly in New York, and some advanced countries like Germany, Sweden, and Denmark do not extensively use steel in construction. However, certain countries, such as Britain, particularly London, have a tradition of incorporating structural steelwork in commercial buildings. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in comparing all countries. Many countries we work with have advanced steel industries.
Having said that, the construction industry is undergoing changes due to the climate crisis. There is increasing pressure to reduce carbon emissions in buildings, which means a simple, fast, long-span steel structure may not be the most environmentally friendly option. We aim to utilize a mix of available materials, including concrete, post-tensioned steel tendons, steel connections and even timber and masonry, to create buildings with lower carbon footprints. This shift towards sustainable construction practices and the focus on reducing carbon emissions has led to a move away from frivolous designs and freeform geometries.
India is in a phase of rapid development that has gained momentum over the past decade. However, India is still in the process of finding its direction in terms of development. The country has to decide whether it aims for flashy and extravagant projects similar to Dubai or focuses on sensible, sustainable development with good architecture. Ideally, the latter approach is preferred, although there will always be a segment of the population seeking flashy and frivolous structures.
While steel has always been a significant component in India’s construction industry, it is not the norm for smaller buildings. However, steel has been extensively used in India due to its presence in infrastructure projects like railways. From the village welder who crafts furniture to the construction of massive super bridges, steel has been an integral part of India’s construction landscape.
As India moves forward and constructs multistory buildings in large numbers with higher specifications and faster timelines, steel is expected to play a crucial role in replacing in situ concrete structures. In this context, offsite fabrication emerges as a method that offers quality and speed, and steel becomes a significant player in this approach. However, it is important to consider the larger picture and the diverse mix of materials and industries involved in construction. It is not accurate to assume that buildings can be made entirely of steel, as concrete floors are still an integral part of most steel-framed buildings. The steel and concrete industries should collaborate and work together instead of being pitted against each other. By embracing joint, composite, and hybrid solutions, they can strive to deliver the best designs and products in the industry.
What role does technology play in structural steel construction?
Technology is completely changing the process of design and design communication, which is a positive development. India, in particular, is embracing this change as a significant amount of software development is happening there, and the population is very receptive to it. However, we must ensure that this focus on technology does not overshadow the importance of good engineering knowledge. While data management is a crucial aspect of our industry, engineers should not solely rely on data manipulation skills without a solid understanding of the fundamentals. It is important for our young engineers to be digitally savvy, but they should also not neglect their technical expertise. They need to comprehend the physics of how structures work, rather than solely relying on software that provides answers without a deep understanding. We do not expect everyone to perform all building calculations by hand, but they should be able to conduct basic checks and comprehend why their models behave in a certain way. It is a delicate balance we need to maintain.
What is your take on modular pre-engineered building structures?
My answer here relied on a definition of modular building as one whose design and construction are repeated many times at different locations. I understand that this is not what the term “PEB” building typically refers to in India, where PEB is used to denote an offsite pre-fabricated building. Recently, I have been involved in an exciting project with Indian Railway, focusing on modular stations. While there might be a few other examples, I believe that modular construction is particularly sensible in certain cases.
It works well in industrial engineering, for instance, in industrial sheds and railway go-downs. In the context of buildings and architecture, modular construction is suitable for places like railway tracks where the platforms, concourses, and roofs can be modular. In India, we have hundreds of stations with multiple platforms and long trains, making it essential to efficiently move passengers off the platforms into waiting rooms. The logical place to build these waiting rooms is above the tracks. Over the past couple of years, we have been developing modular systems specifically for Indian Railways, and we are currently working on a prototype in Delhi. We hope that this approach gains traction. Modular design differs significantly from traditional steel design and building procurement, as it involves buying a product. When one is dealing with the same design for multiple stations, it becomes possible to automate the design process. However, the challenge lies in streamlining the procurement. The solution involves establishing pre-qualified framework agreements with suppliers who are knowledgeable about the system. If we can achieve this, we can significantly expedite the construction process and potentially build a large number of stations in a relatively short period.
What, according to you, is the impact of tall buildings on the environment?
While I personally have not been heavily involved in tall buildings, our firm has been at the forefront of designing them. There are arguments for and against tall buildings. The super tall structures, like the Burj Khalifa, are often considered frivolous landmarks that serve no practical purpose. However, cities like Hong Kong or Manhattan, with their numerous tall buildings, offer environmental advantages by reducing commuting distances and increasing city density.
This densification helps decrease travel requirements. We must focus on constructing efficient and sensible tall buildings rather than indulging in frivolous designs. Architects must have a genuine interest in the structural engineering challenges that come with constructing tall buildings. Without this interest, it is unlikely that the building will be successful. As for technology, when I started my career as a structural engineer, we initially had shared PCs in the office. Gradually, the reliance on computers increased, and eventually, almost all work was done on computers. However, I believe that while digital technology is a powerful tool, it should not change the fundamental way we think about structures. The principles of engineering should always govern our designs, rather than being limited by software capabilities. Personally, I enjoy working on small buildings because they allow for more control and the possibility of achieving perfect design. While larger buildings are necessary for business purposes, smaller structures provide the opportunity to create beautiful and flawless designs.
What is your opinion on green buildings and sustainability efforts?
It is about looking at the lifetime pollution that these buildings are causing in the form of global warming gases. There is a lot of talk in the developed world on this subject, and it comes up in near every conversation in Arup now. I’m on occasion skeptical, as I feel that some of this is a greenwashing agenda where one has to say the right things. I personally believe that we have to do everything we can and accelerate everything we can to make lower-polluting buildings and lower-polluting infrastructure. Having said that we can’t completely stop the economic world going around.
There is a very delicate balance between creativity and purpose. What is your advice for the younger generation of structural designers?
My advice to all the young generation is to find something you enjoy doing and pursue it; of course, that’s easier said than done because part of the enjoyment comes after you pursue it. Ambition can be a double-edged sword and hierarchy and promotion can be a corrosive tool. There is no need for it. If you are enjoying what you are doing, you are getting fulfillment from what you are doing, then you are succeeding. Some people will be naturally faster than others while some people will be naturally brighter than others. But you shouldn’t worry with that. You should worry yourself that you are getting fulfilled, that you are enjoying the work and getting fulfillment from the work. And then you have reached success. Even if your bank balance isn’t full, that is still a success.
What is your mantra for success?
Success is fulfillment. It is fulfillment and the feeling that what you are doing in your waking hours is interesting and useful. Promotion in itself might give you some opportunities to be more fulfilled if that’s the case but it might do the opposite- it might make you become a desk guru or something you do not want to do. So, success is the positive feeling you feel every evening after a day’s work or every morning as you gear up to make a dream structure.