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Structured lives

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14 Nov 2008

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Beneath the surface fanfare for leading architects and designers lie a team of structural engineers who transform architectural visions into buildable reality.&nbsp; We chat to David Narro for the inside track on this Scottish success story.<br/>
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Widespread press coverage for &ldquo;A Gathering Space&rdquo; at the Venice Biennial has brought international attention to Scottish architects, notably Gareth Hoskins. But architecture is only one half of the story. David Narro heads David Narro Associates, a team of consulting structural and civil engineers.&nbsp; David reveals the challenges and motivations&nbsp; that drive those involved behind the scenes.


Beneath the surface fanfare for leading architects and designers lie a team of structural engineers who transform architectural visions into buildable reality.  We chat to David Narro for the inside track on this Scottish success story.

Widespread press coverage for “A Gathering Space” at the Venice Biennial has brought international attention to Scottish architects, notably Gareth Hoskins. But architecture is only one half of the story. David Narro heads David Narro Associates, a team of consulting structural and civil engineers.  David reveals the challenges and motivations  that drive those involved behind the scenes.

What were the Structural challenges of “A Gathering Space”?
We’re very excited about “The Gathering Space”, I think it’s been a great success, we’ve encountered lots of interest from people just walking past. The main challenges were the fact that it had to be de-mountable so it could be transported out there, taken down and brought back again. Stability was the main issue from a wind point of view and the loading from the people on the stepped area. Each of the steps is effectively a structural element in its own right and these were affixed to the main beam with galvanised steel brackets, the overall stability of the building was provided by sheathing to the stud walls.

How did you bridge such a large span?
We had to find a suitable way of carrying the auditorium steps over the large span opening and to do that we used gulam type beams bolted together to become a multiple beam. The difficulty with that was that at either end you had a huge point load which had to come down onto the Piazza. The limited bearing pressure allowed on the Piazza itself meant we had to have concrete spread foundations above the Piazza level to minimise the load. To get fixings that could be de-mounted meant we had to go for the bracket that could carry the end of steps themselves. The collaboration with the prefabricators and engineers ourselves met all the requirements we had for structural stability from our side and constructability from their side.

Do you have any design influence on your projects?
I think at all times engineers and architects influence each other, that’s a strong driver in this practice that we are allowed to get involved at the initial stages of a project. Mainly because at that stage we can show the architect the limits of what’s structurally feasible, we can show the boundaries beyond which it would be very difficult to come up with a solution which would be workable, either financially or physically. If we are given that opportunity and most of the architects we work with will give us that opportunity, we feel that we are able to add to the whole design of the project both architecturally and structurally.

What are the differing structural challenges between historical conversions and new build. Which is the more satisfying?
From my point of view my personal interests are both in very modern architecturally challenging developments and in historically significant buildings. The intermediate stuff doesn’t quite hold the interest for me that it perhaps should do. I feel on a personal level that the challenges posed by historical and modern buildings are curiously similar in that you are required to have a deeper understanding of the building than you would in simple construction. With a historic building you are looking for clues to the way it was built and why it was built in that way. Modern interventions can be integrated in a way that will not compromise the original structure and will also add to it architecturally or blend in well depending on the approach being taken by the architects. With a modern building you are looking for ways to achieve the architects proposal in a manner that will still be structurally sound and not compromise the architects desires.

How easy is it to scale up your operations to larger developments, such as the Royal Museum?
The Royal Museum poses a significant number of challenges, some of them major some of them not. A significant amount of the work is actually relatively small scale. The advantage of working on very small projects in the past, although we by no means do only small projects now, is that often smaller projects are significantly challenging structurally because you have to come up with a solution that fits into a very small space. In addition dealing with proposals from an architect can be tricky because they’re trying to make a significant statement with a small extension or alteration, so the structure often has to be very discreet or very carefully detailed. Scaling up to the museum, none of the sections at the museum are of such a size that are beyond our experience. The overall package is our largest project, but each individual section is well within our experience range.

I understand you’re opening a Glasgow office?
The Glasgow office we hope will be open next month, it was supposed to be opened earlier in the year but because of the financial situation affecting our landlord he has been unable to complete it until just recently. We have been told we’ll have access in October and we have staff ready to be placed there. We feel that Glasgow offers opportunities in addition to the Edinburgh base that we have, we will be treating it as if it’s just a part of our overall practice we wont be treating it as a separate office because we want to make sure that the same ethos is carried over into the Glasgow section of the practice. The idea is that in Glasgow we will have the potential to grow the practice in the short term to probably 10-12 people and that will help us to handle the growing number of projects we have through in Glasgow. We’ve slowly but surely built up projects through there with recent successes in Easterhouse and we’re now working on the Maryhill Civic Centre and Sandy Road Health centre.

Is it satisfying to see buildings in the flesh that you’ve had a hand in creating?
I think that’s probably the most pleasurable part of our job. One of the positive aspects of any profession to do with construction is that any building that you’re doing whether it’s an alteration, extension or brand new building is likely to be there for a substantial number of years. The largest buildings could be there for hundreds of years especially renovations of historic buildings. There is a huge joy in seeing a project come to completion and knowing that you’ve had a part in putting that together. The pleasure of working with architects and other construction professionals add greatly to the experience.

Do you think there’s a greater responsibility involved in designing public buildings?
It’s important to have a broad spread of projects. One advantage we feel we have as a practice at the moment is that with the financial situation as it is, we’ve got projects coming from just about every field. You always have a strong requirement to satisfy your client but in public building there is a responsibility that goes beyond the norm, generally public buildings are long term. At Culloden we were dealing with an iconic building that will affect everybody that comes into it and you want to make sure that you create what the architect had as a proposal. When you’re dealing with a domestic or private client the relationship tends to be much closer so if you get involved wwith the project there is still a very strong need to satisfy there requirements. You want to ensure that public money is being spent in a sensible and economic way.

Are you optimistic about the future?
It’s now 22 years that we’ve been a practice and we’ve grown greatly in that time. We’ve deliberately tried to limit that growth but it’s slowly and surely taken place. We tackle all sorts of projects both in terms of size and sector. That way it’s given us a much safer base to work to and if any one of the sectors slows down then we’re covered by the others. It’s also exposed us over the years to different architects both in size and style and it’s given us a very broad experience of the different needs and requirements of different architectural practices. We have a deliberate policy of not refusing smaller projects because often these come from new architectural practices and over the years we’ve worked with many practices which have started as one or two man organisations and eventually built up to become really large and significant practices in Scotland. Growth has always been a big issue, the next year will be telling as to whether the sort of work we do has been affected by the downturn that appears to be happening.

What’s been your proudest achievement?
I suppose the trite answer to that is to still be in business. I’m proud of the team we’ve built up in the practice and the fact that architects trust us to work with them on challenging and interesting projects that are of significance on the Scottish scene. That’s hugely pleasing to be involved on Culloden, to be asked to work on the Royal Museum a building which was of great significance to me personally from being a child. To be asked to work on the Scottish Pavilion in Venice was a great honour for us and to actually see it constructed  was hugely pleasurable.

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