Shaper: James O’Callaghan

Show aired on 11th November 2017

Transcript

Elliot Moss
The uplifting sound of the one and only Nina Simone with Feeling Good. Good morning, this is Jazz Shapers here on Jazz FM; I am Elliot Moss thank you very much for joining me. Jazz Shapers is the place where you can hear the very best of the people who are shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul and right alongside them we bring someone who is shaping the world of business as we speak. My Business Shapers right in front of me today is James O’Callaghan; he is the co-founder and director at Eckersley O’Callaghan. They are a structural engineering company responsible for some amazing, beautiful buildings and constructs including the Apple Theatre, including also the new floating swimming pool extraordinary thing that is being built at Nine Elms and also Chelsea Football Club’s Stamford Bridge, they will be building that as well. You are going to be hearing lots from him and his amazing projects very shortly. In addition to hearing from James you will be hearing from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya, some words of advice for your business and on top of all that we’ve got some brilliant music of course; we’ve got Cyrille Aimée, Otis Redding and this from the fantastic Quincy Jones.

The multi-talented, brilliant Quincy Jones there with his take on Soul Bossa Nova. This is Jazz Shapers and as I said earlier, James O’Callaghan is my Business Shaper; he is co-founder and director at Eckersley O’Callaghan. They are a structural engineering company, also very heavy on design which is unusual for a structural engineering company but you are going to be hearing lots about why and… it’s a pleasure to have you James.

James O’Callaghan
Thank you, great to be here.

Elliot Moss
It’s not often we have people in from your part of the world. I have had Michael Squires from Squire & Partners many years ago and various people involved in the building world but often we, the public, celebrate buildings but we don’t know who’s behind them and this is an opportunity to hear a bit about you and what’s going on and how you came to be doing what you are doing. Tell me a little bit about you, you started this business in 2004. So you have been going fourteen years, you employ around a hundred people or so. What made you, because there are many engineers, you can probably tell me, ‘well Elliot there are X thousand structural engineers in the country’. Not everyone goes off and wants to run their own show. Why do you think you did fourteen years ago?

James O’Callaghan
I think like, like most things you, you fall into this situation. Perhaps it wasn’t really something that I was always pre-determined to do. I think I followed a journey which was quite interesting that once I had left University and had become an engineer, a subject that I completely love, a subject that I always knew I wanted to be. I’d been… ever since I was very young and I’d had the opportunity to see bridges built in Hull which was, as we were talking about a little bit earlier off line… that fascination of how you put things together sort of very early sort of drove me towards wanting to be an engineer and therefore wanting to be, to build things, to be creative with what we could do and through science. So I spent some time, went to University. I then had a slightly unorthodox kind of training in that I ended up living in Seoul, doing a project in Seoul in South Korea and then moving to New York and working there for eight years and doing some of the most amazing public buildings in and around the United States and it was when I came back from there that I felt that I think part of that time in the US, the sort of opportunity that I’d seen drove me to think well really this is something I want to do on my own and I can see how applying that sort of optimism to the engineering that we, that I had been doing and the people I’d met, it was really at that point that I had the confidence to be able to say ‘I can do this’ and through a partner of mine, Brian Eckersley who has been there since we, since we started at the beginning in 2004, we took it on and that was really where it began. Now we were quite unsure how it would go. It was the two of us to start with and we were in a small backroom shed in Islington and we just thought well I’ll throw together what had happened and my experiences in the US with what we were, with his experience in working locally in Islington and see what comes out the other end, and I think what is particularly special about that business as a result has been that it has always been very culturally diverse, we have always been working Internationally from a very small scale, always happy and excited to be working in different places and certainly not afraid to take on the challenge of doing that. And that is where it sort of evolved and it evolved from that and I think that’s kind of created the culture that we have.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for the unfolding story of my Business Shaper today, that’s James O’Callaghan – the man who started in a shed with his partner, Brian Eckersley back in 2004 and now, as I mentioned earlier and we are going to come on to it, responsible for some extraordinary creations around the world. Time for some more music right now, this is Cyrille Aimée with Let’s Get Lost.

Cyrille Aimée with Let’s Get Lost and a bit of Gypsy Jazz thrown in here on Jazz Shapers. James O’Callaghan is my Business Shaper to, he is the co-founder and director at Eckersley O’Callaghan and if you were listening earlier you’d have heard how Brian and him got together in a shed, just two of them, back in 2004 and embraced the world, literally the world of designing stuff and engineering stuff. You mentioned the Humber Bridge and often people fall into stuff and you kind of have fallen into it in a way though it sounds to me like you’ve always, as you said, had a passion for building things. Lots of kids, I have many children and many of them like building stuff but not many of them, I don’t know if any of them will go on to be civil and structural engineers. What was it that made it so important to you from when you were little all the way through to when you actually went to University and so on? What was it that stuck?

James O’Callaghan
I think it resonated with me very early on. I was, I consider myself very lucky that I, once I had seen how something as amazing as a bridge being put together that it struck a chord that I felt I needed to pursue and I then very much shaped my choices in education around it and stuck with it and at no point did I ever feel that I’d made the wrong decision or gone in the wrong direction. It became very intuitive to me and as a result of that I was continually and continued to be very excited about the fact that we can use science and maths and research to create extraordinary things in the physical sense. Now you know, I guess I was lucky in many ways because I think you know, sometimes its… you can go down a path and decide you need to go down a different path which is great and also enriching but I was very focussed and I think what particularly helped with that was that you can develop an intuition about what things should be and the way in which things should be built or the size of which element should be. You grow that intuition more quickly through the experiences you have and that’s really helped me, that’s really helped me to know that in conceiving what a structure might be that I’ve got a good sense about what would be appropriate and what might be possible without necessarily having to do the maths at that early stage and that really helps with design and it helps to facilitate the conversations we have with the architects that we work with who ultimately lead these wonderful projects and yeah, I think that’s, I think that’s all come from that very early understanding about where I wanted to go and just ploughing that… relentlessly ploughing that furrow.

Elliot Moss
But the instinct that you are describing now is in reality intuition at speed isn’t it? Because what the instinct is based upon are very, very solid foundations of science…

James O’Callaghan
Sure.

Elliot Moss
…of maths, of seeing and appreciating and visualising lots and lots of structures. Do you have to be good at science and maths to do what you do, do you think?

James O’Callaghan
I don’t think… no I don’t think you need to be good at it, I think that you need to… it’s starts very mathematical and I think that you’ve got to be reasonably, reasonably, reasonably good with your sort of mental arithmetic side of your brain. I don’t think you need to be a particular theorist or a particular deep theorist to be an engineer. I think it is very much the nexus between science and art and the fact that you are making things from an appreciation of science but at the same time as an appreciation of what, of what form artistically people are trying to make and whatever it is, whether it’s, whether it’s a train or any form of engineering. I mean the thing about engineering is that it touches everything that we do so it’s, it’s got that sort of richness that I think is very diverse.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for more from my Business Shaper, James O’Callaghan – the man who is bringing science, maths and art altogether in one beautiful creation right in front of your very eyes. Latest travel coming up in a couple of minutes and before that you are going to be hearing another person from our Future Shapers series and this person and her business are hoping that they will be shaping the future of their industry for many years to come.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss. Every Saturday I’m very lucky I meet someone who is shaping the world of business. Today James O’Callaghan is my Business Shaper and James is the co-founder of Eckersley O’Callaghan, they are a structural engineer firm who make incredibly beautiful buildings and constructs around the world. James just give me a few that you are really proud of over the years and to contextualise a little bit of the work because it’s a very visual thing. The minute you say certain, you know, for me when you talk about a building and I know it, I can see it. So just give me two or three that you are really, really proud of?

James O’Callaghan
I think that in the last fifteen years there is a series of buildings that we’ve been very proud to have been a part of which has been the retail expansion for Apple throughout the world. It’s been a great journey. We’ve been specifically responsible for designing lots of glass staircases and façades that have caused those spaces to be as exciting as they are and some of which you might find in Covent Garden or in London in Regent Street for example but also most notably in Fifth Avenue with the glass cube in Fifth Avenue for example, if you’ve been in New York you will have seen that particular structure. So we have been very excited to be a part of that and that is in many ways a series of buildings that is an evolution of design and engineering through it, iteratively changing as time has changed and as techniques have changed, as our engineering techniques have developed but also in the way in which things are made, glass is put together and the way glass is fabricated has evolved over time. It is a mirror of that which is a, which is not just one construct, it’s a, it’s a sort of body of work which we are very proud to have been a part of. Beyond that there is some slightly more exotic examples, for example in Nine Elms we have been working on a swimming pool that spans between two buildings that was recently well publicised and will soon be built and we are very excited to see that happen, the concept of having a purely transparent pool between two buildings. Not dissimilar I suppose in many ways to we might associate with a fish tank, an aquarium but for people.

Elliot Moss
How high up is this going to be as well?

James O’Callaghan
It’s ten storeys up and it’s sort of five metres wide and it’s a fairly, a hundred and fifty tonnes of water in it which is roughly twelve double decker buses, the weight of.

Elliot Moss
We’ll post that on Twitter – I am going to put that @elliott_moss and we are going to give you a visual reference to that as well so you can have a lot.

James O’Callaghan
And… which is in itself a, you know, an exciting opportunity and a little bit challenging in terms of how one thinks about the materials in which we use, the appropriate performance of it. Beyond that I think that we’ve been, we are very proud to be involved in some, we are involved with the envelope, the façade if you like of what will be the new Chelsea Football Stadium at Stamford Bridge which is another great exciting project, for many collaborators, many other engineers which are doing a great job to make that happen.

Elliot Moss
And it could go on, I mean it is fantastic. I want to ask you a question about how you manage the projects on the one side which to me is the product and then the bit behind it because what strikes me as you speak is and if you were here with me you would see James uses his hands a lot because I think that is what I get from creative people quite a lot, you know you are obviously a very hands-on guy who wants to work with materials and wants to make stuff. How does that marry with the focus on managing a hundred people or so and the focus on the operations of it? Do you… is that a delegated thing that someone else does? Do you purely focus on the client as it were and the buildings? What actually happens inside the business?

James O’Callaghan
Well it’s a mix. Ultimately you have to be able to manage people and one can do that to a greater or lesser extent and one tries to do the best one can in terms of making it happen. But I think that from a people, I think it is important from, certainly in our practice, that we do work in a way that inspires people to work and to… and that means the type of projects, the way in which we approach the projects keeps everybody excited, where we are doing them, the ideas we are developing, it’s the excitement of it. The fact that we are driving forwards through doing as much of the great projects that we can. That level of inspiration carries us a long way. Clients are generally happy if you do a good job so that’s the, that’s the main, the main approach that we try to take.

Elliot Moss
Happy clients, happy business. Stay with me for much more from my Business Shaper today, James O’Callaghan, co-founder and director at Eckersley O’Callaghan Structural Engineers. Time for some music, appropriate I think, Try A Little Tenderness from Otis Redding.

That was Otis Redding with Try A Little Tenderness. I am with James O’Callaghan talking all things around structural engineering and also balance and James you were talking about that balance between the creative product, the engineering product as well, as well as people. You talked about some challenges. What kind of person are you? I mean you look relatively centred. You know, you look like you’ve seen a bit and you’ve obviously, you’ve lived abroad and I imagine that helps your resilience and your sense of managing the unexpected. Have you ever felt flummoxed and ever felt like you actually just wanted to go and work for somebody else in all the time you have been running your own business?

James O’Callaghan
No not really. I think that there are certainly times when running a business is trying but, and there are certain things that get, that are not in your control and that can be frustrating you know, politically or economically when despite how good you are or how good you try to build a business as best you can, you are a subject to the external forces and that can be tiring because you feel like, well you know, you’ve tried so hard and yet externally there is not much I can do about what happens next. So there are challenges be it here or overseas and that can be, that can wear you down but I think that as long as you are resilient and you remember the important things, the people that you’ve pulled together, the fact that you’ve done a great body of work and you’ve had the opportunity to work with some amazing people around the world and that that will continue, then you know, you carry on and you wake up the next day and you, and you push on.

Elliot Moss
Is the recognition important? I mean you have won, the business last year won the Engineering Consultant of the Year, the Building Awards in 2016, you’ve one I think an award in China for one of the awards over there for Global Best Project, competition over there for Outstanding Design and Construction. I mean I’ve got… there are other awards you have won absolutely loads of them. Does it bother you? Do you like it? I mean is it nice for the team? Does it matter?

James O’Callaghan
I think that awards are of course nice to have and they add acknowledgement for everybody’s hard work. That’s how our industry and many industries work. At the end of the day it’s, it’s mainly about acknowledging how, how… what you’ve done in many ways makes… may or may not make a difference but it’s to, it’s to keep the team and everybody who works with you motivated and I think they are quite good for that. But ultimately I think that you know, we as engineers and I think it’s the same for many people, we are a little bit of a silent army. You know we make the world, we make things happen in the world, we are a very important part of everything we do, the fact that we are speaking through the air right now has been as a result of somebody who has engineered it, the chairs we are sitting on, the roads we walked on to get here. Everything. Engineering touches everything and of course it’s not really an understood science by anybody because it is not in any way celebrated so… but its super important and it’s very important to celebrate it as much as one can because we need good engineers to come in from youth to be able to do all of those things that we need engineering to do. So that’s perhaps where awards are more important, is that there’s that recognition that your hard work and effort results in something that you can celebrate and people need things to be able to celebrate to be able to be to want to pursue that career. And for me that’s super important for the young today to get them to be engineers and we need more engineers.

Elliot Moss
We will have our final chat with my guest today, James O’Callaghan, the leader of the silent army. I like that phrase. Plus we will be playing a track from Melody Gardot, that’s after the latest traffic and travel here on Jazz FM.

What a lovely gentle number there, Dom our producer and I really like it, it’s Melody Gardot with Amalia – I think I’ve said that correctly. James O’Callaghan is my Business Shaper just for a little longer. He is the co-founder and director at Eckersley O’Callaghan and they make beautiful buildings and other constructs including as I mentioned and you would have seen it on Twitter now, the incredible floating swimming pool which I want to go and use, which I know when it’s built I won’t be able to because I won’t live there but I am going to try and get a way of getting in there and having a play with it. Another thing that you do and I wonder… and I wanted to ask you about this, you are a teacher. You are a visiting Professor at a University in Holland, Delft I think it is and about two and a half thousand architects are in that school, you mentioned earlier before we came on air. What’s it like teaching? Is that really good for your working life? Does it kind of refresh and remind you of what it’s all about?

James O’Callaghan
Yes. I think absolutely. I think there is a few things about teaching which I find most interesting. Firstly it’s the freshness of the students that are there, the fact that their minds are not in any way shaped by experiences at that point so they are a lot freer to be imaginative and I think that we, one challenge that we have as we get older is that we have experiences which tend to narrow our focus of ingenuity and I try very hard to try and fight that, to be as brave and as bold as possible and as wide in a construct of ideas because those ideas of course are fragile and we need… ideas are the basis of great things so…

Elliot Moss
Can I just ask you on that, the construct? How do you keep the construct wide for you personally because I absolutely agree. It’s quite hard to do in practice?

James O’Callaghan
Yeah. It is hard to do in practice but I think by interacting with younger engineers, with… by keeping a broad understanding of what is happening in the world and what is happening in science and other areas outside of your particular area of work, it can start to keep those ideas flowing and going back to the University, it’s a great place because it’s a fertile place for imagination and that I find, having that link directly back into the, plugging in to that area of sort of fertile imagination allows, allows me to be more inspired by what is possible and I think that’s, that’s a great thing about teaching, I mean it is perhaps a little selfish because I am going there to get… expand my idea about working with other people but I hope by… as a reciprocal for that I am able to pass on my experience about things that have been built in the real world and what actually happens when things get built and what the possibilities are to help some of those imaginations and fertile ideas have some shape. So you know, it’s a kind of backwards and forwards thing I think about teaching, it’s a, it’s a, it’s not a one-way street, it’s a two-way street.

Elliot Moss
Now that you are fourteen years in almost to your business and you’ve kind of, you’re in a rich vein of creativity and you are doing really well, what’s the thing that really matters to you? What makes you happy on a daily basis and what do you think will continue to make you personally happy as you look forward, as you shape your own business?

James O’Callaghan
It is definitely the people that I work with. I mean that’s the, that’s, if I look back over time it’s been the people you’ve had the opportunity to work with, to be as creative as possible whether its people you work with in your firm or people you work with externally, it’s who you meet every day and the ideas that they bring and the way in which they inspire you. That’s it, I mean, that’s the bottom line I think. That’s what drives me to keep going because you know around the corner there is going to be somebody else you are going to meet with some… and that interaction with that person is going to create something interesting so yeah, that’s the real, that’s the real driver I think for me.

Elliot Moss
Brilliant. James thank you so much for joining me today, I’ve really enjoyed meeting you and talking to you. Just before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

James O’Callaghan
I chose Miles Davis, So What and what I particularly like about this, this piece of music is the fact that it’s so lyrical without actually having any lyrics and there is this kind of defiance that you have from Miles Davis as he, as the trumpet works through the song and is the background noise and he’s kind of almost saying, you know I’m just ploughing my own furrow and that’s the way I am going so whatever and I like that, I like that about the song in itself so that’s why I chose it.

Elliot Moss
Here it is, not quite the full nine minutes because we will run out of time, we might be here until 12.00 o’clock midday but here’s most of it just for you. Thank you very much.

James O’Callaghan
Thank you.

Elliot Moss
That was Miles Davis with So What. The song choice of my Business Shaper today, James O’Callaghan. Someone who from a very, very young age was utterly passionate about building. Someone who has sought to inspire the people he works with and make that the way that he keeps them focussed and loyal and creative. Someone who is continually and daily excited about what he does and someone who believes in the power of building things, as he called it, the silent army of engineers and creatives. Really, really good stuff. Do join me again same time, same place, that’s next Saturday, 9.00am for another edition here om Jazz FM of Jazz Shapers. Meanwhile stay with us coming up next its Nigel Williams.

James O’Callaghan

James is a structural engineer with over 20 years’ experience. He co-founded Eckersley O’Callaghan in 2004, which has since grown into a 90 strong, award-winning practice based in London, New York, San Francisco, Paris and Shanghai.

The practice was recognised as ‘Engineering Consultant of the Year’ at the Building Awards 2016. Focused on cutting-edge engineering solutions, James’ work has continuously challenged and redefined what is considered possible, particularly in contemporary architecture. James is widely acknowledged as an authority in structural glass design through his long-standing collaboration with Apple. Most recently, he has contributed to Apple Campus 2 and the Steve Jobs Theater.

James is a member of the HS2 Design Panel and is Visiting Professor at TU Delft. In 2016, he was awarded the Milne Medal for excellence in structural design – one of the highest accolades for an individual in the industry.

Follow James on Twitter @JamesOCEngineer.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

It was the two of us to start with. We were in a small backroom shed in Islington and just thought we’d throw together my experiences in the US with his experience in working locally in Islington and see what comes out the other end.

It has always been very culturally diverse, we have been working internationally from a very small scale, always happy and excited to be working in different places.

…I was continually, and continue to be, very excited about the fact that we can use science and maths and research to create extraordinary things in the physical sense.

The thing about engineering is that it touches everything that we do so it’s got that sort of richness that I think is very diverse.

Clients are generally happy if you do a good job so that’s the main approach that we try to take.

One challenge as we get older is that we have experiences which tend to narrow our focus of ingenuity and I try very hard to try and fight that, to be as brave and as bold as possible and as wide in a construct of ideas.

I think by interacting with younger engineers, by keeping a broad understanding of what is happening in the world and what is happening in science and other areas outside of your particular area of work, it can start to keep those ideas flowing

Whether its people you work with in your firm or people you work with externally, it’s who you meet every day and the ideas that they bring and the way in which they inspire you. That’s it. That’s the bottom line, I think.