Care and responsibility have always been central to our practice: for the planet, our people, and wider society. Long before it was the "standard", we were pioneering low-energy and low-carbon building design, and we remain at the forefront to this day. Below is just a small selection of the milestones along the way...


The birth of the practice

Max pursued a new approach to engineering based on his insatiable curiosity about how buildings work. He resisted being pigeonholed into the conventional boxes of mechanical or electrical engineering and was always interested in the whole building. He took a creative, but essentially practical, approach to building services design. Designing from first principles, he was quoted as saying “start with the edge of the universe as a boundary and quickly narrow down to the specific problem”.

In 1966, Max, alongside his wife Taddy, set up Max Fordham Consulting Engineers. The practice was founded on the idea of engineers bringing scientific knowledge into the art of building design. He developed his skills in what was then considered the new field of heating engineering to test his idea. Invention, innovation, and success soon followed.


Hulme 5: designing the services with as much care as the architects

Hulme 5 comprised 918 flats constructed for a Local Authority in Hulme, Manchester. It was one of the first medium-high-rise schemes built using industrialised, large, pre-cast panel construction. The electrical conduits were cast in the concrete slabs and Max developed details that enabled the conduit to fit.

Working with Wilson & Womersley Architects, Max drew the services to the minutest detail, with every component and part number specified and scheduled. This attention to detail ensured the services were properly integrated with the architecture and structures, and avoided any ambiguity about how things would be constructed. Prior to this, the industry had tended to give just outline layouts to contractors who would work out how to route things on site. As a result, Max was seen as someone that architects could work with. 

A schematic of the cast-in electrical design, alongside a photo of the final development.


"It's a responsibility-sharing scheme, not a profit-sharing scheme”

From the very start, Max sought a collaborative approach to running a business, to encourage shared responsibility and a feeling of ownership. He felt that designing a system for people to work in productively and creatively was as important as the design of the buildings themselves. Max's school (the progressive Dartington Hall School) had been a democracy, so why not the business? He thought that reasonable people working together should be able to come up with a reasonable system, and after agreeing on a brief internally, he found an innovative young lawyer, Lennie Hoffman (later Baron Hoffmann) to turn it into a working legal document. After it had been signed by all current staff, the practice legally became a partnership: Max Fordham & Partners.

The brief stated “A partnership consists of a group of people jointly combined in an enterprise to make a profit (living). The people must trust one another and act in their joint interest... This partnership is being formed so that all members of the firm benefit from and are responsible for its actions. It is intended that everybody who works in the firm should be partners and should have control over the firm that is analogous to the control which shareholders have over the control of a limited company.

A scan of the dated original partnership agreement from October 21st 1974


Royal Exchange Theatre: the services fully exposed, yet stylistically sympathetic to the architecture

The Royal Exchange is a vast Grade II-listed hall with brick columns and three glazed domes. The theatre is a building within a building, seating all 700 people within 10 metres of the centre of the stage. The theatre module, designed with Levitt Bernstein Architects, was inspired by the NASA lunar landing spacecraft and is a transparent structure of tubular steel and glass that forms a separate structure within the great hall.

Read more about the design.

Black-and-white photo of a model of the Royal Exchange Theatre module


Two significant projects complete in the same year

The big breakthrough project for Max was the Alexandra Road Housing Estate for Camden Council in London. He teamed up with the architect Neave Brown and they won a competition to provide over 500 new homes, a school, and a community centre. It was the first post-war housing estate to become listed. Read more about Max's innovative approach to the heating system.

The same year, another important project was completed, Newport High School, with Evans & Shalev Architects. The brief called for a comprehensive school for 1,200 pupils in addition to a swimming pool, gym, and hall which could also be used as a community centre for a new local housing estate. Hollow blockwork concealed conduits for the electrical installation, while daylight control for the glazed south elevations was provided by deep overhangs. Heating was distributed by low-convector radiators, which were on a continuous pipe run through the in-situ columns. A special, curved, fluorescent light fitting was developed to accommodate the ceiling coffers.

An aerial photo showing the curving, low-storey form of Alexandra Road Estate, with tall tower blocks in the background.


Early use of a ground source heat pump

The Sir Joseph Banks Building, a partially buried museum and reference collection building for the Royal Botanic Gardens, provided a home for Kew’s collection of irreplaceable dry plants.

Max's innovative approach included a ground source heat pump, not a common approach at the time, which circulated between a pair of boreholes, with heat added or extracted according to requirements. Read more about the project.

Two photos next to each other, on the left is an external photo of the building from across the water.


Max's reputation grows

Throughout the 1990s, Max became widely recognised (and awarded) for his outstanding contribution to the design of low-energy buildings.

Following being made a Fellow of The Royal Society of Arts back in 1984, Max became a Fellow of The Royal Academy of Engineering in 1992.

Just two years later, Max was awarded an OBE for 'services to engineering'. When the Queen asked Max what he did, he replied "Ma’am, I’m a plumber!"

Later in the decade, Max received two further awards: Honorary Fellowship of the RIBA in 1996 and, the following year, a CIBSE Gold Medal.

Black and white photo of Max in a jacket and tie, sat in the office in front of a book shelf.


An exemplar of sustainability

The award-winning headquarters for the Ready Mixed Concrete Group saw the restoration of a historic Grade II-listed, 18th-century country home and the sensitive addition of 5,000m2 of single-storey offices under continuous landscaped roof gardens.

The practice designed an innovative "air curtain" to separate the indoor swimming pool from the surrounding area while avoiding the obtrusive effect of a glass wall. Read more about the design.

Two photos next to each other. On the left, a swimming pool with an air curtain. On the right, an external courtyard space.


Environmental Design: An Introduction for Architects and Engineers

Not many practices can say "we wrote the book on sustainability", but we can. Since our first publication, we have been leading the industry in designing buildings that use less energy and tread lightly on the planet.

Environmental Design: An Introduction for Architects and Engineers (edited by Randall Thomas, a partner at Max Fordham) was first published in 1995. It set out the principles of our environmental design approach and became a course text at many schools of architecture and engineering. Max wrote the preface to all three editions and, with each, his tone grew in urgency.

1st Edition (1995): "In our practice we believe in stimulating architecture that provides for the long-term needs of humanity – health and comfort – which the planet can sustainably provide."

2nd Edition (1999): "Our governments have given undertakings at the Kyoto conference which call for radical approaches to the design of buildings. This book provides the basic information which is needed to initiate new designs and shows how the ideas can be implemented – the rest is up to all of us. Good luck!"

3rd Edition (2006): "The economies of the world are growing at an unprecedented rate [...] This growth will be a disaster if it carries an equivalent emission of carbon dioxide [...] architecture must reduce the demand for energy while maintaining the benefits of health and comfort. This book provides the basic information [...] ‘Good luck!’ is not enough. Take up the challenge."

The front cover of the 1st Edition of the book, Environmental Design: An Introduction for Architects and Engineers


The highest recorded BREEAM rating

Designed with Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, the offices of the Building Research Establishment combined high aesthetic standards with exemplary energy efficiency, offering a model for offices of the future.

The building achieved the highest recorded BREEAM rating at the time, by reducing heating energy consumption, avoiding air conditioning, and minimising the need for artificial lighting. Read more about the design.

An external photo of the BRE building, with notable ventilation chimneys and a blue-sky above.


A naturally ventilated theatre

The bold redesign of the Contact Theatre was a direct expression of Max's inventive approach to energy-efficient services. The building, designed with Alan Short, integrated the 1963 auditorium with additional backstage facilities, a studio theatre, rehearsal rooms, a foyer, a bar, and a restaurant. Developed after extensive analysis, the innovative assisted natural ventilation system kept audiences comfortable using a fraction of the energy required by mechanical ventilation and made the Contact Theatre (possibly) the first naturally-ventilated modern theatre in the UK.

Extract stacks were built on the roof, with H-pot chimneys designed to provide good operation in all wind conditions. Each stack contained a slow-speed axial fan controlled by a Building Management System (BMS) to minimise power use and limit noise generation.

In 2020, the practice completed a return to Contact Theatre, working alongside Sheppard Robson on a new refurbishment and extension scheme.

An external photo of the Contact Theatre, with its unique chimneys


The first LLP in the construction industry

Back in 1974, the business had legally become a partnership: Max Fordham & Partners. The partnership grew as employees were offered the opportunity to become Partners after 12 months of employment. This was unusual at the time (and would seem even more unusual nowadays), but Max was often quoted as saying "if they're fit to be an employee, then they're fit to be a Partner". The continued growth in numbers led to a second partnership being formed, Max Fordham Associates, to get around a legal limitation.

In 2001, with the creation of Limited Liability Partnerships (LLPs), Max Fordham & Partners and Max Fordham Associates came together as Max Fordham LLP and, in doing so, became the very first LLP in the UK construction industry. The principles of the first partnership agreement from 1974 – trust, openness, and responsibility – formed the basis of the 2001 partnership agreement and still remain to this day.

In the same year, Max retired from the practice and handed over the running of the business to his fellow partners. He retained a sizeable influence and reputation in the industry, becoming President of CIBSE for the year. We also opened our second office, in Cambridge, which was soon followed by an office in Edinburgh, in 2003.

A black and white photo with a group of more than 20 people standing in front of the Max Fordham London office, the Rotunda.


Royal seal of approval from the Queen

The Queen's Awards for Enterprise are one of the most prestigious honours for UK businesses. Instituted by Royal Warrant in 1965, they are a globally recognised royal seal of approval.

In 2004, the practice was among a distinguished list of UK businesses awarded a Queen’s Award for Sustainable Development. This honour was awarded to us for “demonstrating sustainable services that benefit the environment, society and the economy.

In the following years, Max’s personal legacy continued to be celebrated, with him joining the prestigious RIBA Stirling Prize judging panel in 2005, then being voted into the inaugural Building Magazine Hall of Fame in 2006.


“A true pioneer of sustainable design”

Created in 1959, the Prince Philip Designers Prize celebrated how designers improve daily life by solving problems and turning great ideas into commercial reality. In its final years, before Prince Philip stepped down in 2011, the prize was awarded to some of the leading names in British design, including James Dyson (1997), Terence Conran (2003), Norman Foster (2004) and Thomas Heatherwick (2006).

In November 2008, Max was awarded the prize from HRH The Duke of Edinburgh in recognition of his "outstanding lifetime achievement in creating and establishing many of the precepts of modern environmental design and sustainable engineering for buildings".

On being awarded the prize, in his acceptance speech, Max concluded by saying “I hope […] this prize helps to promote the view that engineers are designers in the widest sense”.

Max talking to Prince Philip at an event, both wearing suits and discussing an Architect's model in front of them.


Sharing sustainability expertise

In 2010, following the in-house development of our Sustainability Matrix, we shared this tool – freely and openly – with the whole industry as a series of supplements in the Architects' Journal. Ever since, collaborators (and competitors!) have made use of our Sustainability Matrix to guide decisions and conversations with clients to help design more sustainable buildings.

The same year, we were also commissioned to produce a sustainability guide for the British Council. The guide was used by the British Council’s architects and consultants during the planning, design and refurbishment of British Council offices worldwide. We also shared our sustainability knowledge with the industry, in collaboration with Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and the University of Westminster, via The Environmental Handbook.

2010 was also the year of our first RIBA Stirling Prize-winning project, MAXXI in Rome with Zaha Hadid Architects. It was a busy year!

Decoding sustainability double-page article with text and photos.


A tale of two cities... London and Manchester

The London 2012 Olympic Water Polo arena, designed with David Morley Architects, was fundamentally different to venues for this sport provided at other Olympic Games. The 5,000-seat temporary venue was, for the first time, tailored specifically for the game of water polo and designed to maximise materials and MEP plant available through the rental market, to ensure re-use and reduction in waste once the arena was dismantled. The sloping roof was made from air-inflated recycled phthalate-free PVC cushions to provide extra insulation and reduce condensation; water use was reduced by 40% through low-flow taps and waterless urinals; and the mixed mode ventilation strategy for the main spectator stand reduced the ventilation and cooling plant required by 50%.

The same year, we opened an office in Manchester, our fourth outpost.

We also won our first (of three-in-a-row) CIBSE Employer of the Year Awards.


Building lasting relationships

Throughout our history, we have built strong relationships with clients and collaborators. These relationships have been formed through collaboration, trust, and respect, alongside the delivery of Beautiful Engineering. One of our many such relationships is with Tate. We have worked on all four of their galleries, including the original creation of Tate St Ives in 1993 with Evans & Shalev and its RIBA Stirling Prize-shortlisted extension with Jamie Fobert Architects in 2017.

In 2013, it was the turn of Tate Britain, which we worked on with Caruso St John. Our main focus was allowing eight galleries in the Grade II*-listed building to be filled with natural light without adversely impacting the artwork. Our design solution involved external shades that respond to changes in the external conditions and work in combination with a fixed shading system integrated into the roof glazing. This expertise in (re)introducing daylight to sensitive spaces has been a theme that has run through many of our cultural projects, including the Hayward Gallery at Southbank Centre, The Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries at Westminster Abbey, the National Portrait Gallery, and Tate St Ives itself!

In the same year, we opened our fifth office, in Bristol, and also launched the Max Fordham Environmental Design Prize at UCL Bartlett, an annual award given to the 5th-year design project that demonstrates the greatest level of ambition, originality, technical innovation, and philosophical rigour in the field of environmental design and sustainability.

Photo of sculpture gallery in Tate Britain.


Low energy, comfortable buildings that are a pleasure to be in

Soft Landings is the opposite of simply handing over the keys and walking away when construction is complete. It’s about collaborating with design team members, contractors, and building users to minimise the “performance gap” between design and use.

In 2014, following our pioneering work on Keynsham Civic Centre, we were part of the industry task force that further developed the Soft Landings Framework and we took an additional leading role in the creation of the accompanying guidance for its application. 

In the years since, we have developed our approach on projects such as Oriam Sports Performance Centre and the Contact Theatre in Manchester, and were named "Soft Landings Practioner of the Year" at the inaugural BSRIA Soft Landings Awards. We continue to lead the industry in the delivery of buildings that perform as intended and are a joy to be in while using the least amount of energy possible.

The interior of an office building, naturally lit with daylight from high windows. People are sitting in groups on sofas and at desks


Recognising climate innovators who are building a fairer and more sustainable future

There are many architectural awards for buildings and many corporate awards for business success. The Ashden Awards are widely recognised as one of the most genuine honours for firms that are helping to build a fair and sustainable future, from bringing clean energy to refugee camps, to making homes in the UK warm and energy efficient, to protecting forests, rivers and biodiversity.

In 2015, we received the Ashden Award for Sustainable Buildings. This achievement was awarded to celebrate nearly 40 years of innovations in the design of low-energy, low-carbon buildings. It is a honour we are particularly proud of and one that we have continued to build on ever since.

"Max Fordham doesn’t just work closely with architects to create beautiful buildings that have the highest standards of energy efficiency and are pleasant to work or live in; its focus on working with occupants to get the best out of their buildings is exemplary." - Ashden judging panel


50 years in the making

2016 was a big year for our practice. Not only did we celebrate our second RIBA Stirling Prize-winning project, Newport Street Gallery with Caruso St John, complete a major deep green retrofit of Trinity College New Court in Cambridge, and get crowned Sustainability Champion at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE) Awards, but it was also our 50th anniversary.

We celebrated in style, hosting over 550 of our colleagues, clients, collaborators and friends in The Tanks at the recently-completed Tate Modern Blavatnik Building. Max gave a warm speech recounting the history of the business he created and thanking guests for their contribution to the practice's success. This was then followed by a live performance from Public M+E, our in-house band, who got the crowd going with a collection of funk, hip-hop and 80s classics. It was a fitting celebration to mark our 50th birthday.

A band performing on the stage in front of a lot of people with stage effect lightings, the stage background writes ' Public M+E'


A practice where our differences are celebrated and valued

We have always aimed to create a practice and culture where our differences are celebrated and valued. Nowadays, all businesses must "comply with the Equality Act", but that's really only committing to an absence of discrimination and, for us, that's never been enough.

In 2017, our commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion was recognised when we were awarded Inclusion and Diversity Champion of the Year at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE) Awards. The judges praised us for "embracing the benefits of a truly diverse workforce [with] diversity and inclusion at the heart of its business".

We continue to strive to build a practice that is truly representative of the society we live in. Read more about our practice culture.


A first for large-scale Passivhaus developments

Passivhaus is a world-leading low-energy, high-quality, and high-comfort standard for building design and construction. In many ways, it’s a formalisation of the approach to building design that we’ve applied since our foundation in 1966. As its name suggests, it relies on passive environmental design strategies to reduce operational energy and it prioritises resident comfort. It’s now also an important part of our recommended recipe for net zero carbon buildings. 

2018 marked the completion of our first Passivhaus project, the redevelopment of Agar Grove Estate (Phase 1a). Working with Hawkins\Brown and Mae architects and the residents of the existing Agar Grove Estate, we persuaded the Greater London Authority to grant planning permission based on a Passivhaus approach, which included exemplary thermal requirements. On completion of Phase 1a, it immediately became a proof-of-concept for large-scale social housing developments, meaningfully tackling fuel poverty by reducing residents' fuel bills by 70%.

A modern multi-story building with a central outdoor space


We declare a climate and biodiversity emergency

"The world is facing a climate and biodiversity emergency. Buildings and the construction industry are responsible for around 40% of the world’s energy-related carbon emissions. For over 50 years we’ve been pioneers in sustainable, low-energy and low-carbon building design. At the heart of our partnership is a desire to tackle the climate and biodiversity emergency our world is facing."

These were the words we shared when joining other pioneers in the industry in campaigning for urgent action. In parallel with this call, we took action ourselves, including signing up to Building Services Engineers Declare, setting up our own MF: NetZero task force, launching our own net zero carbon service, and coming together as a whole practice in a Day of Climate Action. 

Also in 2019, Max celebrated moving into his new Passivhaus home by holding a literal housewarming to raise the home’s internal temperature and avoid the need for heating for many months. Two years later, once Max had been using his new home and the actual in-use energy had been monitored, it became the first residential building in the UK to be verified as net zero carbon.

Red, planet-shaped sphere on a black background, to represent a hot planet.


Practice what we preach

2020 was a year of action on our sustainability commitments. In February, we became the first UK business to have all our offices verified as net zero carbon in operation against the UKGBC Net Zero Carbon Framework, and we have continued to be verified every year since. We also committed to providing – on any project, at no cost to the client – an initial net zero carbon workshop to lay out a pragmatic route to net zero carbon.

Just a few months later, we became one of a very select few in the UK construction industry to sign up to the World Green Building Council's Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment, which further confirmed our pledges of "all occupied offices continuing to operate at net zero carbon" and publicly disclosing the operational energy of our business.

We rounded off the year with the launch of our Net Zero Carbon Guide, a free and open resource to help clients and collaborators navigate the process of achieving net zero carbon for both old and new buildings. The guide quickly became a widely respected resource and has since been referenced throughout the industry.

Max Fordham Net Zero Carbon Guide logo (black text on white background)


Remembering Max

On the 4th January 2022, it was with great sadness that we shared the news of Max's death, at the age of 88. The industry and the wider world came together to celebrate Max's life and to honour his legacy in the built environment. In the days and weeks after his death, Max was celebrated for "changing the way that buildings in Britain are heated, lit, powered and ventilated more than any other engineer of his generation" (The Guardian) and for his "transformation influence on building design" (RIBA Journal).

Read more about Max's life, career, key projects and innovations, and a choice few of his many thoughts.

Later in the year, the practice made another environmental commitment by signing up to the Science Based Targets initiative and pledging to reduce our Scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions by 46% by 2030 compared to our 2019 baseline, and to measure and report our Scope 3 emissions to a similar target.

There were also two significant project landmarks: Magdalene College New Library in Cambridge with Niall McLaughlin Architects became our third RIBA Stirling Prize-winning project; and 11 Belgrave Road with Eric Parry Architects became the first project in the UK to achieve a design-reviewed 5.5-star NABERS UK rating.

Black and white close-up photo of Max sat down at home, wearing a jumper and shirt, looking away from the viewer.


Engineering Ideas, Engineering Change

Our exhibition 'Engineering Ideas, Engineering Change' to celebrate Max's life and work took place in early 2023 at the Building Centre in London. It told the story of Max as a pioneer of low-energy, sustainable building design through a curated collection of drawings, models, original letters and videos. A timeline of Max's life included letters and drawings from his childhood in Jamaica and about his education at the progressive Dartington Hall School. Through seminal projects from the previous 50 years, the exhibition highlighted many of Max's key ideas and their impact on the design of the built environment. Visitors were able to listen to Max speak about his approach to building design and the practice in his own words via an audio pod and film. View the full virtual exhibition.

In June 2023, the National Portrait Gallery, the latest in a long line of complex heritage retrofit projects in our portfolio, completed to widespread acclaim. The Guardian described our input as that of "environmental wizards" and commented that "the artistry of Max Fordham goes both into designing air-handling systems such that you don’t notice they are there and installing state-of-the-art glass that lowers daylight to levels that don’t damage the exhibits, while still giving you views of trees and sky."

Towards the end of the year, we were delighted to have three projects on the six-strong RIBA Stirling Prize shortlist and a parallel piece of analysis in the Architects' Journal showed that no one had worked on more RIBA Stirling Prize-shortlisted projects in the last five years than us!

A landscape photo showing an indoor exhibition venue, a lightbox with Max Fordham's photo on and it writes 'Engineering Ideas, Engineering Change'


Another CIBSE Building Performance Awards win

Ravelin Sports Centre at the University of Portsmouth sets a new benchmark for ultra-low energy sports facilities in the UK. The design is fossil fuel-free and has demonstrated an operational energy consumption of less than 100 kWh/m2/yr – a level of performance which no other equivalent sports centre in the UK has yet demonstrated. It was also the first BREEAM 'Outstanding' sports centre in the UK.

In 2024, we celebrated when it was awarded Project of the Year (Leisure) at the CIBSE Building Performance Awards. This made it our eighth Project of the Year win at the CIBSE Awards in as many years, following: Keynsham Civic Centre (2017), Oriam (2018), Agar Grove Estate and The Engine Shed (2020), Max Fordham House (2021), St John's College in Oxford (2022), and Cranmer Road in Cambridge (2023).

The same year, a historic milestone for British architectural heritage was marked with the installation of 438 new photovoltaic panels on the roof of the King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, based on our decarbonisation strategy and detailed analysis. 

Exterior of the sports centre of a clear blue-sky day. The ground floor of the building is glazed with a large upper section that appears to be clad in wood.


Beautiful engineering for a sustainable future

We are a partnership of engineers, designers and consultants, working with the built environment, to deliver a sustainable future and a thriving planet.

We can’t wait to see what the future holds. Read more about our purpose.