My career over 30 years

Phil Armitage talking to his colleague with drawings in front of them

What an amazing ride it has been.

I came to Max Fordham for a job interview in 1988 and spent much of it describing the process of designing and building a camera rifle grip that I had made for my brother as a Christmas present, because we were too poor to buy one and as a botanist-turned-research scientist I had little else to demonstrate my real interest in engineering. I was bowled over by the feel of the place and by how happy and friendly everyone looked.

When I started we all had drawing boards. There was only one computer. It had flashing lights and I never understood what it did. My first task was to design a light above a door in the biggest project in the office - a mixed-use building with 337 flats, a health club and shops on the ground floor, and basement car parking. I worked in one of the four engineering groups and everyone was incredibly helpful in showing me what needed doing, how it should be done and where I could find out more information. I learned really quickly and by the time our team was transferred to site I had designed all the holes in the concrete structure to accommodate the services. Working on-site was very exciting and incredibly instructive. Watching people installing large pipes and cables and helping to solve the coordination challenges gave me a fantastic insight into the reality of building buildings - how things fit together, how they are supported and how much space is needed to accommodate the tools to install them. Watching the building come to life and seeing my design work become real was almost like magic.

Over the next few years, I learned to design a broad range of services systems and started to train some newer graduate recruits. Drawing boards were gradually replaced with computers and I was the first person in the practice to use a laptop to make my daily commute productive. I started to do more conceptual design at the early stages of projects and lead them through the design and construction stages. All the calculations were done by hand or on spreadsheets so you had to really understand how a design was going to work. By this stage, I was also working more with external team members and have always really enjoyed the collaborations. Trying to find the best way to support the aspirations of a project is a creative process. I find that the best ideas come to me in the time before the alarm goes off and I have often woken up to the solution of the problem I was thinking about the night before.

As a practice we have always been interested in understanding how things really work, honing elegant solutions to difficult challenges and integrating our design work into the building as a whole. Elegant solutions include proper consideration of the impact on the environment, ease of operation and maintenance and cost, as well as appearance. They are developed as the best solution for the project rather than the one that makes our lives easy! In addition to the engineering systems, we think about how the building as a whole can be the most useful part of the environmental control system, engineering light, air, heat and sound to create comfort as passively as possible. This holistic view has encouraged collaborations with some amazing architects, structural engineers and clients and I have been very fortunate to have worked on many fabulous projects including concert halls, laboratories, school science centres, art galleries, theatres, residential buildings and offices at all scales from the very small and perfectly formed to large scale masterplans for whole districts. Most of my work has been in the UK but I have been involved in projects in India and Myanmar where I have been able to travel and experience different cultures. On all projects, I have championed energy (and more recently carbon) efficiency and sensitivity of design to support the architectural and other project aspirations. I really love thinking about a building at the earliest stages, arriving at an appropriate design approach, negotiating this with the external team and then working with the internal team to deliver it. I also really value the relationships I have built with people inside and outside the practice, many of whom I think of as friends. Some of these were formed in my early years and have spanned almost the whole of my career.

Within the practice, I have also had a number of roles in addition to design of projects. I became a Partner in 1992 and that was a very special day. As Partners, we share the ownership of the practice and have collective control of it. It was set up to be a responsibility-sharing scheme rather than a profit-sharing scheme. Over the last 25 years, I have variously been Head of Administration, Director of IT, Director of Bidding, and opened our first office outside London, in Cambridge. All these were opportunities that arose and needed someone to take them on rather than being planned career moves. In all of them, I have worked with amazingly talented and engaged people to help the practice manage change and continue to be successful.

Max Fordham was a very special person who set the tone of the practice ethos through personal example. He encouraged rigorous thinking, real quality in design at both concept and detailed levels and complete engagement with issues, at the same time as doing the right thing and treating people fairly and with compassion. I completely bought into them as a new recruit and I still consider them the attributes that make working at Max Fordham LLP special. I have tried to live these values as much as possible and always thought that helping other people understand them was part of my role, as well as encouraging their technical and personal growth.

No two days have ever been the same and I am still learning.

What an amazing ride it has been!