Early Life

Early Life, Education, and Early Working Life

Early Life and Education

Sigurd Max Fordham was born on 17 June 1933 to Molly Swabey, a journalist, and Michael Fordham, a house physician at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, who was becoming interested in Jungian psychoanalysis. Max's parents’ marriage dissolved in 1940 and Michael remarried another analytical psychotherapist Frieda Hoyle the same year.

During World War Two, in the summer of 1940, Max went with his mother to stay with his uncle, Christopher Swabey, in Jamaica, to avoid the bombing of London. Max settled in well there and Molly decided to return to England. However, while crossing the Atlantic in 1942, her boat sank and she tragically drowned.

Upon returning to England, Max attended the progressive Dartington Hall School, which intended to change social attitudes in the world. The school was a pupil-run democracy with the headmaster sitting in on the meetings and with a formal power of veto, which was never used. Max was the elected chairman for several years.

Lessons were voluntary but the first hour of every morning there was compulsory "useful work", where students helped maintain the school building. Max learned skills such as carpentry and metalwork and completed work including working as an assistant in the chemistry laboratory, book-binding in the library, repairing dining room oak chairs, building desks and turning spare parts for the electric polishing machines. It was an apprenticeship as such, and useful work tended to extend beyond the allotted hour. This was where Max first identified that he liked to design and create – the roots of his career stemmed from there.

Following his schooling (1952–54), Max did National Service as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm. When he returned home, he attended Trinity College, Cambridge, completing an MA in Natural Science (1954–1957). He chose to specialise in chemistry, physics, maths and mineralogy. This gave him a deeper education in chemistry and physics than if he had studied engineering.

Max found university disappointing and began to have doubts about becoming a scientist. He enjoyed the company of people studying the humanities and shared rooms with Simon Hepworth-Nicholson, a school friend and artist. The professor of architecture, Sir Leslie Martin (designer of the Royal Festival Hall), suggested Max consider heating engineering, a new field where he could be free to be inventive and design things using his physics degree.

He took a vacation job with engineering firm G N Haden. There he completed a small research project which resulted in his salary trebling. After that, he did a one-year course at the National College of Heating, Ventilation, Refrigeration and Fan Engineering before starting work.

Early Working Life (1958 – 1966)

Sir Leslie Martin arranged a job for Max as a development engineer at Weatherfoil Heating Systems Ltd in 1958, where he worked until 1961. There he completed a wide variety of design and research work. He designed the metered fan convection heating for Harvey Court, Cambridge, and was named as the inventor when this was patented. While Weatherfoil gave him a generous introduction to the building industry, they wanted to promote him away from design and into representing the firm. By this time he realised this direction included all of the building services: water supply, drainage, heating, ventilation, air conditioning, as well as electrical engineering and he wanted more time to develop his detailing skills.

After meeting Sir Philip Dowson through his future wife, Thalia Dyson, in 1961 he joined the Building Group (now Arup Associates), a group that included architects and structural engineers from Ove Arup & Partners. Here Max had to get to grips with drawing the services in complete detail. It provided an integrated team, where discussions about services could be argued over the lunch table. Eventually, Max took on the public health and electrical services as well, so the services disciplines could be represented by just one person at meetings.

After moonlighting while at Arup Associates, Max realised he had the opportunity to start his own practice. In September 1966 he left Arup, and started working from an "office" on the first floor of his house. Here he pursued a new approach to engineering based on his own curiosity about how buildings work. He resisted being pigeonholed into the conventional boxes of engineering. He was always interested in the whole building, taking a creative but essentially practical approach to building services design, starting "with the edge of the universe as its boundary and then quickly narrowing down to the specific problem".

Forming the Partnership

In 1966, Max and Taddy formed the business as Max Fordham Consulting Engineers. In the late 1960s, once the business had outgrown their "home office", the practice moved in Jamestown Road above Ted Cullinan Architects.

As the practice grew into double figures of staff, Max started to consider the structure of the business. 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 a brief internally, found an innovative young lawyer, Lennie Hoffman (later Baron Hoffmann) to turn it into a working legal document. The 1973 draft agreement required no “buy-in” as Max saw it as "a responsibility-sharing scheme, not a profit-sharing scheme". The partnership agreement provided opportunity for ownership and participation, while also protecting the partnership from leaving partners removing capital from the business. In 1974, the business legally became a partnership, Max Fordham & Partners.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, the partnership grew as employees were offered the opportunity to become a partner after 12 months employment. This was unusual at the time, and would seem perhaps even more unusual nowadays, but Max was often quoted saying that if someone was "fit to be an employee, then they're fit to be a partner".

The practice continued to grow and in 1984 moved into the Rotunda in Camden (the current London office). The growth in numbers led to a second partnership being formed, Max Fordham Associates, to allow there to be more than 20 partners (the legal limit).

In 2001, with the creation of the legal option of a Limited Liability Partnership, Max Fordham & Partners and Max Fordham Associates came together as Max Fordham LLP, the first business in the UK construction industry to become an LLP. The principles of the first partnership agreement - trust, openness, and responsibility - still remain today.

Featured Project

Max Fordham House