Profiles in design: Arup Fellow Alisdair McGregor

Starchitects aside, we hear little about the individuals whose cumulative decisions shape the built environment. To peer behind the curtain of today’s design field, we’re asking engineers, architects, policymakers, and others about their personal experiences and opinions.

Alisdair McGregor, a principal and Arup Fellow in Arup’s San Francisco office, spoke with us about energy, building codes, and trying to get a recording contract.


How do you describe what you do to people who aren’t in this industry?

The short answer is I’m trying to design buildings or neighborhoods that use as few resources as possible but still produce a great place to live, a great place to work.

When you were a kid, were you like, “I’m going to be an engineer?”

That’s a good question. The educational system in the UK makes us specialize far too soon, but yes, I saw myself doing engineering in high school, because I enjoyed building things. My undergrad degree was in civil engineering. I worked for a contractor for almost three years, then went back to university to do a research doctorate. That’s really when I got interested in energy in buildings. After leaving Leeds University I was looking for a design firm that was multidisciplinary, and that is what attracted me to Arup. Fortunately they offered me a job.

Did you work in the London office when you started?

Yes. The first project I worked on was the Lloyd’s of London building, which was a pretty radical design at the time. All the engineering services were exposed, so there was a lot of coordination with the architects, Richard Rogers Partnership.

lloyd's of london building

Lloyd’s of London

That’s where I really got the bug for doing what I do, working with the whole design team to produce the best building — not just the best mechanical system. I was also fortunate to have the late Peter Rice as our group director and the structural leader of the Lloyd’s project. His intellect and creativity were an inspiration to me.

You said your doctorate focused on energy in buildings. Was that something a lot of people were focusing on at that time?

Not so much. Traditionally you would design the mechanical systems only after the architectural design is done, whereas my PhD work looked at energy flows through buildings — basically thinking about how you would design the whole building to make it work better from an energy standpoint rather than leaving the engineering to the end. Now on all our projects we try to see how far you can design the building without the mechanical systems — thinking about building massing and passive systems, for example. When you’ve got the building performing right, then you start looking at, “What mechanical equipment do we need to put in?”

isometric-diagram stanford energy and environment

Isometric diagram of Stanford University’s Environment and Energy Building, demonstrating passive cooling strategies relying on natural ventilation

How was that transition from working for a contractor to academia and then back to working for a company?

There were a number of things that led me to going back to doing research. When I was working with the contractor, and for a short time doing independent design contracting part time, I was playing saxophone in a rock band. We were trying to make it. I thought if I worked part time we’d get a bit further. We had a lot of fun but never got a recording contract, so we decided to call it quits.

alisdair mcgregor

McGregor in 1976

Almost on a whim, I applied to do PhD research. But after three years of working with academics, I decided that really wasn’t where it was at.

What was the band’s name?

The Lesser-Known Tunisians. We played sort of slightly jazzy rock and quite a bit of satire. We played the London pub circuit, some college gigs and local pubs. We’re all still friends.

What did the others go on to do?

This is quite funny. Our bass player also went back to do a PhD. He and I have known each other since the age of 10; we lived on opposite sides of the street in a small village. He’s now a professor of medical imaging at University College London. Dave, the drummer, is a COO of a television production company. Adam, the guitarist, is also a college professor, in business studies. John, who was the guitarist and singer, is still playing music.

Was the saxophone always your instrument?

I didn’t start playing until I was 18. Funnily enough, I just started playing again. Last December, I said, “You know what? I’m going to pull out that saxophone that’s been sitting unused for almost 40 years.” Then my wife said, “Okay, well I’m going to start playing the piano.” So we play stuff together.

You’ve been in the US for almost 30 years now. Do you think you’ve become Americanized? Is there a big difference between the way things are done in the UK and here?

Well, we still use stupid units here. That’s a source of frustration. But generally there’s a lot of similarity in the actual work we do. The variations are more contractual.

Probably my biggest misconception when I first moved here was that engineering practice across the US would be uniform. It’s anything but. Each state has different variations on the code. California has probably had the strictest energy codes. We tend to think we’re pushing the envelope a little bit harder here.

On all our projects we try to see how far you can design the building without the mechanical systems.

What role do designers play in those variations? Does the profession have a lot of impact from an advocacy standpoint — helping to push for stronger codes and the like — or is our impact more on the execution side?

To some extent, both. We’ve been having conversations here about how much we should get involved in pushing for better regulations. Elizabeth Joyce in our office has been looking at policy implications. We’re fortunate in that we work with clients that want to push the envelope, but at the same time we want to try and approach your state or your local government to raise the minimum. That’s really why the codes are there — to make sure that a good minimum is put into practice.

What does innovation mean to you?

I struggle with the proclamation “innovation.” A lot of what we do is not really coming up with something entirely new, but combining things in a way that they haven’t been combined before. It’s going into an early design meeting and listening to all the different impacts and influences on a project and then working out what we can do. Is there a process in the project that we can take waste from and use that waste for something else? That kind of thing.

Alisdair McGregor

McGregor and his wife mixing mud and straw to create wall plaster for a Habitat for Humanity build in rural Nepal. “The mud dance gave great amusement to the children in the village,” he said.

From the standpoint of climate change mitigation, what do you see as the most promising things happening today? What could actually make a big difference?

In the early 2000s we got to what I call the dilemma of the net-zero-energy building. You want a net-zero-energy building, so you go out to one of the business parks in San Ramon Valley, where I live, and build a two-story building, put PV on the roof and over parking lots — you’ve got a net-zero-energy building. But the carbon impact of everyone driving their cars there negates the whole benefit of doing it. Whereas if you build an energy-efficient building in the city, it’s very hard to make it net zero because you haven’t got enough real estate to put PVs up, but your transport impact is much reduced.

Now people are recognizing that you have to get that balance right.

Two Degrees: The Built Environment and Our Changing Climate

McGregor coauthored 2013’s “Two Degrees: The Built Environment and Our Changing Climate” with two colleagues from Arup

That conversation probably looks very different in different places, though. So many people prefer suburban lifestyles.

I think that’s changing. Not everywhere, but certainly in San Francisco. Of course, the downside is that that’s driving up housing costs. It’s not an easy problem to solve.

But thinking at a neighborhood or city level is something that’s fascinated me for quite some time. There are so many opportunities to create big solutions, and in our office we have technical people for all aspects of that. You can just actually have these casual conversations about how you get everything to work together.

That’s one of the things that I still enjoy. We have a lot of really smart people at Arup, and we listen to each other, talk to each other. I’ve never been in a position where I come in and say, because I’m a principal, “This is what we’re doing. Don’t argue with me. I’ve made my mind up.” There’s this constant intellectual discussion around trying to do things better.


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