Tom Wilcock on advanced technology and research

Senior engineer Tom Wilcock recently relocated from our London office to grow the advanced technology and research (AT+R) practice in New York. We spoke with him about AT+R and his plans for the Americas.


The AT+R group was born out of a desire to find ways of transferring technology between different engineering disciplines to create value for our clients. We take technology used in one area and apply it where it’s novel in another.

Early in the history of the group, some 25 years ago, we took technology that was developed to help the US government understand missile impact and used it to analyze the crash performance of nuclear flasks for moving spent nuclear fuel around the country. That work highlighted the benefits of taking advanced simulation and applying it to new areas.

What does a typical project AT+R project look like?

I’m not sure that there’s a typical project for AT+R, because we have a skill set that can be applied across all Arup’s practices. A nice example is the use of a tool that’s more typically applied to car crash testing, LS-DYNA, to analyze two radically different buildings. One is a 52-story tower in Mexico City, Torre Ejecutiva, and the second is a single-story mud, timber, and stone house of the kind commonly built in Pakistan, particularly after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake.

LS-DYNA allows us to simulate the seismic performance of a building more realistically than traditional design methods. We take a numerical model of a building and a real recording of an earthquake somewhere in the world. We then modify the earthquake so it’s got the characteristics of the site’s location; different places in the world have different exposures to earthquakes. So we’ve got real earthquake data and a simulated model of the building, and we combine those two things, shake the numerical model, and then examine how the building performs.

This is something that we do fairly routinely on high-rise buildings in seismic zones. It’s very rarely applied to the design of simple low-rise buildings, however. In particular, the thing that is very different about this project is that we applied it to a building type which doesn’t use typical engineered components. It doesn’t use reinforced concrete or steel or glass or any of the palette of materials that the architects we work with tend to use. It’s a vernacular technology developed over thousands of years that has been shown to sometimes work quite well in seismic events, but other times not very well.

There’s been a lack of understanding as to what the determining factor is in whether it works or otherwise. So we’ve applied this very high-tech thinking to the most low-tech of buildings to explore ways of improving the seismic performance of those structures, with the long-term goal of producing simple design guidelines for people who build them.


Model of traditional Pakistani house after being virtually tested to earthquake conditions

Who was the client for that project, or was it internally funded?

The interest and the idea came through the UN, with some external funding raised by the conservation specialist Randolph Langenbach. The bulk of the funding came from an Arup fund.

There’s an AT+R group in San Francisco, and you’re here to start one in New York. How does the group compare to what other firms have in house, or to specialist units that do similar work?

It’s unusual to have a group of people who have both this level of specialism but also the opportunity to work on so many different types of projects. This is made possible, I guess, by Arup’s culture of funding R+D and investing in skills for its people and projects. AT+R plays a key part in that. In the UK we host the structural support group, which runs our structural skills network. So it’s one of the technical backbones of the firm.

How does the research funding work? Do you find an issue that needs to be studied for a project and apply for internal funding, or is it more like pure research?

Our research comes in a number of forms. We do have strong links with academia, and we support research with academic partners. However, most of the research that goes on is borne out of experience on projects. Because 50% of our work is internal and 50% is for external clients, we’re well placed to understand both the challenges that Arup is facing and the opportunities and challenges in the broader market. We’re able to shape research projects based on both sets of experience.

Most of the research that goes on is borne out of experience on projects

What type of projects are you likely to work on?

The New York office is at a very exciting point; the breadth of our projects here is fantastic, and the team is heavily involved in Arup’s development in Latin America. So I think that there are a number of ways that we can assist Arup’s clients, both in New York and in the areas around the world where the New York office works. One is looking at blast performance of buildings. A second is helping some of our global clients as they move into Latin America from North America. Arup has a presence there of people who are well equipped to do that, and AT+R will be able to provide the technical backup.

Beyond that, the group of architects that Arup works with continues to push the boundaries of traditional engineering. AT+R is well placed to assist in developing new ways to enable those creative visions.

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