Andy Toohey
BEng CEng MIStructE

It’s been said that integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is looking. But what if someone is looking in 50 years’ time? When working on an existing building, part of an engineer’s responsibility is to thoroughly investigate the structure to understand what they’re working with. It’s an experience that has given Andy Toohey pause when he thinks about how he approaches his work. ‘Working with old buildings, you see the cracks and distortions, and you investigate them, and you expose the terrible things that have been done to the building in the past – by the march of time, by a lack of maintenance and unfortunately often by a lack of care from other engineers and contractors – sometimes even the original construction isn’t that good’ he explains. He recognises that today’s new buildings are tomorrow’s old buildings. ‘If, in 50 years, someone opens up one of my projects to investigate my work, I want them to think ‘this guy really knew what he was doing – really took care and understood what was happening.

Although it was probably written in the tea leaves that Andy would become a structural engineer, his path to the profession featured a few crossroads that may have taken him in other directions. An excellent student of physics and maths at school, Andy also harboured an interest in loud music that led him initially to acoustic engineering at Southampton University. His high school Economics teacher even suggested he’d make a good fist of that discipline too, but Andy baulked at the idea – ‘there were no right answers! Engineering offered me a better opportunity for getting it right.’

It was a gap year journey around Europe that fomented the idea of a career in structural engineering. ‘I was on an Interrail trip with a friend,’ Andy recalls. ‘Somehow, he lost his passport and his money and had to go home. I decided to stay on and travel around Europe on my own. Being on my own allowed me to look around. Sit and look.’ Freed from the teenaged demands of a road trip, Andy started to see buildings in a different way. ‘These were magnificent, ancient things. I knew that I would never write a symphony or paint a painting that would last hundreds of years. But I could contribute to new buildings or look after old buildings that will endure, and that’s a worthwhile contribution to the future.’

On his return, Andy changed courses at Southampton to undertake a civil engineering degree. It was here that names like Ove Arup and Ted Happold began to enter his consciousness. ‘That’s when I recognised engineering as a creative pursuit – not dry and mathematical. I thought this is interesting. Engineering is a different kind of creativity.’ Out of university, his first job interview, at engineers Alan Baxter, confirmed his career choice. It was an all-day interview, and it included a design exercise on one of the practice’s existing projects. ‘I surprised myself! We had to demonstrate how we might alter the building. Knock this wall out, knock that wall out, change the roof. It was an architectural challenge as well as an engineering one. Not only about maths and science, but about an understanding of people’s interactions with a building.’ At the completion of the task, a penny had dropped. ‘I get this!’. Andy also got the job.

Some engineers harbour a secret. That had life turned out differently, they may have found themselves practising architecture. Andy is not one of those engineers. ‘The world of architecture hasn’t missed anything with me not choosing it’. One of his early jobs at Price & Myers was working on a new bridge design, with the engineers as the lead consultant. He thought that it might be fun being the one giving the orders for a change. In discovering otherwise, he confirmed what he loves about engineering, and what he does well. ‘The blank piece of paper is terrifying. That job was a valuable lesson to me, about what I’m good at, and about the respect that architects deserve,’ he explains. ‘I like a problem that’s constrained in some way. Not one with endless and open options. I enjoy the confines of the brief, and one of my strengths is coming up with options within those confines. I’ve worked on projects, on central London sites where the levels change; there’s archaeology; fourteen different buildings back onto it; it’s a really odd shape; and you can’t get a piling rig in there. How are you going to do it? How are you going to make this work? That gets everything whirring away for me. The challenges guide you to the solutions.’

Andy designs for durability and longevity, an ideal at the heart of his belief in sustainable construction. ‘I want to design things that will last a long time. If we are not approaching it that way, we shouldn’t be building.’ He notes that durability is not just about the qualities of the materials and their robustness. It’s also about how something is designed, and the emotions it generates. ‘How flexible are the floorplates? How are people going to maintain the building? How will they use it in another way? How will they fix it? Will they love it? If people can’t do these things, then they will tear it down and start again, and that’s bad news for all of us.’ Price & Myers treats the environment as a stakeholder in the practice, an important consideration for every project. Andy is an advocate for that stakeholder. ‘I encourage every client to build the best quality building they can with the money they have. Choosing materials is crucial. Plasterboard looks good on day one, but it looks terrible in two years’ time. Brick and stone and timber just get better and better. Often it just comes down to working out nice, clear ways for different materials to come together.’

It can’t be that simple, can it?

‘It isn’t, and that’s ok. I quite like it to be complicated,’ Andy continues. ‘I like when there are a lot of demands. I’m trying to find simplicity out of complexity. I’m looking for inevitability. People might think of course it looks like that – but actually you’ve sketched out umpteen different ways, different materials, different arrangements to get there.’

As a Partner at Price & Myers, Andy is one of the senior custodians of the culture of the practice. Some time spent working for a big multi-national years ago focused his view on what’s important. ‘The character of the practice is of a supportive, friendly place. You can’t have the culture we have here if you are only doing massive projects overseas, all the time,’ he acknowledges. ‘P&M is a broad church but with quality as the overarching ambition. We want to be better than everyone else. If it’s not better, we shouldn’t be doing it.’


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