The Big Interview with Mike Cook

Structural engineer and former Buro Happold Chairman, Mike Cook, talks about taking on the role as Chairman of Seratech and why his work has always been about finding ways of using less material to deliver greater results.

By Natasha Higgins-Schjelderup

8/21/20235 min read

Mid way through our interview, Mike points out that when spiders come to make their webs, birds their nests or snails their protective shells, they can’t afford to waste materials. “That’s hard-earned stuff,” he says. “Not only are the forms that nature uses beautiful, but also efficient and effective”.

Emulating nature through design and the efficient use of materials are themes that come up frequently through the course of our discussion. Mike, who’s engineering career spans nearly 50 years, traces this back to a pre-university job with Ove Arup in 1973. It was there that he met structural engineer Ted Happold who needed an engineering student to help with model testing of the lattice shell roof of the Mannheim Multihalle, a very complex multi-curved timber roof which was being designed.

As the story goes, halfway through his engineering degree at Cambridge, Mike got a call from Ian Liddell who explained that he, Ted Happold and the Mannheim team had left Ove Arup to set up a new firm by the name of Buro Happold, in Bath. Mike remembers the conversation well: “He said that if I wanted a holiday job, I could do some more model testing for more strangely shaped buildings”.

Mike would later develop a fascination with shell structures and cable nets which he attributes to his colleagues at Buro Happold and the engineer come architect Frei Otto, who was behind many of the great projects the practice delivered and was largely responsible for getting Buro Happold off the ground.

Mike began to seek out ways to make projects more efficient and effective by using shape – learning from natural shells and webs. Indeed, the first such project on which he really felt he was “let loose” was being sent on-site to supervise the construction of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in 1986. “It was the most incredible and unusual structure in which three cable nets had to be put up high in the air to go over a concert hall, a theatre, and a huge foyer. They needed someone who understood the challenges and dangers of working with cables in the air – a lot could go wrong, and no one had done anything like this before”.

“The trickiest part was getting the concrete up there so that the cable nets would become shells once the concrete cured. Controlling the movements of the cable nets as you poured concrete into the suspended beams was no mean feat. So, by the time I’d done that and got back to the UK, I was ready for anything!”.

Similarly, in 1998 he was asked to work with Foster + Partners to support the competition entry they were putting in for opening up the British Museum’s courtyard – the Great Court. He explains that to make the roof structure as light as they wanted, it was necessary to make it like a very curvy shell. It was a complex geometrical form but it looked stunning as they started modelling it. The challenge was finding someone to build it. “With meeting Frei Otto and seeing how his designs emulated nature, I always believed that good structural engineering was about using the least material to the best effect and trying to use natural materials because they seemed less environmentally harmful,” Mike says.

“The harm we’ve done to the atmosphere means that nature is now responding in a very negative way – the challenges are growing exponentially.”

The subject of environmental harm is one Mike feels passionately about. His response to the challenges of climate change led him to be awarded The Gold Medal by the Institution of Structural Engineers in 2020. Mike readily admits, however, that he had not fully appreciated, until quite late on his career, the direct CO2 impact the materials he was specifying, such as steel and concrete, were having on the environment. “Right through the nineties and into the noughties, there was huge emphasis on operational energy and making buildings run efficiently using less fossil fuel.

“I hadn’t fully understood that the embodied CO2 emissions in the materials we use as engineers to construct our buildings, is having a massive impact too”.

Mike remembers a train journey in 2018 with the architect Steve Tompkins in which Steve told him he was about to launch the Architects Declaration of Climate and Biodiversity Emergency. The aim was to get architects to start setting different criteria for their designs. Mike felt that if architects were doing that, then engineers had to do the same: “The criteria we set for what ‘good engineering’ looks like, needed to change,” he explains.

“We set a series of Engineers Declarations to go in parallel with Architects Declare and the initiative was launched across the built environment professions.”

Mike says it’s hard not to feel strongly about the climate crisis when you realise how enormous the challenges are. This is what led him to get excited about Seratech, which he describes as “a startup by two research students at Imperial College who found a way to reduce the impact that cement making was having on carbon emissions and climate change”.

“I feel that with Seratech there is real possibility to reduce the carbon footprint of the construction industry - economically”. In 2021 Mike was made Chairman of the company and set about doing all he could to help make sure that what sounded like such a good idea would come to fruition and not end up being a pipe dream.

He is quick to point out that it’s hard to escape the fact that cement and its role in creating concrete is an incredibly low-cost way of producing a very effective and useful building material. “It’s hard to imagine a developing world that can’t use cement and concrete. We simply can’t create a whole new global industry around a new material – the infrastructure for making cement and concrete is massive and global – we can’t put it in the bin. We need a low carbon or zero carbon concrete so we can still use all the manufacturing plant and technologies that we understand. It’s the right material but it must have its carbon footprint removed. Seratech’s technologies show a way this should be possible – they add on to existing processes and their materials work just like the ones we already use in construction”.

All this from a man who understands building materials like none other. He has dedicated his life to efficient and effective construction using the strong, the stretchy, the stiff. However, as the ice sheets continue to melt and global heating leads to more CO2, Mike understands how serious the problem is for our environment and ecosystem including the habitats of birds, snails and spiders that have provided such inspiration.

Drawn Thought by Mike Cook, exploring Mike’s career and co-creativity in building design, is now available on Kindle.

Mike Cook as a student