Max Fordham obituary
Max Fordham, who has died aged 88, changed the way that buildings in Britain are heated, lit, powered and ventilated more than any other engineer of his generation. Trained in the sciences, he brought a new creative and intellectual rigour to the problems of plumbing and wiring, bringing the disparate building services trades together in a single holistic approach. Tackling problems from first principles, he founded his practice on the idea of engineers embedding scientific knowledge in the art of building design, in a way that has since become ubiquitous.
He always instructed colleagues to “start with the edge of the universe as a boundary and quickly narrow down to the specific problem”. While other engineers might reach for the ventilation grille catalogue, Fordham began by asking how air should enter a room, and why. At a time when heating and lighting was usually an afterthought, he worked with architects from the very beginning of the design process, developing practical, elegant, low-energy solutions, pioneering sustainable design long before the term was coined.
From the Alexandra Road housing estate in north London to Tate St Ives, to the Contact theatre in Manchester, he championed natural daylighting, passive solar heating and airtight construction in ways that have since been adopted and codified as standard practice. Sustainability should be a given, he thought, if something is designed well.
When he set up his practice in 1966 with his wife, Thalia “Taddy” Dyson, working out of their bedroom, it was one of the first firms in the UK to conceive the building services as a single discipline, combining previously siloed trades. As Fordham said in a 2017 interview: “I remember going to meetings with engineers for electrical, public health and mechanical ventilation – it seemed bonkers.” Instead, his would be a one-stop shop.
His big break came when the architecture firm Arup Associates, where he had started out in his career, asked him to design the heating system for the 1,000-flat Hulme 5 housing estate in Manchester, for which he came up with a new method of sizing and drawing up pipes. He developed a style of detailed technical drawing that became an exemplar for future projects, presenting the information for the entire scheme on just three sheets of A3 paper.
Soon after, he was commissioned to work on Neave Brown’s Alexandra Road estate in Camden, London, for which he designed a novel heating system cast into the concrete party walls. This led to work on Newport high school, by Evans & Shalev architects, completed in 1972, which saw an extraordinary level of detailing for the time, such as conduits threaded through preformed holes in the structural columns, so that sockets appeared to emerge seamlessly from the concrete.
Such invention continued throughout Fordham’s career, with solutions such as the glazing apertures at Tate St Ives in Cornwall, designed like a camera iris, to control the levels of daylight reaching sensitive artworks, or the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester, where the air distribution, seating and electrics were all completely integrated in a high-tech pod worthy of a Nasa landing module. The Joseph Banks building at Kew Gardens, built in 1984, incorporated ground source heat pumps decades before they became mainstream, while the design of the roof lights for the National Trust headquarters in Swindon massively reduced the need for artificial lighting.
For the Caspar low-cost housing project in Leeds, completed in 2000 (later demolished over structural concerns), Fordham used airtightness to reduce heat loss, meaning all the heating the flats needed came from the residents’ body heat – and a 50-watt lightbulb. The lessons of Caspar informed the design of Fordham’s own house in Camden, built in 2019, which incorporated automatic sliding thermal shutters designed to cover the windows at night when they would lose the most heat. Prototyped using pieces of Lego Technic, the mechanism was inspired by the seal of car windows, which Fordham noted remain airtight at 80 miles an hour.
As the defining building services engineer of the era, he often found himself working for competing teams of architects. A series of Chinese walls had to be erected in the office for the Kew competition, when the firm found themselves working with 32 rival practices. More recently, for the Windermere Jetty Museum competition, they were on 63 different teams.
Born in Highgate, north London, Max was the son of Molly (nee Swabey), a journalist at Vogue magazine and the News Chronicle newspaper, and Michael Fordham, a Jungian child psychiatrist. He attended the progressive Dartington Hall boarding school in Devon, which he remembered fondly as having a “completely undisciplined environment”.
There was no uniform, classes were optional, and the day began with a period of mandatory “useful work”, where students helped to maintain the school buildings. Fordham became skilled in carpentry and metalwork, learning about push-fit and compression pipework, and made an electric hotplate for the kitchen.
He likened his schooldays to an apprenticeship, during which he first discovered a love of designing and problem-solving as well as leadership: he was elected chairman of the pupil-run democracy for several years. The democratic and mildly anarchic structure of the school would go on to have a strong influence on the organisation of his own practice.
Following two years of national service as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm, Fordham read natural sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge, specialising in chemistry, physics, maths and mineralogy. He found the narrow focus of life as a pure scientist unappealing, preferring the company of arts and humanities students. His housemate Simon Nicholson, son of the artists Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, introduced him to a creative circle of architects and artists, including Sir Leslie Martin, architect of the Royal Festival Hall and head of the university’s architecture department. Martin suggested Fordham consider a career in heating and ventilation engineering, where he could apply his aptitude for theoretical physics to an industry that was then lacking in such skills.
Graduating in 1957, Fordham began working as a development engineer at Weatherfoil Heating Systems, a contracting company, which gave him a broad introduction to the building industry. There he designed an innovative fan convection heating system for Martin’s celebrated Harvey Court student accommodation building in Cambridge, and was named as the inventor when it was patented.
He met Taddy around this time, marrying in 1960. She introduced him to her landlord, the architect Sir Philip Dowson, founding partner of the Building Group at Ove Arup engineers (now Arup Associates). Dowson offered him a job, and Fordham spent the next five years honing his technical skills, mastering an ability to draw all of the building services in complete detail, expanding his repertoire to include mechanical and electrical engineering, as well as public health, before setting up his own firm.
Fordham often said that the design of the practice itself was something he was as proud of as any building. In 1973, motivated by the plight of precariously employed dockers, he turned his company into a co-operative, with the slogan: “Anyone fit to be an employee is fit to be a partner.” The principle was expanded in 2001, when the firm became the first business in the British construction industry to become a limited liability partnership (LLP). “It’s not a profit-sharing scheme,” Fordham said, “but a responsibility-sharing scheme.” In an echo of his schooldays, the majority of the company could decide to overthrow the leadership at any time.
As a voracious polymath, he preferred not to employ building services graduates, but hired people with a broad range of backgrounds, from zoology to botany, product design and mathematics. As one colleague recalled: “Max’s skill was to take brilliant people, who didn’t know anything whatsoever about building services, and give them space to think.” He was interested in absolutely everything, they added, “which wasn’t always completely easy for the people around him”. A question about a design problem would often turn into a philosophical conversation long into the night, ranging from thermodynamics to trade winds and the origins of the universe.
Alongside the practice, Fordham was a visiting professor at the University of Bath from 1990 until his death, and received numerous honours, including being made OBE in 1994.
Taddy died in 2017. He is survived by their three sons, Jason, Cato and Finn, and four grandchildren.
• Max Sigurd Fordham, engineer, born 17 June 1933; died 4 January 2022