Obituary: Michael Dickson

Michael Dickson, CBE, structural engineer, 1944-2018

Michael Dickson, CBE, a founding partner of Buro Happold, passed away on Monday 28 May 2018. A warm-hearted and generous man with a passion for engineering, Michael was a highly creative designer and teacher, and was widely recognised as an influential figure in the built environment sector.

Following a degree in Mechanical Sciences (Engineering) at Cambridge University, and an MS in Structural Engineering and Town Planning at Cornell University, USA, Michael joined Ove Arup in 1968. He was one of a pioneering group of young engineers who left Ove Arup with Ted Happold in 1976 to form a new engineering practice in Bath; Buro Happold. Following Ted Happold’s untimely death in 1996, Michael became chairman, leading the practice for the next nine years as it grew into a successful global business.

Michael with the other seven founding partners of Buro Happold circa late 1970s

Michael led the engineering of a series of exceptional projects worldwide, building lasting relationships with internationally renowned architects. He was unwavering in his commitment to building responsibly and touching the earth lightly. His construction philosophy – inspired by Frei Otto, a long-standing colleague – was that the most efficient use of the right materials is at the core of sustainability. This belief still lies at the heart of Buro Happold’s vision to this day.

“Michael needed to see how the building worked from every aspect. He always wanted to make a building less complicated”
Mike Cook, past Chairman at Buro Happold

Notable projects where Michael’s engineering passion is evidenced include:

  • Large-scale, stainless-steel mesh aviary in Munich Zoo, using the mesh as the load-carrying structure with a series of push-up and pull-down masts creating a sinuous form (architects: Jorg Gribl with Frei Otto). Similar aviaries were subsequently created in San Diego (architects: Buss Silvers) and Hong Kong Ocean Park (architects: Leigh & Orange).
  • A cable net roof for the sports hall at King AbdulAziz University (architects: Rolf Gutbrod with Frei Otto) where the whole cable net was assembled on the ground, then lifted into place by jacking-up on the masts and clad in a PVC/polyester membrane.
  • Innovative timber-arched workshop using green timber thinnings cut straight from the nearby woods at Hooke Park, Dorset (architects: Ahrends Burton & Koralek with Frei Otto) for well-known furniture maker, John Makepeace.
  • The Queen’s Building at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, built using post-tensioned Ketton limestone blocks to create the structural frame to echo the buttresses of a mediaeval chapel (Hopkins Architects).
  • Al Faisaliah Complex, Riyadh, (architect Foster+Partners), which plays a central role in Riyadh’s urban development. The Complex is centred around Saudi Arabia’s first skyscraper – an impressive 267-metre-high office tower.
  • Stuttgart 21 railway station roof (Ingenhoven Architects with Frei Otto) – part of a significant urban development reshaping the centre of Stuttgart.
  • A cardboard tube gridshell roof for the Japanese Pavilion at Expo 2000, Hanover (architects: Shigeru Ban with Frei Otto). The project touched the earth lightly – the entire building, including all foundations, was recycled on the conclusion of the Expo.
  • Downland Gridshell Building, at the Weald and Downland Museum, Sussex – the first timber gridshell building to be constructed in the UK (architects: Cullinan Studio).
  • Savill Building Visitor Centre, Windsor Great Park, Berkshire, (architect: Glenn Howells). The largest timber gridshell roof in the UK, this spectacular three-domed, undulating timber structure was based on the strong, natural form of a seashell, and constructed from sustainable, locally-produced materials.

“Michael needed to see how the building worked from every aspect. He believed passionately that structural engineers are about understanding their materials, and he would look for ways to harmonise the architecture with the way the building worked. He always wanted to make a building less complicated,” says Mike Cook, past Chairman at Buro Happold. “He was ever-mindful of the needs of the visitors, teachers, students, curators, workers, business teams, and athletes, who would eventually use the building. Michael understood the importance of the human side to even the most advanced architectural visions.”

In 1989, following the Hillsborough tragedy, Michael was invited to join Lord Justice Taylor’s Working Group on the Safety of Sports Grounds.

Michael continued to develop his influence across the industry as a leading and active voice for change. He served as a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Structural Safety, and as Chairman of the Construction Industry Council in 2002, Chairman of the Institution of Structural Engineers’ (IStructE) New Construction Research and Innovation Strategy Panel, and then as President of IStructE in 2005/6. He also chaired IStructE’s Task Group on ‘Building for a Sustainable Future – construction without depletion.’

Michael’s keenness to see the experience of his generation passed on to younger engineers across the industry is one of his greatest legacies. He served as Chairman of the Happold Foundation from 1996 – 2005, subsequently continuing as a trustee of the Foundation. “I feel that the work this charity does in furthering the value of engineering and humanitarian engineering to the public, as well as its support for young engineers the world over, is vital to the built environment”, Michael Dickson.

Michael built a long-lasting relationship with the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering at the University of Bath. As a visiting professor, he was still regularly teaching students working on interdisciplinary design projects until 2014. Michael’s commitment to educating young engineers set a precedent across the business which continues to thrive today. His work at University of Bath and his contribution to the industry as a whole, was recognised with an Honorary Doctorate in 2007.

“He was a tremendous role model, particularly to young people of all backgrounds. He encouraged young engineers and designers to think from a holistic perspective, helping them place sustainability at the heart of all engineering decisions,” says Paul Rogers, Senior Partner at Buro Happold.

Michael was awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for services to engineering in 2005. His first book, ‘Sustainable Timber Design’, written with Dave Parker, was published in 2015. His second book, ‘Structural Materials in Sustainable Architecture’, written with Peter Walker, will be published in 2019.

Memories of his insight, creativity, and generosity of spirit, will be cherished by the partners of Buro Happold and the thousands of engineers who have developed careers in and around the practice.

Michael is survived by his wife, Effie, and two daughters, Amy and Sarah. He will be greatly missed by family, friends, and colleagues alike.

Michael Dickson CBE, BA, MS, CEng, FREng,

FIStructE, FICE, FRSA, Hon FRIBA, Hon DEng

22 September 1944 to 28 May 2018

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