Over a Coffee . . . with Dr Konrad Xuereb, Architect & Structural Engineer

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“Pedestrian bridges do not only connect people to places but also with each other, causing the bridge to become a destination for human interactions. I like calling this an exercise in ‘place-making’.” says Architect & Structural Engineer Dr Konrad Xuereb, founder of KonceptX.

Q. You are based in London. What took you to London and how does the city inspire you?

A. I moved to London in 2002 after a year in Milan, planning to stay there for a year or two, but I am still working there, 17 years later. I find working in such a dynamic, international city inspiring, especially because everything is done so thoroughly and professionals from every sector strive to be the best in their field.

London pushes you beyond your comfort zone: you are encouraged to explore, question, experiment and research, operating at the cutting edge of your profession. With regard to architecture and structural engineering, for instance, there is a huge emphasis on sustainability and new buildings are planned in such a way that even their future re-utilisation and deconstruction are taken into consideration.

From a cultural perspective, London has also been extremely enriching and I am fascinated by international art and jazz concerts. Today I split my time between London and Valletta, running two separate offices in both capital cities.

Q. What would be the projects you are most proud of and why?

A. From a community point of view, Castleford Bridge in Yorkshire is one of my favourite projects as it helped regenerate an isolated part of an old, mining town by linking it to the town centre, changing lives in the process.

The project involved consultation with local communities to inform the design of the 130 metre long pedestrian bridge which became a focal point for the area. This bridge has won several international awards and is a source of pride for the town and its residents.

I have since worked on other pedestrian bridges, including the openable Scale Lane Bridge in Hull, UK and the recently completed pedestrian bridge in Terni, Italy, which links the station to a part of the town which was previously detached from the centre.

Pedestrian bridges do not only connect people to places but also with each other, causing the bridge to become a destination for human interactions. I like calling this an exercise in ‘place-making’.

Apart from bridges, another exciting project I worked on in the past years was the Al Bahr Towers in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE) which feature an adaptive façade with an automated system of openable shading devices that help control solar heat gain and solar glare within the towers. Energy usage in the towers is in fact reduced by approximately 40%, in line with the UAE’s “Energy Strategy 2050” which primarily aims to increase the contribution of clean energy into total energy mix to 50% by 2050.

As you can imagine, it is difficult to design sustainable buildings like these, especially in hot places like Abu Dhabi. But truly, it is all about research, thinking ahead and being future-conscious.

Q. A couple of years ago you decided to open an office in Valletta. What spurred this move?

A. Having completing my PhD at University College London and subsequently setting up my London practice in 2015, the time felt right a couple of years ago for my growing family to move to Malta and to concurrently extend my new private practice here, where I believe there is a strong need for sustainable development and innovation in structural engineering and architecture.

In Valletta, I lead a small team which is focusing on selective projects on listed buildings, sensitive refurbishments and other complex projects.

I have also been using my experience to propose solutions for macro-scale connectivity projects built on the notion that the future holds interesting opportunities worth aspiring to.

Q. Currently, the architecture profession is between a rock and a hard place. How are you personally looking at how this saga is developing? What are your views?

A. Having worked in London for a considerable time, comparisons are difficult to avoid. To give one example, in the UK, there is a huge amount of awareness of the value of built heritage and it is taken for granted that historic or unique buildings should be preserved and restored rather than simply demolished and replaced.

My firm is currently working on a 6-storey listed building in Knightsbridge (West London) which also features a deep basement in complex ground conditions. It is fascinating to see the intricate processes, checks and standards that the project team have to attain in order to make sure this building and its neighbouring properties remain safe throughout works, including continuous monitoring of movements throughout construction. This is the price that needs to be paid to ensure top quality and real value.

In Malta, sooner or later the industry is bound to change altogether as we have reached a point where planning needs to become more stringent. With tighter rental laws and mortgage conditions, people will only want to invest in properties of the best standards. The industry might contract a bit but long-term, it’s the only solution if we are serious that the industry is to strengthen and ameliorate.

The architecture profession and government have been working to improve the situation, but property developers and contractors also need to up their game, ensuring that health, safety and building standards are nothing but top notch. There also needs to be a shift in the local approach to planning, especially through the development of proper masterplans.

Inevitably, construction will increase in cost and clients might start thinking twice before investing but in the long run, we will all benefit from increased quality and sustainability.

Q. You became quite known with your Metro proposal for Malta and more recently the footbridge project connecting Valletta to Sliema. Have you studied these projects more? Have they become more possible?

A. Mobility is a key issue in Malta. An underground metro system, and to a smaller extent, a Valletta-Sliema footbridge are two projects that will not only make life better and healthier to so many people, but will also drastically change our lifestyle, the way we commute and ultimately, the environment.

I was really pleased by the positive feedback and the enthusiasm with which both our proposals have been met by people from across the entire political spectrum.

Of course, nothing is set in stone and it is up to the authorities to finally take the decision to invest in such projects. But my firm has done our background research: we went into the engineering, the costings and all the financials involved and both projects are feasible. We are not only looking at the costs involved but also the huge return on investment in terms of money which is currently being lost due to intangible aspects such as lost productivity, transport delays, stress related to traffic as well as pollution which is leading to respiratory and other chronic illnesses.

All we need is the political will to take this huge step into the future. Whether we like it or not, sustainability is going to become the name of the game and we either play the game, or all stand to lose.

Personal questions :

Favourite Time of the day: Early morning

Favourite Dish: Salmon Teriyaki

How do you take your Coffee: Espresso 

Your Favourite Quote: Less is more

Over a Coffee is produced by Ci Consulta – Corporate Identities 

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