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Engineer for humanity: In conversation with Tristram Carfrae

If you’ve heard Tristram Carfrae speak, then you know he is a pretty inspiring individual. He is a natural leader of people and monumental projects that represent change for good. In this interview he speaks about Arup’s “secret sauce” and the challenge of channelling Gaudi.

Engineer for humanity: In conversation with Tristram Carfrae

Tristram Carfrae.

This article on Tristram Carfrae was first published in INDESIGN Magazine, Issue #90, you can purchase the issue here.

Tristram Carfrae is a people person. Which is quite lucky, because his job over the past four-plus decades has seen him climb the ranks from graduate structural engineer to global leader in one of the industry’s most people-oriented, member-owned firms: Arup.

What has kept him stimulated and engaged on this growth journey with Arup, especially considering he has been with the company for more than half its life? Perhaps the answer lies in ex-chairman Terry Hill’s belief that Arup’s “secret sauce” is in the simple mandate that you “get good people and let them do what they want”. It’s an unconventional business model, but it’s worked for Arup, which has grown from a single UK office into a global company of 19,000 staff working across 140 countries.

For Carfrae it’s certainly fed his ambitions, fresh out of university as the proverbial “lump of clay” ready to be moulded, through to Deputy Chair and an Arup Fellow. Carfrae sees himself more as a “caretaker”, splitting his year between Australia and the UK, sponsoring Arup’s strategy for being excellent in all that it does, and essentially supporting its people in their collective decision-making.

“When I first joined the board 18 years ago, I thought my job was to know all the answers and be persuasive,” reflects Carfrae. “What I realised was that my actual job is to listen to everybody else and to reach a collective decision, which may not be what I thought was right. But actually, to believe that if everybody, the majority, thinks it is right, then it’s the right answer.”

Given that Arup is founded upon values of social usefulness, quality of work, straight and honourable dealings, reasonable prosperity, and humane organisation, decision-making among individuals is not an exercise in self-interest, but one of global import, with emphasis on Arup’s role in shaping a better world, quite literally.

“We tend to say that there is no such thing as Arup. There is only us, as people,” says Carfrae. “All you have to do is the right thing on behalf of everybody else, that’s it.”

In more recent years Arup has cemented its commitment to ‘shape a better world’, in line with the United Nations sustainability development goals. It is also a signatory of the UN Global Compact (2010). Among its key commitments is its intention to achieve net zero emissions across its entire operations by 2030. And a decarbonisation commitment, undertaking whole lifecycle carbon assessments for all buildings projects, new and retrofit. Carfrae acknowledges that the emphasis is increasingly on adaptive re-use of the built environment.

Arup is also developing a tool and data platform to measure the whole carbon lifecycle of its designs. To date it has measured approximately 1000 buildings using the tool, collecting data to fuel better insights and reduce emissions.

Bigger challenges that Arup is addressing through these strategies include executing designs that are resilient to climate warming; deploying the circular economy; addressing social equity; building social value through user-centred design; and being nature positive.

Carfrae has been instrumental in the execution of many landmark projects such as the Water Cube for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. His leadership skills have seen him in good stead here, navigating the complex interests of project stakeholders to arrive at a happy medium that addresses a long list of requirements. And to the project of most interest: Carfrae currently leads Arup’s team helping Sagrada Familia Foundation complete Gaudí’s masterpiece in Barcelona.

It is, as he describes it, “the project of a lifetime”. Arup’s challenge is to help accelerate construction of the last remaining parts of the church, famed for its monumental masonry. Among those parts are the six big towers set on top of the church – the challenge is to successfully bring it to final completion.

It’s become a working case study for everything Arup now represents, in terms of sustainable development, and has seen the project team harness digital fabrication techniques and modern methods of construction to execute a contemporary build that, as Carfrae says, is intended “to channel Gaudí” rather than “top Gaudí” in its outcome.

“How do you pay respect to that original design, that was done in a time when there was no technology like there is today?” Carfrae poses.

In answer to this, his team has crafted a post-tensioned stone structure that is constructed from panels fabricated offsite. The stone panels, made from computer cut stone blocks split by hand on the front face to maintain the original hand-wrought façade, are then assembled onsite, fitting together in a LEGO-like fashion. This updated method has allowed Sagrada to speed up construction by a factor of 10, using one quarter of the amount of stone previously needed.

This is just one small window into what is an incredibly complex project. For Carfrae it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime, pinchmyself type of projects that define who he is and what Arup is as an organisation: willing to take on complex challenges and help create solutions that put the environment and humanity at the centre.


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