Department of Engineering / News / Alumni Profile: Jonathan Sakula, façade expert to Grenfell Tower Inquiry

Department of Engineering

Alumni Profile: Jonathan Sakula, façade expert to Grenfell Tower Inquiry

Alumni Profile: Jonathan Sakula, façade expert to Grenfell Tower Inquiry

Alumnus Jonathan Sakula

Alumnus Jonathan Sakula, with almost 30 years experience in the façade industry and 45 years in construction, was appointed as an expert witness to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.

Energy efficiency has always been a major driver to my work in building façades: keeping buildings warm in winter and cool in summer.  However, the embodied energy in the materials themselves is becoming an increasingly important factor.

Alumnus Jonathan Sakula

What inspired you into your field?

I always had an aptitude for taking things apart and fixing them, and for problem solving.  I was good at maths and sciences at school.  That said, I think the importance of maths for engineers is rather over-stated, as computers do most of the hard graft these days.  I think the ability to be both analytical and creative, to write well and to draw are all important, as of course are verbal communication skills.

I started as a pre-university undergraduate apprentice with British Aerospace.  At that stage I wanted to be a space engineer.  However, during the first two years at Cambridge I found that I really enjoyed the structures lectures, particularly from Professor Heyman.  At the same time my brother was studying architecture and that gave me an appreciation for what architects did.  He and I did the 'Grand Tour' of Europe when we were 20, visiting both ancient and modern buildings.  Structural engineering of buildings became the obvious career choice.

How did your career develop?

My first job after Cambridge was in 1974 with Arup in London.  At that time, Ted Happold (later to found Buro Happold) was the partner in charge of one of Arup's more innovative structural groups, called 'Structures 3'.  I joined that and had, among other mentors, Peter Rice, who was famous for many buildings, including the Sydney Opera House and leading the work on the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

It seemed to me initially that I had arrived where I wanted to be.  However, by my mid-20s I became disillusioned with mainstream engineering, and I wanted to do something more directly related to people's needs.

I came across an opportunity to go to Tanzania to work for an organisation which promoted the idea of village-level industrial development (Schumacher's 'Small is beautiful'), so I left everything and went there for three years.  My job was to develop small industries using volcanic ash from the RIft Valley, mixed with lime, to make cement.  I lived and worked in a small village on the edge of the Maasai plains and communicated mainly in Swahili.  It was an amazing time and I was quite sorry to leave.

As a result of this experience I then had the opportunity to do some feasibility studies for a similar project in Vanuatu in the South Pacific, and also for sisal-cement roofing sheet projects in East and Southern Africa.

I came back to London and rejoined Arup.  Due to my African experience I was then offered the opportunity to run Arup's structural engineering office in Lusaka, Zambia.  This was quite a privilege at the age of 30, and I spent four years there.

When I returned again to London in the late 1980s, I met my wife and spent the next 25 years in North London raising a family. 

In 1992 Arup formed its façade engineering group and asked me to join it.  The façade of the building is its 'skin'.  Traditionally architects had dealt with this, but, like most aspects of modern building, the technical issues had become so complex that architects welcomed the input from engineers.  At first I was doubtful about façade engineering, but after a while it became obvious that I was ideally suited to it.  It is a very multi-disciplinary activity, and the breadth of the Cambridge engineering foundation, for example in materials science, proved useful.

What contribution to your field are you most proud of and why?

Over the course of my career i have worked on more than 150 projects, and many of them were noteworthy.  Some of them I unfortunately can't talk about due to client confidentiality!  However, there have been some highlights.

In the mid-1990s I led Arup's façade engineering team for the façade of Portcullis House, the building in Westminster accommodating 200 MPs and their staff.  I was responsible for the research and development work for the best way to make the various bronze components.  I also dealt with all the specifications, and with making sure the façade was blast proof.  It intrigues me that the building will last something like 250 years, much longer than a normal building.

Later, with Dewhurst Macfarlane, I was responsible for the structural analysis of the 25m high glass walls for the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.  The glazing was literally hanging by cables which moved up to 750mm in the wind!

However, I have to say that probably my proudest work has been as façade expert to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, something I have been involved with since 2020.  My role was to advise on the state of knowledge of the UK cladding industry during the five years preceding the tragedy of the fire.  As the Technical Director of Buro Happold's façade team during the years 2010 to 2017, I was considered to be well-placed to assess this.  I had to write a report and then give evidence in person to the Inquiry, which I did in May 2021.

What do you see as being the next big thing in your field?

Construction (manufacturing, building and building use) has been estimated to generate roughly half of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions.  Energy efficiency has always been a major driver to my work in building façades: keeping buildings warm in winter and cool in summer.  However, the embodied energy in the materials themselves is becoming an increasingly important factor.  Also, large areas of glazing were very fashionable in the 1990s, but glazing units transmit energy to a greater extent than opaque areas of cladding.  The holy grail is to find transparent materials which are also good insulators!  There is also increasing use of building skins with efficient photoelectric coatings to generate electricity.

What is the best career decision you've made?

To leave mainstream structural engineering and become a façade engineer.

Have you had a career-defining moment?

I think the approach by the Grenfell Tower Inquiry felt like a validation of the experience and expertise that I had developed over the course of my career, particularly in the last 25 years as a façade consultant and engineer.  I am pleased to be able to contribute to something that will have a significant effect on future practice.

What is your advice for someone considering a career in engineering?

If you have technical ability and an interest in problem solving, I would strongly recommend it.  I would not only concentrate on maths and the sciences, but also languages and drawing as well.

Has it always been plain sailing?

I am now able to do the things that I most enjoy, acting as an expert witness in construction cases involving façades.  However, it has not always been easy: there have been times during my career when I seriously wondered whether I was doing the right thing at all.  At about the age of 40, during the early 1990s recession when things became difficult,  I did some career counselling and they confirmed that engineering was where my aptitude lay, but they suggested that technical writing could be my forte!  I have certainly done a lot of that in writing and reviewing reports, and, now that I am doing mostly expert witness work, technical writing is most of what I do.  

You need to be open to opportunities and realise that all experiences, including things that may feel at the time like failures, are valuable.  Anyone who has read the book 'An engineer imagines', by Peter Rice, will see that even he had his moments.  He once said to me that engineering is really about confidence.  I think he meant the sense of having belief in yourself, and the ability to convey that to others.

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page. For image use please see separate credits above.