Matthew Birchall, Buro Happold’s Global Sports & Entertainment Sector Director and the winner of the Outstanding Achievement Award at TheStadiumBusiness Design & Development Awards 2022, calls for honesty and self-reflection in a sector he believes is ripe for disruption…
Matthew Birchall was quick to share the limelight when presented with his Outstanding Achievement Award at TheStadiumBusiness Design & Development Awards 2022 as he recognised his “incredible team who consistently perform miracles and make me look good”.
However, beneath the characteristic modesty of Buro Happold’s Global Sports & Entertainment Sector director is a passionate advocate for an industry that he believes is overly reliant on “inherited wisdom”, stifling progress and leading to unwitting self-sabotage.
“It is almost unheard of for people [in the industry] to be truly self-aware and tell a client that there is a cheaper and quicker way of doing something that will result in less work for the company,” says Birchall, who joined Buro Happold in 2006 and became a partner in 2013.
“But I feel there is an increasing need for that approach. Projects are stalling because processes are becoming too convoluted, with people scrambling over each other. I have realised this over the past two to three years in trying to understand why so many projects do not get off the ground.
“In a complex ecosystem such as ours, everyone is trying to protect their own position and it is very fragmented, with lots of different people doing lots of niche things. That may suit some companies, but I would question whether it suits the clients, and if you actually go back to them and ask what they really want, it could be a very different conversation.”
Cards-on-the-table honesty, which may lead to short-term income being sacrificed for the long-term vision, requires introspection, honesty and ultimately what Birchall describes as “self-disruption”.
However, it will not happen overnight.
“You have to balance the pace of change so that you still have a critical mass of work procured through a more traditional route, whilst at the same time evolving enough to secure your future,” Birchall explains.
“As far as we are concerned, I believe our success is down to understanding objectives and trying to solve them. That can sound quite glib, but often it needs an element of self-awareness that is not universal.
“A&E firms fundamentally believe you need more architecture or engineering to solve a problem, but very often that is not the case. I would like to think we tell clients what they don’t need, as well as what they do need.”
So, like many other industries, is convergence an inevitable consequence as companies endeavour to control more of the development process? Not according to Birchall, who argues that collaboration is a more natural step in a disparate sector.
“The danger of vertical integration in design and consultancy is you end up doing the opposite of disrupting. You just collate services and have more mouths to feed,” he explains.
“In terms of truly serving a client’s needs, a genuine ‘design-and-build’ approach with an appropriately skilled contractor might be the Holy Grail. But I am not a believer in what we call ‘design and build’ currently.
“Has it led to cheaper and faster venues being built? I don’t think so. Has it led to an increase in claims? Probably. But a step back from that, establishing relationships with like-minded individuals can be beneficial, and we are always open to that.”
Over the past two years, Buro Happold has introduced fresh perspectives by hiring architect David Hines as Director of Sports & Entertainment Venue Consulting and acquiring acoustics and audiovisual consultancy Vanguardia, bringing “fabulous” insights into the business, according to Birchall.
“We are quite a broad church, but we always try to achieve alignment,” says Birchall, who previously trained as an architect. “We have brought in people with different experiences to help us put everything into context. Diversity of experience is important to us, but we’re still on a journey.”
On top of the collaborations, hires and carefully considered acquisitions, Birchall and his team can cast an eye over Buro Happold’s projects in different sectors for inspiration, including in air, rail, aviation, commercial, residential and urban development.
“When you’re in this sector you can become quite inward-looking and only consider stadiums and arenas,” Birchall says.
“I’m a little jealous when I see some cultural buildings and how active they are. We’re just starting to get some of that permeability in stadia and arenas, but we have a long way to go to get our venues to be truly integrated into the community.
“A development should not start with the stadium or arena. It should start with the broader community precinct need before exploring how a stadium can be built into that vision.
“But one of the benefits of being a multi-sector business is that we can see some inspiring pieces of work outside sport and entertainment. For example, the Cornwall Energy Island project nearly a decade ago made us think more about sustainability in stadia and arenas.”
For Birchall, navigating sustainability opportunities and challenges is a primary focus.
Buro Happold has set ambitious targets, including designing all of its newbuild projects to be net zero carbon in operation by 2030, with a long-term decarbonisation goal of achieving net zero in its own business operations by 2045.
However, Birchall is under no illusion that striving “to do better for people, places and the planet” is an immense task – and once again, it requires self-awareness, challenging inherited wisdom and brutal honesty, as outlined in Buro Happold’s recently published Global Sustainability Report.
“The reality is that sports and entertainment venues are about consumption. We can be embarrassed by that or embrace it,” says Birchall, who admits that Buro Happold has rejected some projects due to sustainability concerns.
“As consultants, it is beholden to us to make sense of a difficult situation, and we need to be wary of greenwashing and just ticking boxes.
“We have to balance our own stated aims with those of our clients in countries that aren’t as developed as some others. For example, they might need airports and high-profile, iconic buildings. Should they be denied those simply because we have already built ours?
“I like to influence change from the inside, and sometimes it’s about accepting that a project is not going to be perfect, but that does not mean you shouldn’t be involved at all.”
As sports clubs come under pressure from fans to act more responsibly, it is becoming easier for Birchall and his team to “reach a convergence of objectives” with clients who increasingly understand the operational, reputational and financial benefits of a sustainable approach.
“Getting clients to make that leap and understand it’s in their long-term interest continues to be a challenge, but I am seeing encouraging signs,” Birchall says. “Environmental and economic sustainability go hand in hand and are at the core of what we do – creating great environments and great experiences. That is what gets me out of bed in the morning.”