Image for Pure mathematics and science reshaping contruction design – James Murray Parkes

Brookfield's James Murray-Parkes is passionate about the role mathematics plays in delivering sustainable solutions in the built environment. Liberty OneSteel spoke with James about what fuels his fire, the value in working closely with a multi-disciplinary team and his passion for disrupting conventional design thinking.

James Murray-Parkes is known for bringing groundbreaking thinking to the design of a stream of innovative projects. He has applied his visionary approach to the design of everything from weapons, world championship motorcycles and Formula 1 cars to tunnels, dam walls and bridges – over a thousand projects in total, by his estimation.

Along with Julia Felmeri, James is one of the Directors of the Brookfield Scientific Solutions Group (BSSG). He harnesses a range of scientific, engineering and design disciplines to challenge long-held assumptions about what constitutes good design. It helps that he has the implicit backing of the giant Brookfield group and the support of a talented team.

He’s ruffled a few feathers along the way, but he’s never been anything less than an inspiration to those who value pure, practical and efficient design.

LOS: Where does your engineering design thinking come from?

JMP: I consider myself a scientist rather than structural engineer. I end up looking at structural engineering design and improving those designs by applying more efficient mathematics to them. That’s how we have ended up influencing the design of some of the biggest projects in the world.

We work alongside and employ structural engineers in my group, but we’re not engineers – we’re scientists and mathematicians. I have a former Senior Physicist of NASA as well as some very high-ranking and highly awarded physicists – even the Sir Robert Menzies medal winner from last year – in my team.

LOS: What is BSSG’s role?

JMP: Our client is Brookfield and sometimes it’s our Multiplex business. Our job is to show them innovative solutions that ultimately provide efficiencies to their bottom line – but our ulterior motive is to see if we can impact positively on the planet by reducing the carbon footprint caused by manufacturing of construction materials. Most of what we do is to use steelto reduce mass in tall buildings and stadiums because it’s cheaper and it’s better for the environment.

(The Elliptical Energy Pathway Theorem: a building philosophy that encourages us to think about the way energy moves through structures.)

LOS: What is it about your team at BSSG that makes it unique?

It’s unique because we actually care about what we do. We haven’t made a lot of friends in the process. If you interview consultants we’ve worked with, they’ll say, “James is stark raving mad. Yes, he’s right in what he says mathematically, but it’s not how we do things.” They’re right – it’s not how they do things because they do things the way the contractors in the local market dictate.

LOS: Who inspires you to do what you do?

JMP: Professor Martin Buoncristiani is a big inspiration – he remains my mentor to this day. When I was younger I was a bit reckless with the way I was designing and applying mathematics and he said, “Let me show you how we can do it properly.” He co-invented the laser guidance for the space shuttle, so he’s a very accomplished individual. He’s a NASA service medal winner and there’s only been about 35 of those in history.

John Nash from Princeton was a big inspiration to me, as was Professor Andrew Harris of Cambridge University who is now at the University of Sydney. But really, there are so many.

But the question might be better put as: Who do I think has my back?

LOS: Tell us more about those supports

JMP: John Flecker at Multiplex is a very down-to-earth gentleman. He gave me the funding to build this team and, to this day, he is the chairman of my group. When you’ve got people like that around you it’s easy to do your job.

Liberty OneSteel has also had my back for the past five years. Every time I’ve asked them for something, I’ve said, “Can you sponsor me with some steel? I’ve got this invention, but I don’t have a budget for it.” They’ve sometimes looked at me cross-eyed and gone “What the heck are you doing, James?” and I’ve said, “Just trust me”. And they have. Their unwavering support for what I do is outstanding.

LOS: How is steel conducive to the work you do?

JMP: Steel is a very good recyclable product – you can reuse it very easily. If you use steel sparingly and wisely and bring in some different and efficient mathematical approaches, you can indeed have a massive impact on the longevity of the planet.

I use steel because it’s the best thing on the market if we’re going to do things properly.

(Multi-span bridge: The overall architectural language was reliant on the steel structure, with emphasis drawn from the simplicity of the form.)

LOS: How important a consideration is environmental sustainability?

JMP: I’m a tree hugger from way back – most scientists are. By nature, we are environmentalists – a physicist is a scientist who studies the physical world and if you study the physical world you end up caring about it.

Now, you could argue that steel isn’t a great thing. But if you’re going to build buildings, you can make steel members and steel sections, use them, and then unbolt them and recycle them.

LOS: How do contemporary construction methods differ from those of previous generations?

JMP: Well, steel in design and construction has been around for many years. The Americans perfected it with a Bangladeshi engineer named Fazlur Khan, who, in my opinion, was an absolute genius. Khan is still the finest engineer to have ever walked the face of the planet. His designs (including Chicago’s John Hancock Center and Sears Tower) were generally in steel and were the most efficient structures in the world, much more mathematically efficient than anything we’re designing here in Australia.

You’ve got to take learnings from someone who is a pioneer like Khan and then take them to the next level. Back in the day engineers didn’t have computers to do finite element analysis (FEA) – everything was done long hand. So design was a lot simpler, and the simpler the design, the simpler the construction. Then we just started to over complicate everything.

We’re doing things now because we can, not because we should. Most engineers and architects want to use the latest technology to turn something amazing out of their minds and see it as a reality. It’s often an ego trip – not always, but often. And that’s really the difference between now and then.

LOS: How does the design and engineering culture in Australia compare with elsewhere?

Most of my work isn’t done here in Australia. I have about six projects on in Australia at the moment whereas in North America I’ve got about 12 on. I’m based in Melbourne because I choose to be, but I should probably be based in New York.

It’s funny – you walk into an office in Melbourne and people say, “James wants to do something radical, but you walk into a New York City office and they say, “James, how do you want to do this? We want it to be green and lean and mean and how are we going to do it?” And you go, “wow!”

We seem to have a tall poppy syndrome and they don’t want to change here. But it’s starting to change here and I hope it keeps changing.

LOS: Tell us about the importance of efficiency in structural design

JMP: It’s similar to how nature is, right? A spider doesn’t design its web and then stand there like an architect and say, “Oh, I need another brace over there.”

(Rod Laver Arena Gossamer Truss: Using a biometric approach, BSSG developed a structure that took inspiration from the fine gossamer threads produced by spiders.)

If we take the design process we see in aerospace and Formula 1 and put it into buildings, sometimes it’s more trouble than it’s worth because now you’re actually complicating a structure by having this genetically driven design process.

Okay, it looks funky and it’s lighter and more efficient, but we don’t have Formula 1 and fighter jet budgets in the construction industry. It’s a great idea, but I think it’s fashion. It’s not financially viable.

LOS: How does the natural world influence design in the built environment?

JMP: I see biomimicry and the application of the learnings from biomimicry as the future. Indeed, we’re already seeing it now. Have you seen an ugly spider web or an ugly wasp nest? Wasp nests are beautiful. They are some of the most beautiful structures on the planet. When you look at how efficient they are, and you mathematically model them, there is so much complementarity going on in their structures and I think that’s where the world’s going to go.

(V-Piers: A biometric approach inspired this so-called ‘pot plant’ system for bridge piers.)

In Germany, Finland and elsewhere, an architect gets trained in engineering and in physics – some of the Finnish architecture is phenomenally beautiful. They don’t look at it and say they want a starburst bursting out of a building or want the tallest spire – they don’t think like that. They just went about biomimicry and the by-product of the efficient maths that was applied was the building. All of a sudden, the architecture is absolutely not dictated, but is a by-product of good mathematics.

When my team and I worked on the design of the Perth Stadium, we removed all the concrete blade columns and replaced them with V-props using the same connection systems we used in the roof.

(Perth Stadium: Efficient connections were designed to eliminate potential issues with alignment and tolerances, which, in turn, minimised erection time.)

You can design anything you want once you understand that mathematics is only a measurement of the physical world. What you really need to learn isn’t just mathematics – you need to learn how the physical world works. Once you understand proper physics, then you can design and design efficiently. Steel can give you the edge in doing that.

LOS: Is protecting your IP important?

JMP: When I started this thing nearly six years ago, I had a young engineer on my staff who was a wonderful young guy. Two-thirds of his full-time job was writing reports and research so we could protect the IP. A scientist in Princeton said in an email to me that if we really care about the future we should look through the windscreen, not through the rear-vision mirror. And I thought, that’s what I’m doing. If I want to protect the IP I’m looking through the rear-vision mirror. I need to stop that and just go 100 mph looking forward.

That was the defining moment. We designed the Perth Stadium and all these other crazy things, and we haven’t looked back. Now if someone says, “That guy just copied your stadium, James”, that’s good – that’s a result!

LOS: You’ve been inspired and mentored by some of the world’s best scientists, mathematicians and engineers. Who do you provide mentorship to?

JMP: I started BSSG almost six years ago with two people – myself and a draughtsman. Now, including my full-time staff and all the people we sponsor, I’ve got about 18 people under my tutelage. There are the students based at universities, there are 13 people based in my office, a couple of people out at my lab in Kew [Melbourne] and we have a couple of people based in New York as well. And I’m a professor at Monash University here in Melbourne, Australia.

James Murray-Parkes is a Director at Brookfield Scientific Solutions Group (BSSG) and a founding member of the Modular Construction Board where he has played a pivotal role in the development of the Modular Construction Code. The Multiplex-built Optus Perth Stadium was the winner of the 2018 Australian Construction Achievement Award where his designs were instrumental. In June 2018, Liberty OneSteel sponsored Professor Murray-Parkes’ Keynote Presentation on Alternative Energy Sources in Motion at the IPWEA NSW Emerging Technologies Conference in Sydney.