Jose Castillo-Bernaus has a singular passion for integrated design. Now, in his new role as director of design at Amec, he is spreading the word about the merits of the one-stop shop.
As Amec Construction's new director of design and engineering, it is no surprise that Jose Castillo-Bernaus is a fan of the one-stop shop. What is surprising is his single-mindedness, even his obsessional zeal. There is seemingly no end to the enthusiasm with which the 47-year-old Spaniard pounds listeners with the merits of an integrated design and construction process.

Even when asked what his alternative career would have been, Castillo-Bernaus instantly retorts: "I don't have one. I never wanted to do anything other than design and build.

"As a boy, my only toys were a football and Meccano," he says of his childhood in Barcelona under the Franco regime. "I spent my time drawing structures and building them." Not good enough to make it as a professional footballer, Castillo-Bernaus pursued his other passion at university in Madrid. Soon after graduating in engineering, he came to Britain, joining Sir William Halcrow and Partners. While at the firm, he took a distance-learning degree in architecture at the University of Barcelona. A stint at WS Atkins was his next move, before jumping the fence to work for contractor Simons.

"I planned my career carefully," he says of his highly focused path, which then saw him take senior design positions at Wimpey and Laing before being headhunted by Amec to fill a newly created post in July.

Here, he leads the 400-strong design group based largely in Stratford-upon-Avon and Sale, near Manchester. As the new head of design, Castillo-Bernaus also has a seat on Amec Construction's main board. He is based at offices in Langley, near Slough, but has spent his first five months in the job visiting other parts of the empire. Enhancing the integration of design across the group is one of his key aims, as well as picking up initiatives from other parts of the Amec group.

Learning how to integrate

A tour around the Stratford offices with his director of design, Mike Murray, is intended to show how far down that path Amec has gone. In one room, a multidisciplinary brainstorming is in session, looking at ways to improve the project process on the RIBA's traditional plan of work. In another, QSs are learning how design decisions affect cost.

Across the corridor, a project team, including subcontractors and one of Amec's many pharmaceutical clients, has decamped from site for the day to discuss improvements. "We're debating whether the smooth installation of the services was down to the planning we were able to do with 3D software or sheer good luck," quips the client.

"I'm sure you'll find that the more you plan, the more luck you have," Castillo-Bernaus chips in, paraphrasing golfer Gary Player.

Citing Egan, Amec's director of design and engineering has no doubts that other firms are set to follow in Amec's footsteps, creating companies that offer a cradle-to-grave service. And he cites the Ministry of Defence's new "prime contracting" initiative, under which the bulk of MOD work is expected to be awarded to firms such as Amec and Laing, as an example of the direction more and more clients are taking.

Take care with novation

But, although he extols the benefits of this approach, he diplomatically avoids criticising the fashionable process of novation, whereby an architect employed by a client is parcelled off to a design-and-build contractor – a process that can cause all kinds of headaches.

Castillo-Bernaus dismisses reports that things are less than smooth-running on the new, £150m DSS building in Newcastle upon Tyne, where Amec is heading the PFI consortium to which architect Michael Hopkins & Partners has been novated.

"You do have to be careful with novation – it won't work if there is a lack of common objectives. We won't do it with people we don't rate or with clients we don't know very well," he says. And he urges contractors to learn the lessons of the mid-1990s when firms, including his own, were prepared to take on risks over which they had little control.

Despite more than 25 years in the UK, his accent is still very evident. "I'm more anglicised than I sound," he says, laughingly mimicking those who regularly ask: "HOW LONG HAVE YOU LIVED HERE?" He makes regular trips home to Spain to visit his mother, but plans to settle in this country. The English sense of humour and honesty are the traits he likes most about the UK.

"If people were allowed to work the way they want," he says – that is, in a non-contractual way – "we'd have half the disputes we do in this country."

Personal effects

Who’s who in your family? My wife Alison and I have an eight-year-old son. I also have a grown-up son who works as a City lawyer. Where do you live? In a village near Swindon What book are you reading? Applied Mathematics for Under-10s, with my son. What person do you most admire? Sir Alan Muir-Wood, a partner with consulting engineer Sir William Halcrow and former president of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He was my mentor. What do you miss most about Spain? The restaurants. My favourite is called the Santa Maria, in Sitges, about 25 miles south of Barcelona. Where do you go on holiday? Italy. Who’s your favourite architect? Gaudi and Sir Norman Foster.