Rugby-loving Paul Westbury is Buro Happold's youngest ever partner. Here's how the 31-year-old is tackling one of engineering's toughest conundrums: how to make stadiums flexible and attractive.
At the ripe old age of 31, Paul Westbury can boast a CV as full as the résumés of many engineers twice his age. At just 18, as an undergraduate at Cambridge University, he was wowing dons with structural contortions, including a new form of arch design. At 21, with a first and a stash of awards to his name, he was signed up by the special structures division of Buro Happold. At 25, he was engineering the Millennium Dome. Six years on, the Peter Rice of his generation is the youngest-ever partner of the firm, and, as one might expect, getting his mind around today's toughest engineering mind-bender: designing sports stadiums that are flexible and attractive.

In doing so, Westbury has managed to combine his job with his other passion: sport. Rugby is his game but his sporting commissions are not limited to the oval ball. Designs for Arsenal FC's new home ground, a stadium for baseball team Arizona Cardinals, and Ascot racecourse all bear his mark.

And if that wasn't enough, colleagues say he is a "charmer and great teamworker". Mike Davies, partner at Richard Rogers Partnership and lead architect on the dome, says he is "in the top flight of world engineers". Another colleague describes him as someone who believes that engineering should be fun, but who likes engineers' solutions to be that little bit different.

Today, sitting in Buro Happold's London office, he looks relaxed. He is personable and articulate, speaking with an easy confidence rare in his profession. He is clearly animated when talking about engineering and design: "I am bit of a design bore. I socialise with people who all share a similar fanaticism for design, whether it's a diecast housing for a set of speakers or a beautiful piece of furniture." Even as a teenager, he says, "I was totally into technology." At Cambridge, he discovered his passion for structures, culminating in the construction of a 15 m arch that took over the structures lab. It demonstrated how a simple technical solution can add elegance to a structure. "I think I cost them a fortune," he smiles. "That was everything I enjoyed all in one: finding something different, being a little bit innovative, trying to produce something that is going to look great by coming up with a very simple solution." The arch was presented at a conference in Australia and has informed his design thinking ever since.

He turned down the chance to take architecture modules during his degree.

If you pick up the paper and find no mention of an engineer, it means nothing has blown up, crashed or sunk

"I wasn't going to dilute the theory I knew I would need for the sake of what I thought was a more vocational aspect I could learn about later," he explains. "It doesn't matter how much you wax lyrical about architecture, you come a cropper as an engineer." His speciality is long-span, lightweight structures such as the dome, the more challenging the better. They don't come more out of the ordinary than Shigeru Ban's Japanese Pavilion for the 2000 Hanover Expo. This was a clear span gridshell made from cardboard tubes clad with a paper membrane, double the size of an ice rink.

Sports facilities fit the Westbury criterion of problem-packed projects perfectly. "Sport is a no compromise sector, so it's no compromise design and yet you have to incorporate the wishes of local communities, transportation, infrastructure, building services, multiple use … The problems are fabulous." Modern stadiums are a great design challenge as they have to be safer and offer better facilities than they used to, while also packing in more people and giving them a better view of the action. The seating gets pushed forward to the edge of the pitch and encloses the whole stadium, while the stands become taller, casting shadows over the pitch and preventing air movement. The grass dies because it doesn't get enough light and ventilation.

These problems call for increasingly radical solutions, Westbury's natural territory. For the planned Arizona Cardinals Stadium in Phoenix, Westbury worked with avant-garde New York architect Peter Eisenman on the concept design. The pitch is a concrete tray sitting on rails that can slide out through a clear-span "letterbox" under the seating area into the car park where the grass will get plenty of light and air. The north end wall also drops down, and the roof retracts into a "garage". This means the pitch area can be used for concerts, conferences or even as an ice rink, neatly fulfilling the multi-use requirement.

North London planners have imposed headroom restrictions on Arsenal's proposed stadium at Ashburton Grove. Westbury's solution is a series of louvres that form the roof on the south side that can open and close like a giant venetian blind to allow light in. The seating can be jacked up when the stand is not in use to allow free air movement inside the stadium. The design allows for the future addition of a retractable roof, without increasing its height.

Personal effects

Where do you live?
In Bath, which is a great place to live. I was lucky enough to find a very rundown Georgian house behind the Crescent. It’s almost done, and now it’s on to the furniture, which I will design. Who’s who in your family?
I have lived with my girlfriend for the past three years. What is your favourite sports building as a spectator?
Twickenham, not because of the design of the building, but simply because it’s the home of English rugby. If it were designed now it wouldn’t be even on the fourth-grade list. It’s my day out as a truly passionate rugby fan. What is your favourite sports building as a participant?
I used to row and I love Henley Royal Regatta. It’s an international event and an English social event. All the structures are temporary, from the hospitality to the grandstand. It’s all brought in for that week and is an interesting model for the temporary event.