Former RIBA president Sunand Prasad calls him ‘giant’ of the profession

Engineer Max Fordham, founder of the eponymous engineering business he set up in the 1960s, has died aged 88.

Born in June 1933, Fordham passed away at home yesterday morning (Tuesday), the company announced in a statement this evening.

A tribute to Max Fordha from Building’s Thomas Lane

Paying tribute, the firm said: “Max pursued a new approach to engineering based on his insatiable curiosity about how buildings work. He resisted pigeonholing into the conventional boxes of mechanical or electrical engineering and was always interested in the whole building.”

Max Fordham

Fordham set up his business in 1966

Following National Service, he began working for Weatherfoil Heating Systems in the late 1950s, before moving on to the Building Group, which is now known as Arup Associates.

He spent five years at Arup before setting up his own practice in 1966 with his wife Thalia “Taddy” Fordham, initially working out of his bedroom.

Notable projects during his career included the Alexandra Road Estate in Swiss Cottage, north London, designed by Neave Brown, which was completed in 1978. It was the first post-war housing scheme to be listed when it was given a grade II* mark in 1993.

Other schemes he worked on included Tate St Ives in Cornwall, built between 1991 and 1993, the Contact Theatre in Manchester, which opened in 1972, and the landmark RMC headquarters in Surrey, completed in 1990 by Cullinan Studio, and which was also given a grade II* listing in 2014 following a high-profile campaign, featuring architects Nicholas Grimshaw and the late Richard Rogers, saved the building from the wrecking ball after plans to replace it with housing were drawn up.

As well as Brown, other architects and engineers Fordham worked with during his career were Feilden Clegg Bradley’s Peter Clegg, Arup Associates’ Peter Foggo, Whitby & Bird founder Mark Whitby, engineer Jane Wernick, who worked on the London Eye, designed by Marks Barfield, and future RIBA president Sunand Prasad.

Paying tribute, Prasad, who was taught by Fordham at Cambridge university before going on to collaborate with him over many years on projects such as Snape Maltings in Suffolk, called him “an absolute giant”.

“He was a complete one-off and a huge inspiration,” said the co-founder of architects Penoyre & Prasad. “He brought lateral thinking to a field which you don’t usually associate with imagination. He was always innovating, always seeking.

“He was so open, unassuming and humble and had a fantastic giggle. It was such a privilege to work with him.”

Fordham was thinking about things like sealed buildings and the importance of preventing heat loss decades before it became an urgent topic, he added.

“I remember him speculating on how windows in homes should be like car windows which seal as you wind them up,” said Prasad.

“As well as countless projects he created an atmosphere that inspired people to carry on his work, which is a great achievement. So many people passed through that atelier. Fortunately it prepared many for the challenge that’s before us now.”

Clegg added: “His influence was unsurpassed for a whole generation of engineers but perhaps, dare I say, more importantly of architects.

“He taught us ‘sustainability’ at Cambridge long before the word became common currency and introduced building physics to the architectural curriculum.

“When we started to work with Max Fordham back in the late 80s it was a real pleasure to find a practice where there was a real sense of design collaboration.

“There’s so much more to be said at such a significant passing, but we will always remember Max for his good humour and his delightful chuckle which will raise our spirits in these challenging times.”

Current RIBA president Simon Allford said: “The creation of a great building is a team game and during his long career, Max played his part brilliantly. He was a true visionary – a pioneer of sustainable design and engineering.”

Fordham handed over the running of the practice to his fellow partners in 2000, which now employs more than 250 people, including 119 partners who co-own the business.

The firm became a limited liability partnership the following year with Fordham once remarking the business was “a responsibility-sharing scheme, not a profit-sharing scheme”. Fordham said that establishing a partnership approach to running a company encouraged shared responsibility and a feeling of ownership.

Fordham also lectured at the University of Bath and earned a number of honours, including a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE). He was also a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, an honorary fellow of the RIBA and was awarded the Prince Philip Designers Prize by the Royal Society of Art.

He was made an OBE for services to engineering in 1994 and was awarded the CIBSE Gold Medal three years later.

He is survived by his three sons Jason, Cato and Finn and four grandchildren. Taddy passed away in 2017.

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Hopkirk and Dave Rogers