Interview with Tom Alexander

After a few month’s break we are back with our interview of the month series.  This time it’s with Tom Alexander, director at Aukett Swanke with a focus on design, sustainability and R+D.

Tom says “Our practice has emerged from a long history of architects coming together and refreshing sustainable blends of the team, starting in 1906 in Manhattan. We create strategies and design for master plans, buildings, interiors and objects, across higher and secondary education, workplace, living, industrial, hospitality, public realm and recreation. We are always exploring the cross over thinking and design learning potential between these and other uses in buildings to mutually enhance and innovate each one. Education and workplace have been particularly relevant to each other, informing our designs from nurseries to boardrooms. We also approach projects with at least a 100 year vision, seeing the structure as a chassis that needs to enable durability and the agility to change use over that period. The inherent sustainability of this driver informs our first thoughts for higher education schemes, and is referred to throughout the design and construction processes. Learning and teaching environments are often highly ambitious and great supporters of vital climate, biodiversity and people’s wellbeing strategies and designs, so the University Design Forum with its exemplar programme of Higher Education engagement, has been an integral part of our relationship and projects with the wider academic world.”

Who are you and what do you do?

I grew up in London and live here with my family. I spent many summers working in New York where my father lived, and also worked in Hong Kong for 5 years. I’m an architect.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

Well my family is a privilege to be part of, hope they agree. Then there have been a number of teams that have come together to deliver projects that make you realise the energy and effort required to create say an HE place that enables continuity of activity as well future possibilities. One such was the Jennie Lee Building for the Open University. Both radical in places and calmly familiar in others across the mix of spaces. It is highly sustainably with 95% natural ventilation, and a familiar design process with the dynamic and inspiring mix of always ambitious and highly intelligent stakeholders. It was a pleasure to bring to life with the University and consultant teams using a hugely collaborative Partnering Approach.

What is your favourite thing about your career?

Learning, analysing, designing, talking, innovating, crafting, building and moving through the realised environments. I feel an intense urgency around the current state of the planet and its leadership, and hope that our role as architects can continue to influence the corrective and future measures required to rebalance our relationship with the global ecosystem.

Describe University Design Forum in a sentence?

Knowledge sharing to enhance learning and teaching design whilst addressing the planetary and wellbeing essentials for the generations coming through the HE world.

What is your contribution to University Design Forum?

I am a founder member, trustee of the charity and the membership secretary.

What does a good HE building mean to you – quote?

One that enables learning, teaching, the freedom to explore, the opening up of minds, and the ability to change with these activities.

One thing about you that will surprise people?

I do triathlons and run for a club called Queens Park Harriers. We have a number of partially sighted and blind members and I occasionally act as a guide for these brave clubmates at training and races. Their determination and ability is like any other keen runner and it is inspiring to feel their commitment to moving swiftly across rough land and through a volatile race situation. Keeping up is often the issue as in this picture at our track in Willesden.

Future of learning: green or bleak?

Oh fantastically green I optimistically believe. These institutions have always developed an awareness of the past, present and future, igniting passions to change, put right, create the new, look out for each other, and also some not so positive causes, but the ability to debate and challenge is essential to keep improving civilisation and its planetary role.

Do you know your carbon footprint ( )?

Our practice is carbon neutral. We do believe that offsetting is not a durable benefit so are aiming for a balanced neutrality.

What is your favourite piece of design?

Often I find great pleasure in carefully crafted utilitarian designs, across any scale or use, any era or culture. Hard to pick one. Perhaps a kit of parts boat made from branches by fishing families in Sri Lanka. They assemble the boat in the morning, fish, return and disassemble the parts to dry out on the shore in the evening. Elegant simple bow branches form the hull, with shaped wedges at each end and natural reed ropes to tie it all together. (See header and sketch below.)

What would you change about yourself if you could?

Family and friends are best to answer that, however currently nerve strain due to decades of running.

What makes you laugh the most? 

Very dry wit, some old school friends.

If you could choose to do anything for a day, what would it be?


Zero Carbon – 2035 or 2055?

Too urgent to have a choice!

That’s all from Tom for now!  Contact if you would like to be our next interviewee, we’d love to hear from you …