Talented engineer with Ove Arup
Tuesday 07 February 2006
Ronald Hobbs was one of the most talented engineers and gifted leaders of Arup, the firm founded by the Danish engineer/ philosopher Ove Arup in 1946. He was a key influence in its creation and the success it enjoys today.
Hobbs was educated at Nailsea, Somerset, where he was born, and in Bristol. In 1943 he graduated from Bristol University with a first class honours degree in Civil Engineering, and joined the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. After three years with the consulting engineers Oscar Faber & Partners, in 1948 he joined Ove N. Arup and remained in Ove Arup & Partners for all of his professional life. In the early years he worked closely with the senior partner Ronald Jenkins. Hobbs acquired the nickname "Bob" because "we could not have two Ronalds".
The 1951 Festival of Britain on the South Bank gave architects and engineers their first opportunity after the Second World War to exploit recent advances in construction technology. Hobbs was responsible for several structures, including a pre-stressed concrete diagrid roof - the first of its kind. He then led the team which designed the structure for the new Bank of England printing works at Debden, near Loughton, Essex, one of the first UK building projects to use large post-tensioned, pre-cast concrete elements.
After post-war refurbishment to the 1930s Lubetkin/Arup Highpoint flats, Bob Hobbs proceeded to engineer some factory additions for Highpoint's owners, the Gestetner family; both assignments stimulated his interest in the total building process. The firm was gaining some prime consultancy commissions, and, after Philip Dowson joined and began to attract architectural commissions in his own right, the principle of a total in-house building consultancy emerged. This embryonic "Building Group" became Arup Associates in 1963.
Of the broadly based Arup Associates leadership, Dowson provided architectural intellect and direction whilst Hobbs not only was the exceptionally gifted engineer, but guided and stimulated team spirit in the new practice. Together with Derek Sugden and Peter Foggo, they established Arup Associates as the leading exponent of multidisciplinary building design, building up an enviable reputation for architectural excellence, innovation, functional fitness and financial diligence.
Projects which Hobbs personally directed, or indirectly influenced, included buildings at Birmingham, Cambridge, Loughborough and Oxford universities, factories for Penguin Books and John Player & Son, headquarters buildings for the Central Electricity Generating Board at Bedminster Down in Bristol, and Lloyd's of London at Chatham, Kent, and much of Broadgate in the City of London.
In 1961 Hobbs had been appointed Senior Partner in Ove Arup & Partners - the then parent firm - and his subsequent contribution was massive. It was his (and his fellow senior partner Peter Dunican's) untiring efforts that chiefly led to the present charitable and employee trust ownership structure. When the firm was incorporated in 1977 he became a director of the renamed Ove Arup Partnership; both before and after, he was responsible for its finances.
Outside Arup, Hobbs contributed to the work of several engineering bodies. The construction industry owes him a huge debt for his deep involvement in promoting "management contracting", which introduced teamwork and trust to an arena beset with disputes and confrontation culture. In 1990, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and appointed an Honorary Fellow of the RIBA.
A great engineer and blessed with one of the sharpest minds of his generation, Bob Hobbs also had exceptional honesty and integrity. Kind, helpful and ever good-natured, he had time for everyone with or without a problem, but any pomposity, potential or actual, was pricked by his infectious guffaw.
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