Arup has won the MacRobert Award, one of the world’s richest prizes for engineering innovation, which carries with it a £50,000 prize, a solid-gold medal—and a ceremony presided over by royalty, the Duke of Edinburgh, husband of the queen.

The prize was in recognition of a project that got just a wee bit of promotion last summer: the Beijing Aquatic Centre, known colloquially as the Water Cube, which became for many the symbol of the 2008 Olympics.

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Arup's Tristram Carfrae and Stuart Bull with the Duke of Edinburgh; photo copyright Steve Forward 

In describing the winner, Dr. Geoff Robinson, chairman of the MacRobert Award judging panel, said: "The Water Cube’s breathtaking architecture is matched by engineering innovations in fabrication, materials and environmental management, and a project schedule that many regarded as impossible."

Conceptually, the Water Cube is an insulated greenhouse made from a lightweight structure based on the geometry of soap bubbles and clad in a space-age plastic material called ETFE. With 22,000 individual pieces and 12,000 joints, the polyhedral space frame is extremely energy-efficient and possibly the most earthquake-resistant building built to date.

Arup itself says the structure sets new benchmarks for environmental impact and resource consumption: It captures 20 per cent of the incident solar energy (more than would be captured by cladding the entire building in photovoltaic panels). It also requires 90 percent less potable water than an equivalent structure and uses 55 percent less artificial lighting.

The team members sharing the prize are: Tristram Carfrae (project director), Mark Arkinstall (structural engineer), Stuart Bull (building modeler), Haico Schepers (sustainability energy and façade engineer and Marianne Foley (fire engineer).

In its press release announcing its victory, Arup added: "The team's revolutionary use of multidisciplinary virtual prototyping and a holistic approach to building design represents a construction industry milestone. No longer does each new building need to serve as its own prototype. Instead, the technologies used to design the Water Cube will allow the building industry to match manufacturing sectors like the automotive industry in terms of cost, quality, and reliability.

"‘There is very little continuous learning in the building industry,’ says team leader Tristram Carfrae, ‘but virtual prototyping can change that, enabling us to achieve greater quality with less time and less money.’"

London’s Science Museum will be showcasing all four MacRobert Award finalists in a special display in the Antenna science news gallery. 

To give an idea of the sort of competition faced by Arup--which extended across the entire spectrum of engineering, here are the other innovations shortlisted for this year’s MacRobert Award:

* Orthomimetics Ltd. for novel medical implants enabling bone and soft tissue to regenerate themselves after joint injuries.

* QinetiQ for the Tarsier system which automatically detects debris on airport runways, saving time and improving safety.

* Rolls-Royce PLC for the Trent 900 gas turbine Aeroengine, providing power for the Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger aircraft, for which it was the launch engine.