Not the retiring type

While he may not be calling it retirement, after 33 years at leading engineering consultancy Norman Disney & Young (NDY), Ashak Nathwani is looking forward to the next great challenges in his life. In this candid interview with NDY Corporate Communications Manager Ric Navarro, Ashak talks about his legacy, his achievements and what lies ahead for the man highly respected among his peers.

RN: A person is much more than just their job title and I suspect in your case this is particularly true. Can you provide a glimpse into the Ashak story, pre-NDY?

AN: After graduating with an Honours Degree in Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical) from the University of Nairobi, Kenya (on Ugandan Government Scholarship) I returned to my birthplace, Kampala, where my family continued to live. My first job was as a lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at the Uganda Technical College. In August of 1972, infamous dictator Idi Amin ordered some 40,000 people of Indian origin to leave Uganda within 90 days. Hence I ended up penniless in Australia on 10th October 1972. As a result of advice from the Career’s Advisory Facility at University of Sydney, I ended up working at Honeywell. After 3 years at Honeywell I joined T O’Connor & Sons, an air conditioning contracting company, where I worked for another 3 years.

Ashak and his brother Shiraz (left) being interviewed
by the Australian press in 1972 upon arrival in Sydney,
as one of the first Ugandan nationals forced to leave
by the Idi Amin regime.

RN: What was the catalyst for you to decide on engineering as a career choice?

: As a child, like many boys I loved cars (I still do!). In my last year in Primary School, we were asked to write an essay on the topic of “What would you like to be when you grow up”. I can still vividly recall what I had written: ‘When I finish my primary school I will go to Aga Khan Secondary School and then to the University of Nairobi where I want do Mechanical Engineering’. That is what I always wanted to do and was fortunate enough to follow that career path.

RN: Your job offer from NDY in 1978 was somewhat unconventional: can you elaborate on your experiences with the (late) Alan Disney?

: I first applied for a job with NDY in 1972. Alan Disney interviewed me and as I was a fresh graduate and new in Australia, Alan advised me to “get some practical experience” before considering consulting engineering as a profession. Six years later, I had a chance meeting with Alan where I was representing T O’Connor & Sons and was presenting an enhancement to an NDY design. He asked me if the enhancement would save energy and capital cost. The answer was affirmative to both. Alan must have been impressed as he offered me a position as a Project Engineer in NDY in 1978. The rest is history.

RN: You’ve fashioned a reputation in the industry as an early adopter, and passionate advocate, of sustainable building practices. Can you share with us why you’ve been so passionate about sustainability?

: It is a combination of several factors but primarily it was my upbringing and, in particular, my late father’s influence in “respecting nature”. His philosophy was that anything in excess was “unhealthy”. For me this also meant the minimisation of energy, water and materials usage, all of which are the essential ingredients of sustainability. This was reinforced at NDY with David Norman’s philosophy of good design practice, which took into account all the sustainability criteria as well as systems that were designed to last a long time. It is pleasing to note that most of the NDY designs of the ‘70s and ‘80s remain in operation and are achieving very good NABERS ratings in several iconic buildings such as Centre Point Tower, Gateway Plaza, NAB building, State Bank Building and 1 Margaret Street.

The passion in ESD continued when I was afforded the opportunity to lead the NDY Environment discipline. In many instances we were well ahead of the trend. NDY had written articles on Carbon Trading back in 1999 and carried out in-depth research with the likes of Dr Jacqueline Vischer (Montreal University) and David Rowe (Sydney University) in areas such as Indoor Environment Quality, a current topical item. On systems, NDY became known for innovations such as combination of Constant Volume and Variable Volume (CV-VV) air conditioning systems and more recently mastering Chilled Beams.

Ashak in his early days at NDY.

Personally I became interested in geothermal (geo-exchange) systems where the ground is utilised for heat source and heat sink thereby eliminating the need for cooling towers and boilers. I have been fortunate enough to have been involved with 6 such installations, some dating back to early ‘90s – all of which remain operational and are achieving better than average energy and cost savings.

My passion in ESD has also extended to imparting and sharing of the knowledge and experiences in many industry and academic forums. I am presently Chair of Sustainability Roundtable for Consult Australia. I also believe that sustainability cycle needs to extend beyond design and installation into facility operations and management. I have had the pleasure of contributing towards this aspect via an involvement with the Property Council of Australia, for the past 15 years in the Operations and Facility Management course, where apart from being on the steering committee, I have been a regular presenter on Ecologically Sustainable Developments.

RN: So what’s changed in this respect over the years?

: One of the most significant changes in the industry is the implementation of designs being taken over from architects by project managers. The other paradigm shift is that builders are now becoming clients and major investors on projects.

At a design level, the use of technology with programs such as Thermal Modelling and Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) has made it more exciting for engineers to carry out analysis and come up with better designs. Building Information Modelling (BIM) has become the most significant industry trend of recent years. When applied properly, BIM can provide significant design and ongoing operational benefits.

Legislative changes and the introduction of rating schemes have also made it necessary for engineers to be involved in preliminary concept and feasibility studies for new projects: an overdue scenario by my reckoning.

Unfortunately, we are seeing a lot more “green washing” in the industry. In many instances organisations and individuals have adopted a “tick box” mentality in assessing sustainability. This has often lead to “unsustainable” outcomes – such as installation of Tri-generation system just to achieve higher green star rating.

In management terms, addressing the needs of the Gen Y has become a challenge.Appointment of younger managers has witnessed the introduction of new management techniques with Business Score Cards and the like. This has increased accountability but in some cases lost the human element of trust and understanding.

It is good to see that some things have not changed – like NewsNet – the in-house NDY magazine that was started back in the ‘90s in my then role as a Marketing Director.

RN: You’ve had the opportunity to work on many landmark projects over the years. What are the projects that hold the most personal significance to you?

: Chanel 7. On my very first day at NDY, Alan Disney took me to the Channel 7 Studio complex at Mobbs Lane in Epping NSW. I immediately became involved with all the new buildings including News Department, Atlab – Post Production facility and revamping of four Studios plus the Data Centre. My involvement with Channel 7 continued for over 10 years.

Woolworths. From 1978 to 1983 I was NDY’s National Coordinator for all new projects associated with Woolworths. This included all Supermarkets and Big W stores where NDY had an overseeing role for all building and refrigeration services. On average there was one new store opening every two weeks. This provided an excellent opportunity to interact with all the NDY branches in Australia as well as develop briefs and guidelines for the client. More recent involvement with Woolworths has been with the new Data Centre – which is one of the most energy efficient Data Centres in Australia. The design involved approximately 26 runs of Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) to evaluate all types of arrangements ranging from hot / cold aisle segregation to chimney cabinets. It has been one of my most technically challenging and satisfying projects.

Western Sydney Record Centre. As the largest geothermal (geo-exchange system in NSW), this project has 70 underground bores as part of the most energy efficient air condition system. The Record centre houses the archival materials and therefore requires stable temperature and humidity conditions. The operational costs in energy and maintenance are less than half of other similar facilities that use conventional systems. An award winning result!

Y2K Exercise. The “millennium bug” at the turn of century created an opportunity that provided a handsome commercial outcome – which directly led to investment in other ventures such as opening of an NDY office in London. The Y2K exercise involved organising inspections of some 6000 properties for The Federal Defence Department and other clients. Information gathered was then fed into a specially developed database that generated automatic reports outlining compliance or non-compliance of various building systems installed at these premises.The whole exercise lead to a unique award for me at the NDY Xmas Party – for employing the most number of females (for data entry) in one year!

Iskander Malaysian Studios. My most recent involvement in Kuala Lumpur has been both exciting and challenging. It is an enormous complex comprising 5 Film and 2 TV Studios plus all the associated facilities like Post Production, Dressing Rooms, Kitchen and Dining areas, etc. The concept and part of design development was carried out in Sydney whilst our KL office did the detailed documentation. The role hence involved coordination of information transfer plus ensuring the client(s) including Khazana, Pinewood and Bovis Lend Lease were kept informed and were happy with the outcomes. It is reflective of the ‘circle of life’ that my first and last projects at NDY have both involved film and TV studios.

By 1993 Ashak had taken on an increased role in the
marketing of all NDY services disciplines and was
promoted to Director’s position of the Sydney office.

RN: As you leave the industry, do you believe it’s come a long way and do you foresee the built environment playing a pivotal role in the ecological challenges we face?

: Absolutely. The built environment contributes around 40% of total carbon emissions. It is therefore incumbent on our industry that all new buildings are designed to incorporate passive energy saving designs with further consideration given to implementing renewable technologies that would reduce the overall carbon footprint. The other area is existing buildings. There needs to be an accelerated program to reduce the energy consumed by taking steps such as retrofitting energy efficiency lighting and getting systems tuned.

One of the key aspects of long-term sustainability is that concentrating on energy reduction should not compromise Indoor Environment Quality. When air conditioning and lighting is reduced or operated below acceptable levels, this leads to uncomfortable indoor conditions with a potential negative stigma against renewable technologies.

Finally, there is a significant knowledge gap between designers and facility managers. New technologies being introduced in buildings require a concentrated training program for operators to bridge the gap so as to continue to achieve energy savings on an ongoing basis.

RN: So what does life after NDY look like for Ashak and do you have a ‘bucket list’?

AN: I am continuing a tradition started by Alan Disney some 15 years ago; I am joining the University of Sydney and will be looking after the course instigated by Alan – Mechanical Engineering in the Architectural Department. I intend to inject sustainability aspects into the course and invite speakers from industry to provide practical experiences to the students.

I will also assist Professor Richard de Dear in the construction of a unique Indoor Environment Quality Laboratory at the University of Sydney, where research can be carried out in this important attribute of Sustainability.

As for my bucket list, there are a few items, which include:

Spend more time with family and friends

Taking up role as President of Rotary Club of St Leonards in July 2011.

Environment related business opportunity with a business partner in India

Community Involvement – establishment of Ismaili Centres in Adelaide and Perth

Photography – as hobby

Music – as hobby

Book – “No Somebody” – the cycle of being somebody and then nobody and so on…

Studio for displaying my wife’s wonderful artworks



Finally, I’d like to leave you with this quote from essayist and author, Logan Pearsall Smith:

“There are two things to aim at in life: first, to get what you want, and after that to enjoy it. Only the wisest of people achieve the second.”

Gone but never forgotten: Ashak is ready to tackle the next great adventures in his life.

Contact Us

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.