Derek was born in Hitchin, Hertfordshire in 1924, the son of Douglas and Louise and recalled that he had : "a very loving childhood. My father was an engineering draughtsman. My mother was a singer and they both came from a deeply Methodist background and the choir played a very important part in her life. My early memories are of 'The Messiah' and 'The Creation.' " At the same time "My first awareness, conscious awareness, of the nature of sound, was my father. He was a fabulous whistler. He could do it with or without his fingers, single fingers and double fingers and we used to go on sunday morning walks through this long tunnel and we always used to ask my father to whistle and I noticed when he whistled on the pavement it was different to when he went into the centre and whistled and I think that was the first time I began to be aware of sound in an enclosed or semi-enclosed space." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDNqOWU00Fw&t=0m58s
A bright boy, at the age of 11, in 1936, he went Hitchin Boys' Grammar before transferring to the brand new, mixed, Harrow Weald County Grammar and "was into jazz and I started going to concerts before I left school and one of the first was Watford Town Hall. Of course it had a great acoustic" and from that point on recalled "listening very carefully in many, many concert halls."
Derek left school at 16 during the Second World War and went straight into an apprenticeship with 'Foster’s Engineering' in West Ham, London, supplemented by courses at Westminster Technical College and he later recalled : "I came from that sort of background where you had to get out and do a job. Architecture was dead because of the War. I left school in 1941 and I got an apprenticeship with a constructional engineer." It was here that he learned to draw and by the age of 19, was out on site, in charge and working on repairs to Wilford Toll Bridge in Nottinghamshire. In his next job at 'CF White' he was sent as 'Resident Engineer' to Plaistow Wharf in the London Docks.
It was at this point he spoke to Ronald Hobbs, an ex-colleague at Whites : "I was seriously thinking about giving up engineering because I was wanting to change my job. I was looking round and I'd had three or four interviews and they were all so depressing" and "I remember talking to Hobbs who was the one who persuaded me to join Arups because I'd never been to a university and was thinking of going and doing a degree in English and when I mentioned that he said : "Why don't you apply to Arups ?" and I said "Oh they're far too intellectual for me" and the next day he rang me up and said I've fixed you and interview." Derek went along to the interview thinking the company "was full of people who had no problems in solving eighth order partial differential equations and I was not very good at that."
"interviewed by Ronald Jenkins and the conversation with him didn't get very far because he started questioning me on my knowledge of 'matrices' and I thought he was talking about beds because he pronounced it 'matresses' in a rather flat 'a."
Things became more bizarre "because the interview was so unsuccessful they decided I should be interviewed by Arup himself and that was even more demoralising because the first thing he did was to confuse me with somebody else, then he discovered I was the one that had been introduced by what he called 'Bob Hobbs'. I said : "No its 'Ron Hobbs', Ronald Hobbs" and he said : "We cant have two Ronalds, so he's called 'Bob' and he was very cross with me to start with."
"Then he said : "What shall I ask you ?" So, I said "Well you could ask me if I'm a qualified structural engineer ?" He said : "Are you?" I said "Yes" and then he said : "What else shall I ask you ?" "Well you can ask me what I've done". I'd told him what I'd done. He said : "You've spent an awful lot on site, not that I don't think that's important, but can you design things if you meet an architect or see his drawings, can you design things ?" I said : "Well I've not had much experience of that." Then he suddenly said to me : "Are you intelligent ?" Well of course you can't answer that and he knew I couldn't and then he said : "Oh, that's a bloody silly question isn't it ?" and I agreed with him and that was really the end of the interview, apart from the fact we found we both had an interest in Baroque music" and after Ove had said "Well, I think you've got a nice sort of face and will fit in." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDNqOWU00Fw&t=2m45s
Derek was surprised to be offered the job, which he accepted on the princely salary of £720 per year. Philosophically the company was tailor-made for him : "Ronald Jenkins and Ove were something totally different. They talked about what they did, rather than the things so called 'managers' talk about, 'efficiency' and 'profit' and all those things. They talked with passion. Ove did, particularly about the good things about it. I thought when I started here in 1953, they left authority lying around waiting for you to pick it up. Anybody, if they showed they had the ability and showed they were willing to pick up the authority and use it, the opportunities were there."
"didn't have anybody with a thorough steel work background", he "got involved with one or to jobs they had problems with on steel works and then I got involved with factories." His first factory working with the architect Philip Dowson at Welwyn, Hertfordshire and another early project was the bold concrete arched roof of the 'Bank of England Printing Works' at Debden, Essex in 1954.
In 1963, with the creation of 'Arup Associates', Ove finally realised his idea for an architectural practice composed of the whole range of building design professions and chose the 39 year old Derek as one of the partners. It took time for clients to accept the package, particularly to come to terms with the quantity surveyors being 'on the architects’ side' rather than on theirs. Derek cited the 1966 'Mining and Metallurgy Building' at Birmingham University as an outstanding example of this new holistic approach and eschewed complicated designs as “a cop-out” and often the result of laziness.
Derek got his big "opportunity" when "Suddenly out of the blue in '65, Ove had a letter from the Aldeburgh Festival saying they had the possibility to convert a malthouse in Snape into a concert hall and : 'would we survey it and say whether it was possible ?' Ove rang me up he said : "You'd better go and see them." So I went down and met (Benjamin) Britten and (Peter) Pears and walked round it and thought : 'Gosh it's in a terrible state.' All Britten said was : "I'd like it as full as possible for the volume." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDNqOWU00Fw&t=4m28s
He recalled that : "We realised very soon after we started we started surveying we had to take everything down but six walls and we were fortunate that we were left with an ideal space for concerts. The fist thing you had to get was adequate volume, so we raised the walls by some three feet and you can see the change from the existing wall to the new wall and the volume is about 10 cubic metres per seat, an ideal figure for a two second reverberation time." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WNzWNBLuWA#t=29&t=3m26s
When Benjamin Britten asked whether the still 'notional hall' "could be built for £50,000 ?" Derek was taken aback but replied : “double that” and in the end this, “very third world building”, as he called it, was built for £127,000, and opened to acclaim in 1967. After a fire destroyed the hall in 1969, Derek was able to rebuild it in 42 weeks “just as it was”. He admitted that his success at Snape changed his life and "it was the beginning of being asked to do many musical buildings."
In 1970 the acoustic tests he conducted using members of the public were recorded and he was interviewed by BBC East : http://www.eafa.org.uk/catalogue/225644
Derek himself was proud to admit that everybody liked what he had achieved at Snape and most importantly, musicians, like the English Chamber Orchestra : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsOTlG3nbok
His next project involved "finding a place that could be converted into a home for the LSO. We looked at, I think, seven churches in some detail and honed in on that church made famous by the Music Hall song, Trinity Church in Southwark. And it is now the successful Henry Wood Hall." The work involved making "some estimates about the effect of taking out most of the pews and then of bringing the orchestra in, and then of cleaning the church, especially in the high frequencies, because it was very dirty, and it was a bit low in the high frequencies, but you expect that when a church is dirty, so you have to extrapolate from your measurements anyway."
In 1979 he restored Buxton Opera House, having attended his first 'acoustic class' in the 70s at Sound Research Laboratories, it was here that he met Richard Cowell, who had also done some work on Snape and as he recalled : "It was he who came to see me one day and suggested that we really ought to be doing acoustics in Arups. So Arup Accoustics was launched May 1st 1980." Derek was 55 and it was virtually the start of a new career. He had been intrigued that architects were "very concerned with every aspect of the building but not really what it sounded like and I remember somebody saying to me : "Well you see, they can't see it and if they can't see it, it doesn't impinge on the design."
Commissions followed at Britten Opera Theatre, Wexford Opera House, Glyndebourrne Opera House, the Jacqueline du Pré Memorial Hall and Emmanuel College, Cambridge. In this he had always thought that two things were important at work : to do a first-class job and enjoy it in the process. When he became Chairman of Arup Associates at the age of 58 in 1983 he had a management style which deployed kindness, laughter and lunch and avoided meetings of more than seven people, because they were a poor means of communication. He remained in the post until 1987 and continued to act as a consultant to Arup Acoustics until his retirement in 1998 at the age of 73 and after a fifty-six year career in engineering.
"There's something about conformity and establishments that I find disturbing. Really, I'm an anarchist at heart. They have an Arup Graduate School and I always used to give a lecture and the last lecture I gave was : 'How to Waste Time' and I mean, wasting time in a creative way and idleness, is very, very important and there are lots of young people now, there appears to be extraordinary pressure that they've got to be at it all the while and eating sandwiches in front of the computer. I think that relaxing and thinking about things and talking about things and a bit of idleness- very important." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDNqOWU00Fw&t=8m28s
Derek had said :
"The sound of anything is as important to me as the surface and the feel, it's all part of the feel. It's important because our ears define, for me, the nature of space."