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A bug's life

'Some of the world's most impressive architects are not human.'

Before I am accused of professional prejudice here let me say that the quote comes from a brochure for the Animal Construction Company, an exhibition and education programme to feature at Glasgow University's Hunterian Museum from 20 March to 27 June. It promises to be a unique feature of Glasgow 1999: UK City of Architecture and Design, and should be well worth a visit.

The Animal Construction Company featured as a key theme in Alec Moir's Honorary Fellowship address to the Institution of Structural Engineers on 4 February. Moir, until recently chairman of Oscar Faber and a past president of Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers, gave a measured, varied but uncomplicated lecture about his aspiration for a holistic approach to energy-efficient design.

He drew on the work of Dr Michael Hansell of Glasgow University to show how some of his heroes have used structural and environmental engineering to create shelter, security and environmental protection within communities of massive populations. These heroes measure around 10mm in length and in Australia, for example, one of their 'skyscraper' mounds reaches a height of 6.7m, equivalent to a 1,150m high human building (almost three times the height of the proposed Tai Pei Financial Centre in Taiwan). Their structures often exceed the height of a double-decker bus, are methodically organised in up to 1,500 storeys and accommodate as many as 8m inhabitants. We are talking termites here.

Even more amazingly, the termites achieve temperature regulation through the shape, mass and orientation of their structures. In a climate of large diurnal temperature fluctuations, Australian mounds lie on a precise north- south axis, giving a near constant internal temperature. African termites create circulating-air systems that have vents and/or internal cooling arrangements.

In closing this part of his address, Moir said: 'As man grapples with global issues of disproportionate and damaging con- sumption against aspirations for growth across the developed and developing world, perhaps some cognisance might be taken of the animal world's evolutionary approach to sustainability, before we destroy it too.' Too right.

I love this idea of a 'real-life, bugs life', of these termite engineers with their massive gangs of site workers. What spoils it is the image of some fat, sleazy termites in the bug-world's equivalent of Brussels, complete with headphones and interpreters arguing over the precise wording of the Council (draft) Directive in the Field of Termite Mound (Procurement and Construction) Policy.

The termites don't know how lucky they are. Our human bureaucrats in Brussels have handed over a tunnel-destroying directive to the European Parliament, which receives its first reading this week.

The legislative proposals are designed to protect the quality of water throughout Europe. But before we all cheer let me tell you about Annex VIII. Here the draft proposals seek to prohibit the injection of 'materials in suspension' into groundwater.

This will outlaw the wide range of substances used as the basis of grouts, including natural substances such as bentonite. In turn this will mean a ban on grouting, whether in water exclusion applications, modern tunnelling methods or construction of deep foundations and earth retaining walls.

According to the ICE, the proposals will severely inhibit ground investigation, usually the basis for designing measures to improve the environment, and will ban the very materials that are commonly used to protect aquifiers and prevent contamination. The Ground Forum (whose members include the ICE, British Tunnelling Society and the Federation of Piling Specialists) believe the directive will be 'catastrophic for geotechnics' and have estimated the legislation will increase construction costs across Europe by up to 30%.

There has been a storm of protest right across Europe but the Eurocrats might as well be termites for all the notice they have taken to date. If they get their way, the only tunnelling left will be by the moles, badgers and termites. Perhaps it really is a bug's life.

Graham Watts is Construction Industry Council chief executive.

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