Consultant Civic Engineers sets itself apart from the norm with its passion for social value and the impact of civil engineering on people.
Civic Engineers is a small firm of consultants looking to answer engineering’s big questions.
Its working ethos is not about parachuting into a project to fulfil a specific engineering brief. It wants to develop a vision for how a final structure or place will feel, look and work, and develop the engineering details from there.
“What you tend to find is that engineers get appointed on a silo basis; you’ll get a structural engineer appointed and then a civil, drainage, flood risk, transport, the list goes on and on,” says one of the company’s two founding directors Julian Broster. “Before you know it, you have five or six different opinions, sometimes from the same company and sometimes they don’t know each other.”
“If you’re trying to tackle the big engineering challenges on a project, you want an engineer who can see and think strategically and then you can get into the details further down the line. It’s not for everyone, but certainly the clients we like working with, do appreciate that holistic view.”
Social value is what we care about – the impact on people
A case in point is Altrincham town centre in Greater Manchester, which in 2010 had the highest shop vacancy rates in the country. As civil engineers for transformative public realm works for client Trafford Borough Council, Civic Engineers carried out work to link a new market area with a new transport interchange and improve the town’s main vehicle route. Vacancy rates dropped from 30% to 10%, and there was a drop in crime and anti-social behaviour from 310 to 279 incidents in comparable six month periods. Footfall increased by 170,000 in a year.
“Social value is what we care about – the impact on people,” Broster says.
Civic Engineers is an 80-strong firm – including part time staff – with offices in Manchester, London, Leeds and Glasgow. It is set to record a turnover of £4.5M this year and, its directors say, is now moving out of its infancy and into the teenage years.
Out of the ashes
The firm was set up in 2010 during the coalition government’s austerity drive. Public sector funding cuts hit projects being worked on by engineering firm Stockley, where Broster and his business partner Stephen O’Malley first worked together. Stockley went into voluntary liquidation and so Broster and O’Malley decided to set up on their own, taking some of Stockley’s staff, projects and intellectual property of previous projects with them.
“That General Election was in the spring and by June they (the government) had pretty much abandoned all the regional development agencies. In the North West there were 100 projects that were funded through the North West Development Agency. Of those 100 projects that were cancelled, we [Stockley] had about 10,” says O’Malley. “You’re staying in business in the hope and belief that those projects would materialise, and then all of a sudden there’s a pen strike through them,” he adds.
Clearly it was a tough time. But Broster and Stockley were undaunted. “We knew we were good,” says Broster. “A good team of people, good clients and very ambitious. It didn’t take long to decide I wanted to do this.”
So, both putting £5 investment into the business each, they started a new firm, initially keeping the name Stockley and then rebranding as Civic Engineers in 2013 to reflect their pride in being engineers and their civic work.
Today, O’Malley and Broster say their biggest frustration is getting the opportunity to bid for major projects, especially when some clients are looking for the security of a big name. They would love to take a bite out of some of the UK’s huge infrastructure projects such as High Speed 2, getting involved in the huge Euston Station remodelling for example, but say it can be difficult for small and medium-sized firms to get a look in.
If you have a broader range of opinions and views you’re going to get a better answer
“What we want is an opportunity to compete,” says O’Malley. “We would contend that on a level playing field we could give anybody a run for their money. The difficulty there is there’s an understandable degree of bias and comfort and predictability in safe hands – that cliché ‘you never get sacked for hiring IBM’. We’re not IBM.”
So when Civic Engineers does compete, tender bids are compliant with the brief, but the firm takes the bid further to show what else it could bring to the project by looking at how it connects with the surrounding area.
Interpreting the brief
O’Malley says: “What we have become increasingly adept at doing is interpreting that brief for the client. So the clients will give you a clue in the brief as to what their appetite for change and “risk taking” might be and you can see that in the tender and brief and you can open it up during the tender process in terms of your tender response.
“And assuming you’ve got that balance right, and you’ve got the right mix of people in the room making decisions, you’ve then got the opportunity to elaborate further in the interview and we’ve got some well-rehearsed, well-established and credible arguments that give those people the comfort to be able to appoint us to do these types of projects,” he says. He cites the holistic thinking the firm is applying to the Avenues regeneration project in the centre of Glasgow where the firm is project leader.
To achieve this big picture thinking within the firm, the directors have tried to develop a specific company ethos and structure.
Put simply, they do not like departments and see them as counter-productive. Civil, structural, water, transport and other disciplines all work together.
The firm has a broad mix of projects and therefore disciplines, with about 65% of work in building structures and 35% in urban infrastructure. It is also fostering a gender diverse workforce.
Overall around 35% of Civic Engineers’ workforce are women, although this figure is 65% in the London office. Many of the London team are women who have returned to work after having a family and for whom Civic Engineers offers flexible working arrangements.
“It takes a lot of skill to pursue the engineering excellence we’re interested in and to deliver that skill we need to create a certain culture, that is not just in our engineering but right the way across the board,” says O’Malley. “And that culture is about flexibility, accommodation, helpfulness, ingenuity, and that’s in all aspects of how we want to run the business. If you have a broader range of opinions and views you’re going to get a better answer.”
And by providing better answers, Civic Engineers hopes the big questions will keep coming.