Civils 2007 last week recognised emerging talent in the construction industry through two major awards: the Buro Happold-sponsored Emerging Engineering Design Award for the best young designers, and the NCE Graduate Awards for the best graduate to emerge from a UK civil engineering degree this year.
The winner of the Emerging Engineering Design Award was announced to a packed house of industry luminaries – together with Lembit Opik MP – at the Civils Networking Dinner on Tuesday.
The award is now in its second year and is sponsored by NCE and Buro Happold. This year’s winner received a £5,000 cheque and the Happold trophy for demonstrating outstanding engineering skills.
The competition aims to celebrate the abilities of engineers under 40 who have gone that step further to produce the most innovative solutions.
Judging the awards were buro Happold chairman Rod MacDonald, Gifford chairman Gordon Clarke, Mott MacDonald director Alan Podwerham, costain highways director Darren James, last year’s winner Tim Swelson and NCE senior reporter Ruby Kitching.
Chris Atkins, 35
Project: Installing corrosion protection on the electrical sector of the M4
When the 35-year-old Mott MacDonald associate Chris Atkins walked into his EEDA presentation interview, he was armed with a Black and Decker drill and a piece of cathodic protection equipment resembling a stick of dynamite. Not the typical set of props finalists are armed with, but it quickly became clear that Atkins was not a "typical" candidate.
As he leapt about describing his unique design for corrosion protection for a section of the M4 motorway in west London, it was also apparent that here was an engineer who wholly embraced all the practical aspects that go with the job - as well as having an immense depth and breadth of knowledge of his field. It set him apart from the other candidates to ensure he walked away with the coveted Emerging Engineering Design Award.
Atkins' interest in corrosion protection came about by chance, he admits. He knew he would end up doing something in science and engineering – it was what he excelled in at school in St Helens, Merseyside and also what he enjoyed. But it was a chance call from local civil and structural engineering consultant Bingham Cotterell to his careers teacher which secured his interest in civil engineering.
"They were looking for someone to work in their drawing office and also offered to sponsor me to study for an ONC in civil engineering," recalls Atkins. Tough as it was to balance working and studying, it spurred him on to study for a BEng in civil engineering from Middlesex University (where he gained a first-class degree) and then a PhD in steel and concrete corrosion at Manchester University.
"I enjoyed soaking concrete in salty water and hitting it with a hammer," he recalls fondly. And so the two brilliant sides of Atkins are brought together– the sound theoretical knowledge and love of learning that comes from a doctorate and the eagerness to get up close and personal with how structures live and breathe.
Armed with some letters after his name, Atkins then embarked on putting his knowledge into practice with consultant Maunsell where he devised a system of determining the life remaining on parts of the M6 elevated section in Birmingham which was showing signs of corrosion.
But it wasn't long before Mott MacDonald materials and corrosion guru Paul Lambert lured him away with talk of weirder and wilder projects. "With Paul I knew I could work on everything, from protecting Thomas Hardy's house from falling down to examining the storage potential of mountains on Orkney," he says.
Atkins' work is often in the fire-fighting realm of engineering, where a quick response and simple solution is needed to prevent a structure from collapsing.
This is the case on the elevated section of the M4 motorway. To stop the corrosion, Atkins has designed a system where a single titanium anode can be inserted across the width of the motorway at pier-head locations. The titanium anode is then connected to a power supply and the steel reinforcement. The process stops the steel corroding and extends the life of the structure. The solution is also quick and easy to install, compared with the more accepted method of cathodic protection, which involves inserting hundreds of short sections of anode.
"If I were a bridge engineer, I’d just look at bridges. Doing what I do, I can see much more," says Atkins.
The job has taken him around the world to find solutions to very specific problems: concrete in the Middle East suffers from corrosion because of the high concentration of chlorides that are commonly present in the aggregate combined with the high desert temperature, speeding up the chemical reaction. Closer to home on the Mersey tunnel, Atkins was to be seen most recently in the early hours hacking away at the tunnel lining with a crowbar to determine the cause of cracks which began to appear.
He is also quite philosophical about his work. "We tinker about with the forces of nature to get structures to last longer. It takes a lot of energy to make steel, so to knock a structure down and rebuild it isn’t sustainable. If you can save the steel from rusting then you’re saving energy."
He admits that even outside work, he thinks about corrosion protection and is distracted by the possibility of decay – multi-storey car parks and road bridges are a real favourite. Unabashed, Atkins admits that this is purely because he loves his job so much that he can’t help looking for where his next weird and wonderful project will be.
Lee Canning, 33 & Rob Stephens, 23
Mouchel Group, Finalist
Project: Replacing the timber deck of the Calder Viaduct with a fibre reinforced polymer (FRP).
This dynamic duo proved to the judging panel that engineers can really drive change. Canning and Stephens' passion for the use of new materials has resulted in Network Rail considering FRP as a replacement material for timber decks on railway bridges. The new material would require less maintenance and offer a smoother ride to passengers.
Canning and Stephens designed a generic specification for glass FRP to be used on Calder Viaduct in Cumbria, which could also be adapted to any other rail bridge.
Canning, a senior engineer, confesses to having "dedicated his career thus far to the development and appropriate application of FRP technology in civil engineering". Stephens, a graduate engineer carried out much of the research with Canning, to determine whether FRP was structurally and financially viable.
Eddie Jump, 32
Project: major refurbishment of 14 Cornhill, a major city
Understanding the client's needs was key to Jump's design for 14 Cornhill being so successful. He designed a structural system which could support five refurbished office floors and three extra floors over an elegant banking hall without compromising the existing structure. His solution was to build six mega columns around the banking hall to support a roof truss from which the three new floors would be hung. As well as keeping the client happy, creating a vibrant team is also important, he says. "I'm keen to understand what drives the architect’s vision and create and atmosphere of sharing ideas."