The debate raging between the insurance industry, keen to minimise risks to homeowners, and developers, keen to maximise development opportunities by building on floodplains (NCE 24 May) does little to enhance public perception of the construction industry and its attitude towards the environment. But one organisation in Oxfordshire is working to ensure the UK remains at the forefront of understanding the water environment and civil engineering hydraulics.
Established more than 50 years ago as the government's hydraulics research station, HR Wallingford is now a private company which carries out research and consultancy worldwide, from its headquarters near Oxford and an office in Malaysia.
The UK government, the European Commission and international funding agencies number among its major clients. The scope of work it undertakes is enormous - ranging from designing an outfall for a power plant, to establishing coastline management strategies and heading a team charged with defining a global vision on behalf of the Global Water Partnership.
Through close contact with other research organisations, universities and consultants, HR Wallingford provides clients with multi-disciplinary teams to address questions relating to the management and use of water, whether they relate to the environment, industry, transport or water resources.
And this calls for the skills of a variety of specialists - from engineers to geomorphologists, mathematicians to hydrologists.
'We employ a wide range of people because the work is partly consultancy and partly research, ' explains head of marketing Thierry Rault. Of the 200 staff employed at HR Wallingford, more than 100 have a civil engineering background.
Bridget Woods Ballard, a senior engineer and project manager, is a chartered civil engineer with an MSc in hydrology. Her job includes hydrological and hydraulic modelling for flood alleviation scheme design, research into the performance and economics of sustainable urban drainage systems, and appraising options to mitigate the impact of development on flood risk. She is also co-ordinating an EC funded Concerted Action on the mitigation of climate induced natural hazards.
Woods Ballard finds the blend of research and consultancy at HR Wallingford particularly rewarding. 'The company's activities provide unique opportunities to use high profile research to influence and direct our ongoing consultancy work, ' she says.
'The research work at HR Wallingford gives our staff a technical foundation for a great career, ' adds Rault. The company offers numerous opportunities to work overseas - including Vietnam, Yemen, Java, Italy and South Africa.
Matthew Crossman, a coastal and maritime engineer, particularly enjoys the fact that he is always learning, and the chance to work with acknowledged experts. His responsibilities include developing management strategies for sections of the UK coastline and applied research such as assessing the use of timber in coastal and fluvial engineering.
'I also spend a substantial proportion of my time on design studies, ' he says. 'These include physical and numerical model studies of coastal schemes, commissioned through consultants, developers or local authorities.'
These studies, Crossman says, give him a continuing involvement with 'real' engineering.
'My background and the understanding I develop through participation in the model studies mean I can provide a substantial contribution to the solution of complex and challenging problems.'
Key points The industry requires a multi-disciplinary workforce combining varied skills This creates opportunities for learning and career diversification The work can often involve overseas travel