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Ken Fleming,1933-2001


INA long, fruitful and influential career Ken Fleming was blessed with a genuine passion for what was both his livelihood and lifelong interest.

Sustained by his strong Christian faith, he was an example and an inspiration to numerous young geotechnical engineers now dispersed throughout the industry and the world.

Wilfred George Kenneth Fleming was born on Wednesday 1 February 1933 at the Rectory, Maguiresbridge, Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, the son of a canon who died when Ken was 13.

Ken graduated with a first from the Queens University, Belfast in 1955. He became an assistant lecturer and in 1958 was awarded his PhD for work on 'The bearing capacity of pile groups' In the same year, he joined J Laing and Sons at Borehamwood and in 1960 became associated with McKinney, the Texas piling and drilling company which carried out early foundation work on jobs such as Centre Point, London.

In 1968 Cementation took over McKinney Brathwaite from Laing, bringing together Greenwood, Slivinski and Fleming, a formidable trio who did much to influence and shape early British geotechnical practice.

Cementation's regime then was relatively laissez-faire and, as now, innovative, with emphasis on good engineering. Ken, who did not distinguish between work and play, settled easily into the Cementation 'family' quickly becoming an engineering guru, designer and problem solver. This role was effectively unchanged throughout his long career as chief engineer.

Ken concentrated on technical issues. He was well aware of the business context but had his own way of 'dead-heading' things which did not attract his interest - such as management systems, staff appraisals and monthly reports. Others could do such things better and Ken stayed focused on more exciting matters.

That is not to say he was not good with people.

He was invariably generous, helpful, positive, genial and very courteous. He expressed his opinion firmly but not aggressively. His soft Northern Ireland accent, comfortable appearance and welcoming smile set at ease visitors from all over the world.

Ken lived his Christian and engineering precepts and all who encountered him recognised this. He became an ambassador for Cementation, the piling industry and for UK foundation engineering around the globe.

Ken had the natural curiosity, intellectual capacity and enquiring mind of a true academic.

His approach was always soundly based in correct science, but it was his follow-through to details with practical use which marked his unique value: he was a genuinely practical academic.

His work on under-reamed piles and on the proper use of bentonite and concrete for diaphragm walls and piles, is reflected in working specifications which are industry standards. His method of predicting and analysing pile performance from load tests in the face of inadequate design data provided a practical solution to a recurring difficulty. Ken recognised that, while it has at its heart an insensitive empiricism which academic purists find hard to accept, the method worked. It has been a boon to practitioners in need of immediate answers.

In the field his acute observation of detail often showed a different story from that generally reported, usually leading to correct problem resolution. Several myths prevalent in the industry have been dispelled by Ken's observations and analyses.

One example from the early days: the ubiquitous underground streams which washed cement from freshly placed concrete piles, thankfully now miraculously disappeared.

Gaining the level of detail through observation could have been Ken's downfall. His need to understand how the McKinney under-reamer worked had him travelling down within the tool itself to see how the cutter sprang, shaved and cleaned.

Ken stopped telling that tale and others of the same ilk when he realised it could lead young engineers to compromise their safety. Indeed, of the lasting influences of Ken's work, the best remembered will surely be his example and inspiration to numerous young (and not so young) Cementation engineers now dispersed throughout the industry and the world. Many acknowledge a debt.

Ken had an influence beyond the company however, including his participation on a large number of committees, drafting specifications and standards, research projects and reviews of technical papers, to ensure quality and sound practice in construction.

This influence is not confined to the UK but embraces European piling through the European Federation of Foundation Contractors. The many technical papers Ken published are available to a much wider world, which is potentially aware of his challenging ideas.

He was principal author of Piling engineering which has become a standard reference book and has run for several editions.

The industry organisations which benefited from Ken's counsel were principally the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Federation of Piling Specialists (where he was chairman and, perhaps more influentially, for many years chairman of the technical committee), CIRIA and the British Standards Institution (BSI).He disagreed with parts of Eurocode EC7, as among other objections he believed it had fundamental technical flaws in relation to pile testing: anathema to the academic in him.

The BSI presented Ken with its Distinguished Service award and in 1999 the British Geotechnical Society (now the British Geotechnical Association) honoured him with the prestigious Skempton Medal for lifelong contribution to geotechnical engineering.

Three years ago Cementation instituted the Fleming Award, given annually for geotechnical engineering excellence for industry projects. Ken was justifiably proud of this recognition.

He was a popular speaker and often asked to lecture at universities, trade bodies or individual companies. His modest, easy style conveyed fundamental issues and a great deal of practical good sense and advice. He was for many years a visiting professor at his alma mater, the Queens University, Belfast.

In all he did Ken was totally committed, but he also cared. Few people will leave as good a testament to engineering excellence nor as good a role model for professional and human integrity.

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