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Kenneth Wilson Cole 1935-2007

Kenneth Wilson Cole, who died on 9 January 2007, had a profound infl uence on the way in which geotechnical design is now undertaken in the UK. He served on GE’s editorial advisory board from 1981 to 1996, taking the role of chairman from 1990. Ken is one of the unsung heroes of British geotechnical engineering for raising the standard of investigation and design to what is now accepted as the baseline for good practice.

Ken joined Ove Arup & Partners structural engineering group in 1961 and worked alongside John Burland to design the deep basement for the City of London’s Britannic House (now Britannic Tower) - one of the deepest basements at that time.

Fred Butler was at the same time holding surgeries in geotechnical design for Arup structural engineering group. Ken joined him in about 1964 in a move that laid the foundations for the fi rst consultant-led geotechnical design group.

Both men understood that designers should assume much greater control of geotechnical processes, especially with the advent of increasing foundation loads and deeper basements. SI became firmly based on thorough desk studies with emphasis on work by specialists and the need for them to supervise foundation construction. Although now accepted as the norm, this was an exceptional technique in the 1960s.

Committed to raising standards, Ken and Fred drafted Arup specifi cations for SI, laboratory testing, pile inspection and load testing, and for the construction of piling, earthworks and diaphragm walls. Many of these documents now form the basis for National Specifications and British Standards.

Ken maintained a dedication to raising standards throughout his career - in the last few years before he retired, he was a core member of the Site Investigation Steering Group set up by the Institution of Civil Engineers. Many of his case histories helped him produce documents such as Without site investigation ground is a hazard. Ken also published papers on geotechnical design and construction and wrote the Institution of Civil Engineers guide, Foundations.

In the late 1970s Ken led teams designing road embankments on soft alluvium at Queenborough, Sandwich and Dublin, using systematic techniques of prediction and monitoring now called the observational method.

His put his expertise in soft ground to the test in 1979, with his design of approach embankments for the highway bridge over the River Shannon. These were constructed on soils that rank among the weakest in the world and without Ken’s innovative methods, the project would not have started.

The Gateshead Western Bypass in the late 1960s and early 1970s is one of the first projects that benefited from the introduction of Ken’s enhanced ground investigation standards. A major problem was the interpretation of old mining records, in its infancy at that time, and one that required considerable detective work. Ken discovered that the use of the same name for a seam did not necessarily indicate continuity - when the first high value seam had been worked out, a little deception had been practised by applying the same name to another seam.

Such was the volume of geotechnical work in the north east that enquiries as to Ken’s whereabouts frequently generated the response: ‘Cole’s to Newcastle’.

Ken put his experience to good use in leading a team to evaluate and stabilise ground above abandoned limestone mine workings in the Midlands. Surface collapses were becoming an issue and creating housing blight. Ken led a study of the risk of collapse in the Black Country. Together with Bill Ward, he hit upon the concept of using colliery waste to fi ll the mine voids and create two new development sites: one above the mine and one at the colliery dump. Waste was slurried to the consistency of porridge, which among other epithets was given the title of ‘rock paste’, and pumped intoboreholes to fill the voids. Mines in Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton were successfully treated in this way.

Ken’s knowledge of the problem affecting the West Midlands and parts of Shropshire became encyclopaedic.

This, along with his commitment to solving the problems faced by the people living and working above the mines, impressed the leaders of the affected boroughs and led to Ken being known to them as ‘Mr Limestone’.

In 1992 the British Geotechnical Society (now the British Geotechnical Association) recognised Ken’s contribution to geotechnical engineering with the rarely bestowed Skempton medal. He had received a prize from the society, 20 years earlier, for his paper on uplift of piles driven in groups - no small achievement considering prizes at the time were usually awarded to academics.

Probably Ken’s greatest achievement, and one which is a fitting memorial, was his infl uential role in the route selection for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Ken was a passionate railway buff, as anyone who travelled by train with him quickly discovered. His detailed knowledge of the UK’s historic railway network, along with his geological, geotechnical and topographical skills, enabled him to propose a route that reduced the number of dwellings affected by the link to a handful. The route also served to help regenerate the Thames Gateway area. His knowledge and dogged persistence made sure that the best route was selected.

It is no exaggeration to say that the route fi nally chosen was Ken’s route. It is a matter of great sadness that he did not live long enough to see the formal opening of this route into St Pancras.

Ken took early retirement in 1995 due to ill health. He was supported in his long battle with Parkinson’s Disease by his wife Gwen, daughters Alison and Anna, and three grandchildren.

Ken was passionate about both his engineering projects and passing on his experience to younger colleagues.

His rigour and thoroughness in critically reviewing reports of those in his charge was held in some awe and trepidation. His determination not to accept second best won him the respect of colleagues and clients, and it is a legacy that he has passed on to the profession as a whole.

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