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Letters: Can engineers measure up?


In his ICE/Halcrow Sustainability Lecture, Prince Charles queried the modern relevance - and implications - of Thomas Tredgold’s definition of civil engineering in the Institution’s 1828 Charter, and urged us to bring it into the 21st century. (NCE 9-16 February).

He is right. Perhaps I could point out that I offered such an alternative in 2003 at Professor Adrian Long’s ICE President’s conference in Belfast in 2003, and published in the ICE proceedings (“Sustainability and the formation of the civil engineer”, Engineering Sustainability 157, June 2004 Issue ES2, pp 79-88).

It involved changing just three words.

Simply change Tredgold’s definition of civil engineering from “the Art of directing the great sources of Power in Nature for the use and convenience of man” to “the Art of working with the great sources of Power in Nature for the use and benefit of society”. I’m sure the old man - Tredgold - would approve.

This re-definition arose from the ICE Council Task Group (established in 2002 during Mark Whitby’s ICE Presidency) and which I chaired, to mainstream sustainability issues into civil and structural engineering degree programmes through the JBM accreditation process.

Ten years on, it’s gratifying to have royal endorsement. Now all we have to do is to put it into practice. To coin a phrase, “Now is the time”.

  • Professor Paul Jowitt, ICE President 2009-2010,

Prince Charles is absolutely right that it is about time civil engineering is redefined in tune with need of sustainable development.

As a matter of fact my contributions to engineering sustainability go back to 1974, long before the Bruntland commission of 1987 definition of sustainable development.

This view culminated in my contributions to Whither Civil Engineering to the ICE via a paper in January 1995, which was presented by me at an International Dam Engineering conference in August 1995, in which I wrote: “Civil engineering may have to be re-defined as ” art of directing the great sources of power in human and nature for the use and convenience of people in a sustainable way”

I also sent a short video of my experience of engineering sustainable development to Prince Charles’s website for the Copenhagen UN Climate Change Conference in December, 2009.

  • Vijay K Vijayaratnam (M),

With reference to your comment last week on Prince Charles’ call for civil engineers to change our attitude to the environment, I think he is alluding to our moral stance on the issue. For example, whilst we can pride ourselves on having the engineering expertise to build, for example, indoor ski slopes in hot countries, is it morally correct, from an environmental point of view, to do so? We would surely not have built gas chambers for a wealthy client such as Adolf Hitler if we had known his purpose, so why do we build infrastructure for wealthy clients today who’s purpose seems to be, at worst, to destroy the environment, or at least who have no regard for the environmental impact of their projects.

We have, in recent decades, made much progress in stamping out financial corruption in the industry around the world, so is it not now time to turn our attention to stamping out environmental corruption?

  • Jason Le Masurier (M)

It is disappointing that Prince Charles did not congratulate civil engineers on the many projects completed with full regard for the environment and sustainability (NCE 9-16 February).

On the other hand his concerns about undue self interest are valid for projects such as the A46 Newark to Widmerpool improvement which is nearing completion.

The construction is of high quality but many regard the scheme as over engineered with some sections having unnecessarily large, environmentally intrusive, embankments and cuttings.

Certain junctions were over designed to accommodate rush hour traffic flows which could easily have been reduced by commuter bus and park and ride provision.

A more modest scheme would have been adequate for traffic and safety, less intrusive on the environment, and more readily adaptable for future regional developments.

It does seem appropriate, as Prince Charles suggests, to update the ICE Royal Charter to remind Members of our commitment to sustainable affordable solutions.

  • John Greenwood (M), 10 Nottingham Rd, Cropwell Bishop, Notts NG12 3BQ.

Prince Charles’ comments recall the teenager who, some years ago, asked the Any Questions panel: “What should my generation do with the mess left by your generation ?”

The retired engineer might offer three recommendations. First, give credit for what we have done with our own inheritance, including coal tips stabilised and landscaped, acid rain stopped, fish swimming in rivers that had been dead. Second, address the problems that we haven’t dealt with. Third, scrutinise what you do and try to identify your own new environmental hazards before they become serious.

The failure of successive generations has always lain in the third of these. Perhaps that is what Prince Charles is getting at.

  • Mike Keatinge, Highbank, Marston Road, Sherborne, Dorset DT9 4BL

181 years ahead of the game

Colin Wheeler says in his letter (NCE 9-16 February) that we will be one of the last countries in western Europe to build a high speed railway connecting major cities.
Obviously he is wrong as Britain built the first, between Liverpool and Manchester. The line opened in September 1830.

  • Nigel Hopwood (AMICE), Burnley,

Stone age remains a worry at Felixstowe

The report on the Felixstowe Sea Defences (NCE 26 January) concentrates on the efficiency of the design and the contractors’ success with implementing the design.

However, it does not mention the continued public concern on the effectiveness of the current works between Cobbolds Point and the pier.

This concern may be due to the failure of rock groynes installed a few years ago running from Cobbolds Point for 500m south along Undercliff Road East. These created wide bays of about 350m and 125m allowing the beach to curve inward to undermine the promenade.

Emergency dumping of stone protection then totally destroyed this length for several years. The revised spacing of 60m will be more effective and may restore public confidence in design consultants and hydraulics specialists.

A further concern is that the public appears to prefer the original timber groynes encased in concrete.

Possible reasons could be the closeness of the old groynes; at about 25m apart with vertical edges they protected beach users from cold East Coast sea breezes. They also had flat tops enabling beach users to walk down to the beach without requiring the clutter of formal steps.

By comparison the new groynes sterilise 10 to 15% of the beach with angular rocks that present an ongoing hazard to the younger beach user, despite intrusive warning signs.

The public is probably watching very carefully to see whether the half price new system proves a better choice than reinstating the original groyne type.

  • David Havell, (M), 41 Bonington Chase, Chelmsford, Essex CM1 6GG

Don’t bang on about BIM

Having been involved in our industry for almost 50 years, I have seen many innovations that were to revolutionise the industry come and, inevitably, go. And now we have potentially the latest; BIM. As usual those who have developed the ability to keep their profile to the fore latch on to the latest craze to obtain further publicity.
NCE is doing a grand job promoting the cause, to the extent that it is, I suggest, going overboard.

The supplier of the software package must be delighted with the free publicity that is coming his way, and must be amazed with the success he is having with a product that, it seems, is a modest advancement of the state of the art.

Needless to say the consultants are jumping on the band wagon as they see the potential for additional fees.

There are plenty of buzzwords and claims as to the effectiveness and efficiency of the technique and they all sound very plausible. But I wonder. Have we done it all so badly for so long?

The fact is that a lot of energy and cost will go into this exercise and I am dubious about the benefits.

After all it is not as though we could not do all that BIM offers previously. Is a sophisticated technique necessary in all projects or situations? I very much doubt it.

Previous sophisticated systems, such as document management packages, are renowned for being over complicated, not user friendly and consequential failure. Mark my words.

  • George Muir (M),
  • Editors note: An interesting perspective, however, I fear that should the UK construction industry continue to resist to need to fully embrace this technological revolution it will most certainly be at its peril.
    Mark my words, the rest of the world is rapidly embracing BIM and digital information management technologies in construction.

Grammatical cold front

D Hindle is incorrect when he equates climate and weather: they are not the same (NCE 9-16 February).
Weather is what happens due to climate conditions and is much more chaotic than the climate conditions themselves.

Weather is only predictable over a matter of days whereas climate refers to the average weather for a specific area over a long period of time, eg, 30 years.

By an analogy to seasonal changes, I can confidently predict that June will be warmer than any February (in the northern hemisphere) but I have no idea what the weather will be like.

  • K Whittington,

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