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Letters: Valuing site experience

Looking up Richard Thiemann I see he is a structural engineer, and that provides context to his viewpoint (NCE 2-9 April). He suggests that young engineers should spend a significant portion of their training on site and that all design engineers should visit sites on a regular basis. It was long ago that the ICE abandoned such a requirement, quite rightly in my opinion.

Indeed, writing this response, I feel I am revisiting an argument from 20 years ago when I sought professional qualifications.

Engineers are involved in all stages of a project, through conception, feasibility, planning, design, construction, operation, maintenance and divestment. Some concentrate too much on just the one phase, construction.


Graduate engineers: How important is time spent on site?

It would be desirable for young engineers to have some site experience, as well as other things, and equally it would be desirable for constructors to spend time planning schemes, and realising the compromises that have to be applied in order to get a scheme going. Our world is complicated, and to deal with it, specialisation is ever more prevalent.

Although I have a civil engineering degree I have spent my 25 year career in transport planning. I design, among other things, but at the planning stage and therefore differently to the structural designers that are aligned with the construction stage. A colleague I much admired said that we did the why, rather than the how.

I have visited a construction site only a handful of times. Some may say this is to the detriment of my experience, and no doubt those who spent time on site to pass their professional review will say such time was invaluable. It may have been desirable, but would a year in such a junior role really have made much difference? And how would my consultant employer have given me such experience?

After explaining what I do to the uninitiated, they often simplify my job as building roads. It isn’t that at all, but the image of an engineer as a man in a hard hat is simple to grasp. It is has a lot to do with our image problem, status and unattractiveness to the young and female.

Our industry is much more complex and multifaceted. We do not all need to fit a narrow view of an engineer, honed by site experience. A modern engineer can be office based (clean, warm and working close to home) using considerable IT resources, collaborating with other built environment professionals, engaging with the public, using their intelligence to resolve complex problems, and still be proud of seeing something delivered on the ground. That is an attractive idea that doesn’t require time on site.

  • David Cummins

Charitable trusts can help students

Having reached the age of 104, I reflect on the issues in my life that have influenced my thoughts, actions and compassion for students at university, studying for civil engineering and associated degrees.

Today there is a cost of £9,000 per year to the majority; in my day polytechnic gave me and many others the opportunity at no or little cost.

Without a constant flow of young graduates the economic and future prosperity of Great Britain will decline. Fortunately, by a little expertise and good fortune in 1998 I was able to invest a gift of £20,000 into shares which now have a value of £250,000 with yearly grants of £500 to £1,500 to 10 to 12 students.

I am rewarded by the telephone calls and letters of appreciation I receive from some recipients.

Fortunately the trustees of the Bernard Butler Trust fund still give their spare time and enjoy doing whatever is required. Unfortunately I have decided that my health prevents my continued attendance at meetings. Long may the fund, a registered charity, continue.

  • Bernard Butler (M) 10 Vale Close, Lower Bourne, Farnham, GU10 3HR

Project history repeats itself

I retire today after 42 years as a civil engineer.

I am immensely proud of what the industry and I have done in those years.

I have worked on numerous exciting projects including tidal barrages around the Severn and an airport in the Thames Estuary.

The only thing is that I worked on those in my first job with the John Howard Group, 42 years ago.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose!

  • David Fison (F), 153 Herne Hill, London SE24 9LR

Tidal power schemes are not just about energy

With reference to your comments on tidal power (NCE 12 March), this form of power is predictable and constant. Large scale lagoon schemes are the answer where there is a good tidal range available such as in the Bristol Channel. There are other locations such as the Solway Firth and the sea lochs in the west of Scotland.

Tidal power barrages can also provide road crossings as an additional benefit. The Rance scheme in France is a good example of a large scale project close to the source of demand.

  • Harry Osborn (M) 15 Cowal View, Gourock PA19 1EX

Wastewater’s potential

Nick Davies says that all waste should be considered as resource and ponders if in the future he might be paid to have his septic tank emptied (NCE 2-9 April). Though that might sound improbable to some readers, I can imagine a future when households market their wastewater for its water, energy, nutrient and mineral resource value. Whether they do this individually, as communities, or via an intermediary such as a utility company, makes for fascinating possibilities for change in the way we manage wastewater now.

  • Michael Norton (F)


Playing with political footballs

The Labour Party manifesto has traded the A27 and A358 improvements against rail fare subsidies. Once again infrastructure projects are back to being political hot potatoes. Not surprisingly this is in this case for schemes in staunchly Tory areas.

The issue is of course wider. The gestation period for infrastructure projects is longer than one period of government so there will always be uncertainty about specific infrastructure projects: for those that benefit from them or are affected by them and of course those that work on their design. After all the efforts to raise awareness of the value of infrastructure over the last few years, it’s back to square one I think.

  • Robert Brewerton


Welsh tunnel memories

The prospect of re-opening the rail tunnel linking the heads of the Rhondda and Afan Valleys in south Wales is great news.

Before the War when I was about 10, my parents would safely put me alone on the GWR train at my home town Treorchy to travel through the tunnel to Swansea.

There, about an hour or two later, I would step off the train at the arrival platform to be greeted by a waiting aunt. These days, can you possibly imagine parents making such an arrangement with the same level of confidence - particularly with no telephone communication between the two ends of the journey, separated by an under-mountain tunnel?

Those were the days - and I survived!

Having, in my youth, made many steam-train journeys through the Blaencwm-Blaengwynfi tunnel, disused for over 50 years, I now look forward to being among the first in the queue to walk or cycle under the mountain when the tunnel is re-opened. The sooner the better.

  • Colin Davies (F) 59 Heath Road, Potters Bar

Tackling the Severn estuary silt issue

The recent correspondence on silt in the Severn River initiated by Rob Kirby is timely in view of the plan, recently presented in a blaze of publicity, to build a Swansea lagoon along the estuary rather than a barrage across the Severn.

While lagoons may be appealing to unduly cautious bureaucrats, short-termist politicians and non-government organisations with little interest in the practicalities of electricity generation, they will be of very limited significance to the nation since a Swansea lagoon would generate only 2.5% of the power of a barrage - while still requiring a concrete wall of at least half the length of a barrage across the river.

second severn crossing

Severn estuary: Barrage backers examined silt issue extensively

This discrepancy between high construction cost and low electricity generation goes some way to explaining the exorbitant £168/MWh strike price asked for by Swansea lagoon, while nuclear is around £92/MWh. The strike price for the barrage is somewhat less than nuclear.

In addition to a greater price and minimal electricity generation, a Swansea lagoon would raise very real concerns in respect of its possible impact on the load of suspended sediment in the estuary, which could be considerable and does not appear even to have been modelled.

When presenting the case for a Severn Barrage to the House of Commons Energy Select Committee, my expert team recognised that the issue of siltation was and will be a major consideration. Indeed, our barrage concept was designed to have turbines the whole way across the estuary precisely in order to address this issue by permitting a continuation, to the greatest extent possible, of the current free flow of water in the estuary. Our expert advisors anticipated that there would be a one off deposit of sediment which would be dredged. Thereafter, siltation would not be exacerbated by the barrage.

If we are going to extract energy from the Severn, this should be done in the Victorian spirit of enterprise, which underwrote much of our existing national infrastructure, not by creating an expensive 21st century toy.

  • Tony Pryor (F), former chief executive, Hafren Power


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