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Letters: Views from the Ivory Tower

Getting to the essence of what defines a civil engineer and a contractor.

I ask the question when did the ICE change the definition of being a civil engineer? Simon Heathorn’s letter “Is that an engineer I see before me?” appears to suggest it has (NCE 27 February).

While he states his letter is for debate I find his subject matter insulting and ill-informed to say the least.

My certificate from the ICE dated 1979 states, “the profession of a civil engineer, being the art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man.” It makes no reference to design or contracting.

If, as an institution, we are to promote civil engineering and improve the perceived status of being a civil engineer, suggesting only those who carry out design are engineers will not achieve the desired result at primary, junior and senior school and within the public at large.

I wanted to be a civil engineer since the age of seven and never wavered from this ambition. Now at the age of 60 I can still clearly recall being totally captivated by images of major construction projects being carried out by contractors and thinking that’s what I want to do.

How many of tomorrow’s engineers will be encouraged by similar images? I believe a significant proportion.

Since becoming chartered at the age of 25, I have worked in contracting and have met a large number of civil engineers some chartered and a good many not, equally I have worked with a large number of design engineers. The civil engineers among all of these people have been those who understand and cherish civil engineering, not simply design.

Perhaps Heathorn should spend some time working for a contractor, not least involving falsework, formwork and temporary works elements, after which I am sure he will better understand just what defines an engineer.

  • Steven Bradbury(M),


Simon Heathorn’s wish to differentiate between engineers and contractors is difficult, as they are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, I’d challenge his inference that designers and engineers are mutually inclusive.

To be an engineer is not primarily a question of one’s role, but of how one thinks. That thought needs to be heavily informed by training, experience, knowledge of the discipline, and understanding the potential wider impact of decisions made.

I have looked after large teams of designers and contractors, and just as engineers can be found in both divisions of work, so can large numbers of people who are not engineers.
A designer following codes without validating the principles behind them is no more of an engineer than a contractor filling a hole without confirming its stability.

The most “real” engineers I’ve worked with come from both backgrounds, such as those assessing residual capacity of bridges after vehicles have struck them (usually designers), and those who check the weather forecast before estimating how long an excavated face will self-support (usually contractors).

Fully rounded engineers think from the perspectives of client, designer, constructor, maintainer and end user. Good contractors do this, as do good designers. Both are definitely engineers.

  • Jonathan White (F),


Are contractors engineers? Simon Heathorn seems to be still in the world of Brunel. What is needed today is innovation wherever it lies, not labels. The architects featured in the recent BBC4 programme Nation Builders: The Brits who built the modern world are all brilliant innovators. They were enjoyable to watch as they put over their ideas with passion, helped no doubt, by starting their careers as individuals and not as company men.

So what have we in our field innovated over the last 60 years? Many things technical, no doubt, but also in the way we organise people - early involvement of all the participants in a project for example, to bring together people with innovative ideas.

When presenting our profession to the public and describing what we do, we should be emphasising the innovative side as ingénieurs. Too many members of the public - young and old - associate the word engineer with engines (dirty, noisy things) rather than with innovation and ingenuity (exciting, challenging) and where women are often as good as, or better than, men.

  • Dick Batt (M),


While I would think we are all frustrated by the washing machine “engineer” or the plumbing “engineer”, the idea that one’s own niche is the only true definition of “engineer”, and the subsequent infighting that will inevitably result, will never help the promotion of the profession.

As an engineer with a history in several specialities, and on both client and contractors sides of the fence, I tip my hat more to the inventive generalists, who make clever designs work in practice. To that end I am proud that my son has forgone the lure of what uncertain prestige comes from being a consultant, and has the satisfaction of creating our infrastructure.

To paraphrase, perhaps those in ivory towers shouldn’t throw stones.

  • Andrew Cowley (M retd),


  • Editor’s note: Thanks, Simon for indeed opening up a debate and to the many, many more of you whose letters I have not been able to run.


Transport: Why Dawlish route is key to West Country

The north of Dartmoor alternative route for the Great Western Main Line (NCE 20 February) would be popular with the people of Okehampton in Devon, but not with many other rail users.
As your article notes, it adds another half hour to the three to five hour trip to London from anywhere west of Exeter.

Unless the Dawlish route were also maintained, this would leave Newton Abbot, Totnes and South Hams cut off from rail links.

I am one of many in south Devon whose business relies on an efficient rail link to London. In recent winters, there have been many disruptions due to landslides and flooding.

The past few weeks, obviously, have been particularly difficult. Yet the desire to see enough investment to finally sort these problems out is seen by Network Rail director Simon Kirby as a “knee jerk reaction” (News last week).

Meanwhile, the £42bn quest to make London to Birmingham 20 minutes quicker has, he tells us, “full support”.

Not down here, I’m afraid.

Of course High Speed 2 is a tremendous project. But as we struggle with severed railways and damaged roads, many of us in the South West have been voicing Mark Hansford’s tentative thoughts (NCE 20 February) for quite some time.

  • Kate Purver (M),


Profession: How to drown out hysterical media hype

The recent flooding is an excellent opportunity for engineers to show what they can do. Your feature “How can engineers attract media interest” (NCE last week) shows that a positive momentum is building.

But I predict that in a month’s time there will be a prime time TV programme about the flooding full of hysterical hype that will damage our status even more. This is where we need a professional communicator. Let the public see, on TV and in understandable lay terms, that a real engineer has the technical ability to sort the problem.

Of course we need to train engineers in public speaking; the profession may die if we don’t.

But the subject is raised every year or so with little or no effect, and you cannot force members to attend speakers clubs as suggested by Andy Bunch (Letters last week).

So until we get our own house in order let a passionate, charismatic communicator do it for us, preferably but not necessarily an engineer.

Ben Mitchell, are you ready, with your spiky elbows, for a new media job?

  • Mike Rayworth (F Ret), Appin, Argyll


Flooding: River banks need careful maintenance

Your picture caption “Flood debris cleared from Worcester Bridge”, demonstrates the complete lack of maintenance by the Environment Agency in clearing debris from England’s waterways (News last week).

I have been boating on the RiverThames for over 20 years and in the last few years there has been no clearance of overgrowing vegetation with the result that navigation of the upper reaches has become hazardous. Worcester was very fortunate that the bridge was not swept away.

  • Graham Ward (M),


Water: 1950s’ scheme to pipe water from Brighton

Your correspondent George Muir suggests a tunnel from the Thames to the sea to get rid of excess floodwater (NCE 2 February).

In the early 1950s I was employed by the (then) ­Metropolitan Water Board at a time when supplies to London were under strain in drought years. The chief engineer submitted a report to the Board, suggesting various options for consideration. One of these was a tunnel from Brighton to just below Teddington weir in order to maintain the flow at the required rate of 9m3/s.

How about a two-way tunnel? A branch at Teddington would allow sea water to be transferred north to alleviate droughts and river water to be transferred south during droughts.

If Thames Water is to build one large tunnel, why not two?

  • David Simm (F), d.simm464@btinternet



Energy: Illuminating points on climate change

I was pleased to see letters in NCE prepared to question what is often called the consensus on climate change (Letters last week).

In my experience it is certainly not the consensus among many professionals. My own work Climate variability in civil infrastructure planning, published in ICE Proceedings in May 2010, demonstrated clear periodicities in water availability.

However, climate cycles such as these are ignored in global circulation models, often called climate models, which are predicated almost entirely on an assumed link between global temperatures and atmospheric gas variations.

As Martin Donaldson pointed out these models did not predict the last 16 years of constant global temperature nor indeed the pattern of temperature variability during the last century (Letters last week).

The 20th century temperature variations have been shown to closely follow solar variation and associated proxies such as the earth’s geomagnetic “aa-index”.

There is currently an active debate on the possible causal mechanisms for this, such as the one proposed by professors Svensmark and Friis-Christensen of the Danish National Space Institute.

These and other studies indicate circa 50% of recent historic warming has been caused by natural variations, some argue it is higher and some lower.

Unfortunately, exchanges on this all too often degenerate into accusations of bias and the denigration of individuals. Engineers above all need to properly understand the forces of nature so as to accommodate them in their designs.

It would serve the profession well for the ICE to now enter this discussion in a balanced and helpful way and accommodating all reasoned arguments.

  • Peter Mason (F), Terriers House, 201 ­Amersham Road, High Wycombe, Bucks HP13 5AJ


Forget this sterile debate about whether the climate is changing, and why. What is indisputable is that there are no more natural hydrocarbons being made. So let’s stop burning them.

Likewise, nuclear fuels are a finite resource, and we still haven’t found a socially acceptable solution for the waste.

Meanwhile, vast areas of the planet’s surface are made uninhabitable by the huge quantities of natural energy falling on them.

For 20 years we have had the technology to exploit this solar energy; failure to use it, and waiting until the last lump of coal, the last drop of oil, the last bubble of gas and the last grain of uranium are gone is perverse and irresponsible.

We have a duty to engineer solutions for the benefit of mankind, not just for now, but for the (un)foreseeable future. Let’s get on with it, and stop discussing the deck-chair ­arrangements.

  • Peter Thompson (M), 85 Lonsdale Road, Oxford OX2 7ET


  • NCE welcomes letters from readers. We attempt to print as many as possible, which means letters longer than 200 words are likely to be condensed. Send your views and opinions to: The Editor, NCE, Telephone House, 69-77 Paul Street, London EC2A 4NQ; email:

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