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New BGA chairman Chris Menkiti explains his passionate approach

The 2015 European Conference of Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering in Edinburgh may seem some way off, but for new British Geotechnical Association chairman Chris Menkiti it is a date firmly in his sights

If a love of geotechnics was in the job description for the chairman’s role of the British Geotechnical Association, then Chris Menkiti’s appointment to the post could have been based on that factor alone. “One of my earliest memories as a child of three or four years of age was a persistent and burning desire to build skyscrapers,” he explains. “So, long before I knew what the term ‘civil engineering’ actually meant, I was clear in my mind that I wanted to do the things that civil engineers did.”

Menkiti formally took on the role of BGA chairman at the organisation’s recent AGM in June and will combine the position with his duties as a senior partner with Geotechnical Consulting Group. BGA chairmen normally serve for a two-year tenure, but Menkiti will remain in post until the end of 2015 so he can see through the association’s delivery of the European Conference of Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering in Edinburgh in 2015.

“I became part of the committee three years ago and have served as a vice chairman for the last two years so I know what is expected of me over the next couple of years, but it is a big undertaking to put in the work required, and this would not be possible without the support of my company too,” says Menkiti. “GCG has been very supportive, so I was pleased to accept the invitation to become chairman.

“It is both exciting and daunting as my predecessors Hillary Skinner, Sarah Stallebrass and Rab Fernie have all done an excellent job.”

“Geotechnics needs to be at the forefront of development and ensure knowledge is transferred. The BGA has a key role to play in delivering that”

Chris Menkiti

Menkiti has the added pressure of putting the BGA on the European stage with the Edinburgh conference. “The last time the European conference was hosted in the UK was in 1979, when it was held in Brighton, and the proceedings still remain a seminal reference today,” he says. “The Edinburgh conference is a real opportunity for BGA members to showcase its work to promote the role of geotechnics within the UK.”

The theme of the event, which will be held between 14 and 16 September 2015, is Geotechnical Engineering for Infrastructure and Development – a subject that Menkiti is keen to see developed.

“Geotechnics needs to be at the forefront of development and ensure knowledge is transferred,” he says. “The BGA has a key role to play in delivering that.”

Although his tenure will finish in 2015, Menkiti is focusing on the factors that will affect his successors too and working on the first stages of the Vision 2020 plan that was initiated by Fernie.

“The Vision 2020 document sets out the association’s history, where we are today and recognises our achievements,” he says. “The document was jointly developed by myself and Rab but we consulted widely during and drew on the wisdom of key figures in the sector during the writing process.”

Popular events

According to Menkiti, the BGA does have a strong starting position with events such as the Rankine Lecture, which this year attracted an audience of 950 in the room and another 250 on the webcast, as annual events on its calendar. “Development of the Manual of Geotechnical Engineeringwas also a major success for the BGA and is currently one of the ICE’s best-selling publications,” he says.

“The strategy document is just the first step and sets out some ideas of where we hope the association will be in 2020. The next stage is to work on the delivery plan to get there and this will be the focus of the next 12 months to two years.”

One of the first initiatives to come out of the plan is the establishment of a young geotechnical engineers committee, which will be led by Fleur Loveridge, in a bid to improve communication with young people. “There are two primary aims of the group,” says Menkiti. “Firstly to attract people into the ground engineering sector and secondly to guide people through their careers once they enter the profession and become BGA members.”

Although he was inspired to join the profession at an early age, Menkiti recognises that the attraction of the geotechnics sector is not always as obvious to others, if at all.

Nigerian-born Menkiti studiedcivil engineering and soil mechanics at Imperial College after coming to the UK to complete his A-levels at a boarding school in Caterham, Surrey.

“My undergraduate course contained a lot of soil mechanics content,” he says. “I was lectured by some very gifted teachers, including John Burland, Dick Chandler, John Hutchinson and Richard Jardine – their passion for the subject was infectious and I was smitten.”

According to Menkiti, geotechnics was a young, exciting and rapidly developing discipline when he graduated in the early 1980s and saw the potential to contribute something of significance. “Other civil engineering subjects, such as structures, were exciting in their own right – particularly for someone with a mathematical bent – but they were mature subjects and advances seemed incremental,” he adds. “In contrast, in geotechnics, it seemed often that one had to go back to first principles to work out the solution, and this I found particularly attractive.”

High-rise dream

Menkiti continued his studies at Imperial with an MSc in soil mechanics and then a PhD before joining GCG in 1992.

It was only when he joined GCG that he finally got to realise his dream of working on skyscrapers and worked on the development of one of the first high-rise buildings in Mexico. “Well, the foundations of skyscrapers, at least,” he says.

Since then his attention has been caught by tunnelling with a key role on the Jubilee Line – working on Contract 107 between Westminster and Waterloo – and an advisory role on the Bolu Tunnel in Turkey which passed through an active fault in a seismically active area. He also says that working on the Dublin Port Tunnel is a highlight of his career so far.

“Tunnelling exposes all aspects of ground engineering with compensation grouting, diaphragm walling and tunnel boring machines all called for,” he says.

“Working on the Jubilee Line gave me the chance to really immerse myself in all aspects of tunnelling. Now, with the hours spent on specific elements of projects monitored and controlled more closely – especially when we’re in recession – there are fewer opportunities for young engineers to explore, which may benefit efficiency but as an industry we will lose out on skills in the long term.”

Like many in the UK, Menkiti is involved in Crossrail. “There is so much potential for the tunnelling sector in London at the moment,” he says. “Increased infrastructure investment would improve the efficiency of the UK and also drive growth. The government recognises this connection but there are concerns in industry about the timing of these major projects, especially with others like Crossrail coming to an end.”

Nonetheless, Menkiti says he is bullish about the medium and long-term prospects for the geotechnics industry. “We have gone through recessions in the past and emerged stronger and better,” he says. “I see no reason why the same should not apply again.”

If economic recovery does happen over the next fewyears, and Menkiti’s hopes for Edinburgh and ambitions for Vision 2020 are realised, then it is clear that he will have ended his chairmanship of the BGA on a high note.

“With the hours spent on specific elements of projects monitored and controlled more closely, there are fewer opportunities for young engineers to explore” Chris Menkiti

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