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Pioneering spirit

Just over a year ago Laing O’Rourke scored a major coup when it poached tall-building expert David Scott from Arup. Max Thompson catches up with him to find out what lured him into the world of contracting.

High-ranking defections from Arup are rare. So for tall building expert David Scott to not just jump ship, but to jump ship to join a main contractor caused many in the industry to sit up. Just what was Laing O’Rourke up to, they asked?

Scott himself found out straight from Laing O’Rourke chairman Ray O’Rourke. O’Rourke sought out Scott to personally set out his vision of an elite engineering group. One that would be at the forefront of technology, innovation and education across all the major engineering disciplines.

That vision is now reality. With a brief to “devise engineering strategies to create competitive advantage and to drive industry-wide innovation” the engineering excellence group (EEG) is chaired by professor Robert Mair and features seven discipline leads, each of whom runs a team of between four and five engineers (see box).

The group is run out of Laing O’Rourke’s Dartford HQ, which is where we are today.

“So over there in the corner is Phil Cartwright,” explains Scott, wafting his arm behind him towards a colleague. “He’s from the aerospace industry; and over there is Andrew Harris who has come from the oil and gas industry.”

“We want to find better ways of doing things. We want to be seen as being an innovator”

“It’s about cross fertilisation,” he adds.

As well as building an intellectual resource and cross disciplinary collaboration, innovation is at the heart of the EEG.

Scott says the group has around six patents pending including for dry wall and floor systems.

“We want to find better ways of doing things,” he explains. “We want to be seen as being an innovator”.

The recently topped out Leadenhall Building, nicknamed the Cheesegrater, in the City of London, is a case in point. The 225m tall tower was designed by Richard Rogers and Arup and has been built using Laing O’Rourke’s design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA) technique; an exceedingly refined form of traditional prefab construction.

“The steel comes and it is all bolted together, there is no site welding; then the concrete comes and it is all bolted together, there is no site concreting,” explains Scott.

“The floors were put in by two guys and the joints were fixed up by two guys; a team of four people,” says Scott, explaining how the building’s most commonly used 4m by 3m prefab floor sections were installed.

And in the yellow north core at the back of the building where many of the services run, huge 34t steel modules were also dropped into place.

“They came in three lifts complete with the services installed. The ducts and the piping are all incorporated; the sprinkler pipes, everything.”

“This has not been done before as a fully precast solution,” explains Scott. “The closest thing to it is a hollow core steel beam with an insitu topping. We were just grouting the joints and that is it,” he adds.

But the point of the EEG is to keep on striving, and Scott says although the Cheesegrater has been a huge success in terms of construction efficiency, the unique floor design has already been superseded and won’t be used on the next job.

David Scott’s CV

2012 Joins Laing O’Rourke’s engineering excellence group

2009 Elected as a Fellow to the Royal Society of Edinburgh

2006 Authors papers on Fire Induced Progressive Collapse and was a reviewer of the US Government’s (GSA) design requirements to mitigate progressive collapse

2006 Appointed chairman on Council on Tall Building and Urban Habitat (CTBUH)

2002 Works with Daniel Libeskind on the World Trade Center masterplan and the Freedom Tower 1998 Becomes principal at Arup New York, leading the building practice within the America region

1977 Joins Arup

“We have concluded that next time we are going to do something different as we have learnt from that process.

“When you do something that has never been done before you quite often say ‘oh, we can improve that,’” says Scott.

He won’t reveal details of the new technology or the improvements, only revealing that the “floor plates will be bigger” but he says it is almost certain to be used very soon on an as yet undisclosed project in the City.

As part of its commitment to educating its workforce, at any one time Laing O’Rourke funds up to 20 PhDs, the theory being that the research they carry out will filter down and at some point benefit the company.

“We don’t have to make money,” says Scott, “but Laing O’Rourke does.”

“My view is we should be more open with our successes and our failures”

Scott mentions this because while other firms and clients do take risks with new technology, there remains, he says, an unwillingness to admit failure and to share data for the greater good.

This issue comes leaping to the fore when dealing with the fad for wind turbines in tall buildings. Citing the Bank of America Tower in New York, Scott says: “You have this ‘totally sustainable’ building; it’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (Leed) Platinum [roughly equivalent to Breeam excellent] and they say ‘yeah, we are going to release all our energy documents and show the world’.

“Now they are refusing to release their energy documentation. My guess is, it just doesn’t work, and they are too embarrassed,” he says.

Scott has another example closer to home in the form of the Strata, a residential tower in London’s Elephant & Castle. At the top of the building encased in the superstructure are three large turbines - turbines that any south Londoner will tell you rarely turn.

“Had Strata documented its energy use,” says Scott, “then perhaps people would have realised the turbines were a waste of time and money.”

“The Bahrain World Trade Centre (WTC) is another building that has turbines that hardly ever go round, and that is also an embarrassment because it won a best tall building award for the Middle East when I was chairman of the Council for Tall Buildings and the Urban Habitat (CTBUH),” says Scott.

“Frankly, they would both be better if they took the turbines off,” he adds.

But more fundamentally, Scott is frustrated at the lack of knowledge sharing.

“It is that ability to feed back into the global knowledge that would have been beneficial and should have given them success and recognition for helping society to move forward.

“When you do something that has never been done before you quite often say ‘oh, we can improve that’”

“My view is we should be more open with our successes and our failures. At the moment society suffers from a dearth of knowledge about building performance,” says Scott.

At the recent London CTBUH conference delegates were sceptical about development company China Broad’s plans for its 800m tall T220 tower that it claims could be built in seven months. But Scott says he “gets” what the Chinese company is trying to do and he recently stayed in its prototype T30 hotel. Apart from not liking the acoustics and some concerns about fire safety he is positive about China Broad’s approach.

“They are looking for a better way of doing things and Laing O’Rourke very much has that philosophy”.

Like China Broad it’s clear that Laing O’Rourke does things its own way. It doesn’t do “prefab” construction, it does DfMA. And it doesn’t do building information modelling (BIM), it does “digital engineering”, something Scott is evangelical about.

“My view is if you are not using BIM by 2014 you ought be out of business. Once you have done a project with BIM you recognise there is no other way of doing it”.

Scott’s last job for Arup was the 500m tall KPF-designed China Resources Tower in Shenzhen Province.

Having already handed in his notice and agreed a ‘long transition period’ Scott says the KPF job was an opportunity to “think ‘what would a contractor do about this?’

“I said let’s try to think about designing this to build it quickly,” says Scott. Fast forwarding the foundation programme, use of prefab construction and “working extremely hard” took three years off the programme.

So, a year into his role what does Scott think about his switch from consultant to contractor?

“Ray [O’Rourke] had a vision of doing different things. There is a determination, a rigour and ability to do extensive research. “I thought: ‘this could be fun’, and it is.”

Readers' comments (1)

  • Interestingly, Ove Arup started his career in contracting and then move into Consultancy, in part because he felt he was restricted by dealing with inferior designs and wanted to break the mould by designing and building as a one stop service. However, the system was stacked up against design and build in the 1930s and 40s, so he had to choose between contracting and design. David Scott appears to have made the reverse move, but both he and Ove Arup held similar views that design and construction had to be closely linked with each benefitting from the other. Arup said, Design without construction is sterile.

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