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Six of the best

Competition to take the title of Young Geotechnical Engineer at this year’s GE Awards is tough. Claire Symes spoke to the six finalists to find out what makes them the cream of the crop.

Making your way in the early years of your career can be a difficult challenge, especially given the competition for jobs and the current state of the ground engineering market. Nonetheless, judges for this year’s Ground Engineering Awards faced some tough decisions when it came to the Young Geotechnical Engineer of the Year category for geotechnical engineers who are 30 or younger.

After much deliberation, the judges whittled the 15 entries down to the final six. And as GE found out when we interviewed the shortlisted candidates, making an impact as a young engineer is still an achievable ambition.

In search of experience

Alistair Briffett
Bachy Soletanche

While many engineers are opting to work overseas in search of higher salaries and better opportunities, one of the finalists is bucking the trend by moving from his native New Zealand to work in the UK.

Bachy Soletanche project engineer Alistair Briffett moved to the UK last year with the aim of gaining experience in diaphragm walling. “The technique has only been used twice in New Zealand so far, but it is now common practice in the UK,” he says.

Alistair_Briffett_mono

“My father is a mechanical engineer and he has spent time working in Shanghai and living there during those periods it was fascinating to see how the fast pace of construction there was changing the city.”

Alistair Briffett

Briffett graduated from Auckland University in 2008 with a degree in civil engineering. “I was always interested in how things work,” he says. “My father is a mechanical engineer and he has spent time working in Shanghai and living there during those periods it was fascinating to see how the fast pace of construction there was changing the city. This is mainly what inspired me about civil engineering, along with the career potential the industry offers.”

On graduation, Briffett joined one of New Zealand’s largest contractors Fletcher Construction and worked on the Auckland Harbour Bridge and a power station scheme before getting his first real experience of geotechnics on the Victoria Park Alliance road development.

“Working on the Victoria Park project was a great experience - it was good to work on a scheme that will benefit my home city,” he says. “But it was also a good opportunity to innovate and the client was open to new solutions.”

He is currently working on Crossrail’s Contract 350 at Pudding Mill Lane as a permanent recruit having joined Bachy Soletanche as a contractor on the British Museum scheme in March last year. “The work at Pudding Mill Lane is challenging as we’re working close to existing infrastructure with the Docklands Light Railway adjacent to the site and we have to complete a certain stage of the works before the site has to shut down for the Olympics.”

Designs on engineering

Chris Brown

Tata Steel

Although Tata Steel Projects geotechnical engineer Chris Brown only graduated from Newcastle University in 2010 he has been building up his site experience since 2006. “I had the opportunity to join Alfred McAlpine for a work experience placement during my A-levels during the Easter holidays in 2006,” he says. “I was always interested in engineering, but it was working with McAlpine that convinced me to study civil engineering.”

Brown gained a sponsored place at Newcastle with McAlpine so spent his holidays working on site and in his final year he combined his studies with working for the company. “I had the opportunity to work on a wind farm scheme, as well as sewage and mains water projects,” he says.

Due to a combination of Carillion’s buy-out of Alfred McAlpine and the effects of the recession, there were no job opportunities for Brown within the company when he graduated. He says this was a disappointment, but it gave him the opportunity to move into geotechnics with Tata.

Chris_Brown

“I was always interested in engineering, but it was working with McAlpine that convinced me to study civil engineering. I like the challenge of geotechnics and the opportunity to get involved in every stage of the work.”

Chris Brown

“I like the challenge of geotechnics and the opportunity to get involved in every stage of the work,” he says.

“I started working on surveying and desk studies for Tata, but I have been closely involved in design work and I have worked on micropile, tubular steel pile, slope stability and retaining wall schemes,” he adds.

“I really enjoy designing large piles, but some of the micropiling work I have undertaken for Network Rail has been quite challenging in terms of timescale and site constraints.”

Brown’s work for Tata has given him a lot of experience in the rail industry and he says that two of the most interesting schemes he has worked on so far are the Reading Station upgrade and work at Clapham Junction.

During his degree, Brown studied the use of electrokinetics for slope stabilisation and is keen to put the technique to the test on site in the future. “It’s not suitable for every slope stability problem but I think it has real benefits for some projects,” he says.

Rail knowledge

Daryl Coughlan

Cementation Skanska

Sandwich year work with Mouchel’s geotechnical team inspired Cementation Skanska engineer Daryl Coughlan to seek a job in the ground engineering industry on graduation from his civil engineering degree at Surrey University in 2009.

“I worked on the interpretive reports for a number of highways schemes during my time with Mouchel and my involvement in geotechnics there led me to undertake a study of helical piles for my dissertation,” he says. “I like the challenge of the unknown element in geotechnics.”

Daryl_Coughlan_mono

“I worked on the interpretive reports for a number of highways schemes with Mouchel and my involvement in geotechnics led me to study helical piles for my dissertation. I like the challenge of the unknown element in geotechnics.”

Daryl Coughlan

One of the first projects Coughlan worked on for Cementation Skanska was the remediation of a rail embankment in Northolt for London Underground (LUL), which led to him being involved in the team that successfully bid to retain Cementation’s framework contract with transport operator.

Rail work has been a feature of Coughlan’s career so far and one of the highlights for him has been working on the diaphragm walls for Crossrail’s Limmo Shaft, from which tunnel boring machines will start the drive towards Farringdon.

“It was the first time I had worked on a diaphragm wall project and, at 55m, it was the deepest wall of this type that Cementation had ever worked on,” he says. “It was a steep learning curve for me personally, but the work was technically challenging due to the ground conditions which varied from what was expected.”

The rail theme continues for Coughlan as he has now moved to work on the construction of the new Crossrail station at Paddington. But he is keen to widen his knowledge as his career progresses.

“I want to expand my technical and commercial experience,” he says. “I’d like to build on my site experience too, so that I might progress to being a project manager in the future.”

Coughlan adds that he is keen to build on his knowledge of helical piles and lead Cementation’s move into this sector when the right project presents itself.

Abundance of opportunities

Mark Glendinning

Parsons Brinckerhoff

An interest in building and a love of Lego and Meccano meant Parsons Brinckerhoff senior engineer Mark Glendinning always wanted to work in engineering. But despite taking the option to study soil mechanics during his four-year MEng degree in civil engineering at CardiffUniversity, he did not expect his career to take him into the geotechnics industry.

mark glendinning

“My interest in maths and computer coding helps to understand how the software for finite element analysis works, which I think is as important as geotechnical knowledge when it comes to numerical analysis.”

Mark Glendinning

“After my degree I was offered the opportunity to undertake a PhD looking at numerical modelling for ground freezing applications,” he says. “I have always been interested in finite element analysis - I enjoy maths and computer coding - but use of it in geotechnics offers a lot more opportunities for development than in structural engineering.”

Glendinning joined Parsons Brinckerhoff in April 2008 after working for the consultant over two summer breaks from university. “The first year was more bridge focused but in the second year I worked on a number of retaining wall and culvert designs,” he says. “When I joined the company after completing my PhD, one of the first projects I worked on was the soil nailing for the widening of the M4 and I also got involved with design work for the Edinburgh Tram.”

He has also gained in-depth experience of using Eurocode 7 while working on the Redhayes Bridge project and undertook dynamic modelling and substructure design for the scheme.

Construction of the Luton guided busway is currently taking up two days a week of Glendinning’s time and he is also now working on refining designs for Edinburgh Tram for contractor Bilfinger Berger. Nonetheless, Glendinning hopes to focus his career on complex geotechnical design and would like to set up and lead a geotechnical modelling group within Parsons Brinckerhoff.

“My interest in maths and computer coding helps with understanding how the software for finite element analysis works, which I think is as important as geotechnical knowledge when it comes to numerical analysis,” he says.

 

Overseas development

Roger Palmer

URS

Secondment to URS’s Hong Kong office and working on the upgrade of the Admiralty metro station there was a real career developing opportunity for URS geotechnical design engineer Roger Palmer. He worked there for six months last year and said it pushed him into an elevated position as lead geotechnical engineer on the scheme, despite his level of experience.

Roger_Palmer_mono

“I moved into geotechnics because it offers a great deal of scope for variation and is less prescriptive than structural engineering. Geotechnics really calls on you to use your own judgement and knowledge.”

Roger Palmer

“It was a great opportunity and really gave me the chance to use my knowledge,” he says. One of Palmer’s key achievements on the scheme was to get the client to accept reuse of an existing cofferdam at the site to improve the sustainability and buildability of the scheme.

Palmer joined Scott Wilson, which was later acquired by URS, in 2006 after graduating from Warwick University with an MEng in civil engineering.

“I chose civil engineering as it was a natural progression from the A-levels I had chosen and I’ve always been interested in how things work,” he says. “My dad is an electrical engineer and my grandfather was a scientist so I guess it is partly in my blood.

“I moved into geotechnics because it offers a great deal of scope for variation and is less prescriptive than structural engineering. Geotechnics really calls on you to use your own judgement and knowledge.”

One of the first schemes Palmer worked on for Scott Wilson was the development of Karachi Port where he was involved in checking the finite element analysis design by using empirical approaches and simple analysis.

“Demand for finite element analysis is growing - in Hong Kong it is expected by the client,” he says. “I enjoy working on this type of design, but I prefer to understand the principles of the problem rather than relying on finite element analysis to provide the answers.”

He is currently working on tender for a slope stabilisation scheme for an area of Lyme Regis and is also engaged on a new multi-storey car park for Heathrow.

 

Major scheme opportunities

Martin Stanley

Bachy Soletanche

Working on the construction of the shafts for the Lee Tunnel has been a great experience according to Bachy Soletanche project engineer Martin Stanley, who is currently seconded to the MVB joint venture - formed from Morgan Sindall, Vinci and Bachy Soletanche - which is undertaking the construction of Thames Water’s new sewer.

Martin_Stanley

“I found working for a contractor interesting but working for a specialist like Bachy means you have the opportunity to get involved in everything. Geotechnics is particularly interesting because every job is a challenge.”

Martin Stanley

“Diaphragm wall projects are always a challenge, but the depth of the four shafts on this project makes it particularly complex and we have been using new equipment and new techniques on the Lee Tunnel scheme,” he says.

Stanley joined Bachy Soletanche’s design team on graduating from Imperial College with an MEng in civil engineering, but he had already gained site experience through summer work for Kier and Halcrow over a period of two years.

“I have always been interested in how things are built and the construction process so engineering was a natural choice,” he says. “From my experience with Kier and Halcrow, I found working for a contractor more interesting, but working for a specialist contractor like Bachy means you have the opportunity to get involved in everything. Geotechnics is particularly interesting because every job is a challenge.”

Stanley quickly gained experience in a number of geotechnical techniques when he worked on the design of the Bristol Broadmeads Shopping Centre. “The complex structure called for a number of ground engineering techniques and I also got to see the geotechnical work underway on the project,” he explains.

Work on the Lee Tunnel is likely to take up Stanley’s time through to the end of the year. “I have already been working on the scheme for two years,” he says. “Working on a large scheme has been a great experience, but I would like to move to a smaller project next year to give me more opportunity to take the lead on a scheme.”

And the winner is…

The winner of this closely contested category will be revealed at the Ground Engineering Awards on 4 May at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London. While there can only be one winner, the judges said that to reach the shortlist stage is no mean feat given the quality of the entries this year.

GE Awards judge and Kingston University professor Eddie Bromhead commented that if the finalists were a reflection of the quality of engineers entering the profession, prospects for the UK industry were good.

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