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Letters: Let’s stop being superheroes and find some solutions

Am I alone in the profession in feeling somewhat uncomfortable with the rising temperature ofthe language in the latest Comment entitled: If we work together, we can help save the planet?

The main point

Climate change

Climate change

Am I alone in the profession in feeling somewhat uncomfortable with the rising temperature of the language in the latest Comment entitled: If we work together, we can help save the planet (NCE 6-13 August)?

As civil engineers we can look forward in the current climate (no pun intended) to an ever-increasing workload of low-carbon wind farms, hydro-power schemes, tidal power projects, nuclear stations, electrical distribution networks, flood protection measures…the list just goes on and on and that is wonderful.

But must the profession really go far beyond this menu of sustainable engineering science projects by seemingly attempting to greenwash itself as though it were an oil company or a coal producer. Many in these industries through their new logos and corporate advertising seek to mask the true nature of their businesses.

They buy up green subsidiaries and spend money on green research − they frequently claim to seek to save the planet. But their real business is clear for all to see. I have no problem at this time with their products − the electricity they produce is powering the computer I’m writing this letter on.

But the engineering profession is a service industry operating, in its finer moments, to the benefit of all mankind, not just its shareholders.

Can we ratchet down the temperature of our language − saving no planets, chanting nothing like “carbon reduction is simply what we do”. Leave this stuff to the politicians and eco superheroes. The voice of the profession deserves a better and more nuanced script.

  • John Moss

On page 34 of last week’s issue NCE editor Antony Oliver states that the world leaders will meet in Copenhagen to safeguard “the future of the planet”.

I think that it is arrogant of mankind to believe that in any way we can safeguard the future of the planet, indeed it is presumptuous of us even to think of such.

What the issue is really about is the future of mankind and life on the planet. The planet will still be there long after mankind has gone.

  • RS Duncan (F)

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a natural organic gas whose presence as a trace element in the earth’s atmosphere is essential to known life on earth.

Any attempt to significantly reduce it could threaten the existence of all life on earth. It appears to be mathematically impossible for CO2 at present and future concentration levels to have any measurable effect on the earth’s temperature.

Consider the formula for calculating changes in heat energy in a body: Energy = mass x specific heat x rise in temperature

The mass of the earth’s upper surface and atmosphere is so great that a concentration of CO2 of 1,000 ppm [twice current levels], which is 0.1% of the atmospheric mass, is so small, compared to the mass of the earth that it has no significant influence on the above calculation. Climate change will or will not occur regardless of what the human race does to CO2 levels.

However, the hole in the ozone layer is a very different problem.

  • Don Mudd (M), 3 St Josephs Way, Nantwich, Cheshire CW5 6TE

The transport section of your Road to Copenhagen piece (NCE 6/13 August) makes no mention of electrifying railways which, with generating electricity renewably, would go a long way towards a sustainable transport policy.

Another facet, which is rarely mentioned, would be the conversion of busy urban bus routes to trolley bus operation.

  • David Smith, The Thursfield Smith Consultancy, 25 Grange Road, Shrewsbury SY3 9DG


Super cut for civil engineering superstar

Construction minister Ian Lucas with Emma Kent, NCE Graduate of the Year

Ian Lucas with Emma Kent, NCE Graduate of the Year

Is it not ironic that the NCE Graduate of the Year is rewarded with a chance to interview the construction minister (NCE 6-13 August) whereas her own company has given her a 12% pay cut!

This to the graduate who is seen as one of the best and the brightest we have in engineering in this country − what other industry would allow this to happen to a “superstar”?

  • Adam Lilley (M),


It will be a big job to get BAA flying high again

There can be no doubt that airport operator BAA’s new capital works boss Steve Morgan (NCE 23-30 July) has a huge challenge on his hands. Arguably his major problem will be to re-establish BAA as an “intelligent” client.

Since the departure of Sir John Egan almost 10 years ago, the change in ownership, the change in culture and the cost of Terminal 5 (will we ever know the true cost?), BAA has effectively asset stripped itself of in-house technical knowledge and airport engineering experience, relying on outsourced expertise from its suppliers, consultants and contractors alike.

For a large organisation such as BAA there needs to be a core multidisciplinary team capable of briefing, specifying, evaluating and managing − over dependence on a limited list of suppliers is not healthy!

Whilst remaining a major client, BAA is regrettably no longer an “intelligent” client at the cutting edge of innovation and best practice − it may have moved on but it hasn’t moved forward.

Clearly Morgan recognises the need to be an intelligent client and there certainly needs to be an element of constructive tension allied to competitive tendering. I don’t believe that what is proposed by Morgan is at odds with Egan’s principles − he too would have a contract and expect good value.

What has happened over time is that framework relationships in the absence of effective in-house management have become too comfortable and complacent with an almost slavish pursuit of process without the application of intelligence.

Much of what Morgan proposes makes good sense but is not entirely new − what goes around comes around. I only hope that we do not see a return of the “bid low claim high” culture so prevalent in 1980s’ construction practice. “Egan” was an intelligent way forward; his principles should not be lost in the current recessionary climate but allowed to sensibly and intelligently evolve.

Good luck Morgan. I wish you well.

  • David H Williams (F),

Witching over from civil engineering

It is all very well wringing hands about the poor salaries paid in the civil engineering industry, and trying to rally efforts to tackle this. However, I feel that it is a lost cause when the new Witch of Wookey Hole is appointed on a wage of £50,000, just to sit and cackle.

This is a better remuneration than almost all of the posts advertised in NCE last week, including those requiring: “five years post chartered experience”, “extensive knowledge”, “track record of delivery” and the like.

As one of the older Members of the ICE, I cannot remember a time when the industry did anything other than complain.

Nobody goes into civil engineering to get rich, but I believe that the satisfaction of creating engineering artefacts and being able to say “I did that” far outweighs the experience of spending time amusing tourists in a damp cave.

  • Cliff Billington,

Partnering not over yet

Your principal news item supplying an RIP tombstone to partnering (NCE 23-30 July) may yet be a little presumptive as the substantial local authority sector does not seem to get enough of this approach to procurement.

Most councils in the country have or are moving in the direction of framework or partnering agreements for their civils work.

It doesn’t seem to be understood that although such arrangements may include some (perhaps 5% or 10%) competitive economy in hourly charge rates, the much larger variable of time applied can potentially reverse any semblance of economy or competitiveness of such arrangements.

In this context the quotation in the last paragraph of your news item: “And when you spend more time planning and designing rather than building something that doesn’t seem right,” is telling.

  • Arvind Kumar, Kumar Associates, 2 Penn Road, Beaconsfield

Finding out what went wrong

As the legal battles arising out of the construction of the new Wembley Stadium continue their trail of destruction through the UK construction industry, can someone remind me what forms of contract were used for the project and who was responsible for drafting them? We need to know.

  • AN Beal (M)

Sometimes ‘out with the old’ is not always best

The favourable comments by JW Hall on the beneficial use of vibro compaction (Letters 6-13 August) are welcomed but his unawareness of the many uses of the technique prior to 1979 is worrying.

What efforts were made then to discover previous uses and research carried out with this technique?

Retired engineers, like myself, are worried that many techniques we once used successfully are too often reported as novel some decades after they were accepted into general practice.

Vibroflotation for the compaction of granular soils was invented by Sergey Steuerman in about 1935 in Germany and many reports were published about its use before it was introduced into the UK by Taylor Woodrow’s Terresearch in 1954.

The first use was at the 600MW Castle Donington Power Station compacting granular soils to support the Cooling Towers.

It presented no problems and served its purpose until the power station was closed recently. The technique was then applied to a range of soil conditions.

  • David Quinion (F)

Your views & opinion

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.

The Editor, NCE,
1st Floor, Greater
London House,
Hampstead Road,
London NW1 7EJ


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