'Twenty years ago we were changing the filters on village sewage works, ' says Mike Adams, director for wastewater at Halcrow Water.
Today the consultant is a major player in the water and environment sectors. Chief executive John Lawson proudly displays a set of figures taken from the latest NCE Consultants File that shows Halcrow with a turnover of £43.5M in this area, second only to Hyder.
For most of the last century Halcrow's involvement in the water sector was limited to hydroelectric schemes and irrigation projects - traditional consultancy areas. During the 1980's the firm began to get involved with municipal water work. But it was in the final decade of the last century that major expansion came. Halcrow's water division has expanded five fold and today it employs 800 people.
'Some of the growth was organic, some came through acquisition, ' Lawson explains.
One major expansion came when Halcrow took over Scottish based Crouch Hogg Waterman, a well-established water specialist, in 1996. When the privatised Southern Water decided to outsource its engineering design in 1997, Halcrow emerged as the successful bidder, subsequently acquiring a further 70 experienced staff and the opportunity to work on a wide variety of projects.
Some of these were of a size and nature that, traditionally, a consultant boasting the firepower of Halcrow would never have been brought in for. But experience gained on these small and often mundane jobs has proved valuable since it enhances the firm's overall capability.
Southern Water's new Portsmouth treatment plant could hardly be described as mundane, though. This £76.6M project, being built by Amec, is designed to improve water quality in the Solent. Halcrow is charged with the detailed design and construction support for the scheme which includes redevelopment and upgrading of the existing Budds Farm treatment works and will boast the largest spiral lamella settlement tanks to be installed in this country.
Even more state of the art will be the new £75M Thames Water sewage treatment works at Reading, where Halcrow is preparing design and build bid documents. There has been a treatment works at this location for more than 40 years and constant upgrading means that there is now hardly a metre of spare space. Thames has opted to build a new works on land opposite the current location and has decided that it will be a showcase operation producing high quality effluent and equally high quality sludge treatment - no doubt assuring residents that the famous 'Whitley whiff' will be gone forever.
Halcrow also forged an alliance with Mid-Kent Water to work together on the water company's AMP2 and AMP3 programmes. The collaboration has gone so smoothly that the two organisations formed a joint venture company, HWS Operations, which offers specialist expertise in water distribution techniques and management.
However significant the firm's involvement in the British water industry may be - and the list of current projects is a long one - the map of the world in the office of water and environment director Michael Norton has a satisfying number of flags in every continent signalling current projects.
Halcrow's first major overseas water work was in Latin America in 1990 with the privatisation of water supplies in Buenos Aires, after which the firm took on a regulatory role. From that came work in other parts of Argentina, Chile, Venezuela and Paraguay.
Today, chief executive Lawson estimates that it is probably the leading UK water and environmental specialist in South America.
But while South America is still an important market, much of the firm's effort is now concentrated in Europe and in particular in the countries of the former Soviet Bloc. Working in this area Lawson found that he could bring to the table a useful skill which had been lying dormant. 'I learned Russian thirty five years ago when it was thought that all engineers and scientists should be able to speak the language.'
At that time the Western world's view of the Soviet empire was very different. It is doubtful whether those young engineers imagined they would be calling on their professional and language skills to help in the regeneration of a crumbling, poorly constructed infrastructure and the turnaround of many years of environmental neglect.
Currently ten countries in the former eastern block are seeking eventual accession to the European Union: the three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, plus Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
Accession means compliance with EU regulations and in many areas the candidates are far from being in a position to comply with the required standards and implement legislation.
In many cases water supply and waste disposal systems require massive upgrading and Halcrow has been closely involved with this, advising both the European Commission in Brussels and the candidate states. In particular, the firm is working in Romania, which is one of the countries likely to qualify for EU accession later rather than sooner.
Halcrow teams are currently in Romania helping two cities prepare their bids for financial assistance with the upgrading of their wastewater treatment facilities, drinking water supply and sewerage improvement. One team is in Timisoara in the south of the country, the other is advising on projects in the area of Iasi, which lies near the border with Moldavia.
Both cities are applying for grants from the EU that will allow them to upgrade their facilities to the point where they comply with EU directives. The country must do this as part of its accession obligations. The EU will fund 75% of the project cost but the water companies concerned must arrange the other 25% - a considerable undertaking in a country like Romania.
Nor is completing the application for EU funding a simple matter. The actual application is 'three or four inches thick, ' explains Lawson, and it includes coverage of non-engineering issues, adds John Martin, one of the engineers involved in the work. Actual projects are now being worked up ready for tendering next year.
As well as undertaking the necessary studies and the tender document, the Halcrow team has to undertake a form of management training with the Romanian engineers.
'You have to teach them to think in a way which is objective rather than prescriptive, ' Martin explains, adding that under the former regime standards were in some areas unrealistically high and the procedures were not always appropriate to the situation.
However, circumstances under the former regime dictated that it was preferable to follow the procedure and ignore the outcome.
Halcrow is encouraging its Romanian engineer clients to abandon rote thinking and to look at the outcome they want to achieve. The firm has also helped to identify the actual problems facing the water companies. Some are easily spotted, as construction and maintenance of facilities has generally been poor. Raw effluent is often discharged directly into watercourses. And one of the districts in Iasi has only an intermittent water supply.
Other problems are symptomatic of how the country has changed in recent years, for example Eamon Mulhall, a senior environmental scientist, has identified a change in the composition of effluents in Timisoara due to the decline in industry.
But the knowledge that you are helping to put the country back on its feet certainly makes for job satisfaction. Nor, it seems, do the team members working in Romania find it a hardship posting. Everywhere you look there are bars and cafes opening, says Martin.
There are goods in the shops and top class opera available.
Romania has clearly come a long way since NCE visited it in the days following the fall of the Ceacescu regime and with an office now firmly established in Bucharest, Halcrow is set to play a continuing part in the country's renaissance.