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Profile Sir Alfred Pugsley

Sir Alfred Pugsley, who died a year ago, is widely credited as the father of modern structural safety and the driving force behind the establishment of the Standing Committee on Structural Safety.

Unfortunately his engineering mastery was only brought to the attention of the public after the tragic Ronan Point tower block collapse of May 1968 in which five died. Sir Alfred's report to the then minister of housing on behalf of the inquiry tribunal panel stopped short of condemning all examples of system built construction. But it forced the industry to overhaul its approach to such rapid construction methods.

It was only in 1986, when Newham Council finally demolished Ronan Point - revealing a catalogue of poor quality construction - that his conclusions were truly understood.

For it is to his influence on the modern approach to safety in design that today's structural engineering profession, and ultimately the public, owes thanks.

Sir Alfred's influence on setting up what we now know as SCOSS was huge. It was formed in 1976 and was the direct result of a CIRIA research committee into structural safety chaired by Sir Alfred.

This prompted the formation of the Interim Committee on Structural Safety in 1973, which later recommended a permanent standing committee.

He was fortunate to work at a time when an engineer's talent could span disciplines. His work included design of the ill-fated R101 airship, fatigue prediction on fighter aircraft and the safe design of suspension bridges. He ended his career as Professor of Civil Engineering at Bristol University.

Always distinguished by his long overcoat and bowler hat, he was a renowned master of detail with a knack for rapidly summarising complex discussions.

His career in industry culminated in 1941 with the headship of the structural and mechanical engineering department at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, for which he was honoured with the OBE in 1944.

Former students recall his masterly demonstrations of blackboard technique as mini works of art starting from the top left and finishing bottom right and never straying from the horizontal. They always began with the precise breaking of the chalk.

He taught students to get straight to the heart of the problem. His thought processes were often described as being elegant in their simplicity - able to cut through the thickets of confusion.

And it was at Bristol that his unusual talent for man-management shone through. It is often said that had he not been a great engineer, Sir Alfred would have had an outstanding career as a diplomat or conciliator.

During this period at Bristol he published numerous papers on structural design and bridge safety until he retired in 1969. He also found time to design Bristol Zoo's walk-through aquarium and a glass enclosure for the zoo's jaguars.

Sir Alfred was knighted in 1956 and served as President of the Institution of Structural Engineers in 1957-58. He continued to play an active role in the affairs of the IStructE and the Institution of Civil Engineers, of which he was made an Honorary Fellow in 1981.

His legacy to the profession, it was once said, was that he 'opened the eyes of analysts to what really goes on in real life'.

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