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Sainsbury pledges 'steady as she goes' presidency

ICE President Roger Sainsbury was determined to break from the norm in his presidential address, Wonderful Life.

Sainsbury began by quoting ICE's president Bateman who protested in 1878 that: 'Nearly every subject which can be supposed of interest to the profession has been treated by my predecessors.'

Some 120 years on, Sainsbury noted that all of his immediate predecessors had 'taken the opportunity of the presidential address to say something deeply important about the Institution and its future, or possibly about the industry and its future.'

His believes 'the institution is not in need of another new vision at this moment. I opt for 'steady as she goes'.'

Fossils were Sainsbury's starting point for his address, in particular the interpretation in 1910 by palaeontologist Charles D Walcott of the Smithsonian Institution, and others since then, of fossils discovered in the Burgess Shale of the Canadian Rockies.

'The Burgess Shale fossils were small creatures and in the fossil form they have been squashed very flat so that it was not easy to interpret what the three dimensional creatures would have looked like. But Walcott was an expert, the greatest of his time, so he knew what to expect and was soon able to identify the various squashed remains into their appropriate phyla, families, genera. Several cases of samples were deposited in the Smithsonian Institution where Walcott held high office, for possible future examination.

'They lay there until 1970, for 60 years. Then they were re-examined by a largely British team of palaeontologists. Brilliant and painstaking work over the following fifteen years not only overturned Walcott's attributions but revealed a fossil treasure trove of new species, genera, families and, even more remarkable - the phylum being a very high level of classification - many new phyla. Tremendous new insight was gained into the origins of multicellular life on earth. Yet all this had been invisible to Walcott. Because he knew what to expect, he was unable to see what was before him. Then, because of his huge reputation, others did not challenge his attributions. A lot of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.'

Sainsbury says that the story about the Burgess Shale hallucigenia fossils 'was beautifully recounted by Professor Gould in his book Wonderful Life. I wanted to use this title for my address, and therefore it is fitting to acknowledge that Professor Gould used it before me.

'I use the words in a quite different sense. I stand before you to say that I have had a wonderful life as a civil engineer. This is my main theme. I hope that, by recounting a small number of particularly interesting and formative episodes in this life, I may directly encourage, or even inspire, some young people in favour of this profession of ours. Being 'interesting' and 'formative', these are for the most part not episodes in which I was wholly right from square one. But if we are to share experiences, we must be ready to share difficult experiences.'

Sainsbury went on to share his own experience to explore the sub-text that 'a lot of learning or knowledge can be a dangerous thing'.

The new president recalled his start on Fawley power station in Southampton on the south coast of England. After five weeks the contractor was 53 weeks behind programme. The reason was that the ground to be excavated would not stand at the slope that had been assumed in the bid. 'He had to use a wholly different method which would take a year longer to do.'

'As a young engineer, this was my first and compelling evidence that construction is a risk business.'

Sainsbury also described the buckling failure of a very heavy twin 24in by 12in UB waling beam at Fawley. Calculations, and his checking, showed that this support to a bell-mouth cofferdam holding Southampton Water out of the excavation should have been strong enough. But the struts had been positioned 30mm too low, a construction fault.

'A sudden wave of comprehension flooded through my mind. The strut had applied an eccentric load to the webs, or alternatively a sway load on a mini-portal. Unless load is applied axially, web buckling calculations are not just wrong: they are completely worthless. I had done my calculations without thinking about or, in any deep sense, understanding that important truth.

'The engineers installing the temporary works had not understood it. My checking had been, in a narrow sense, correct. But with a deeper understanding I could have done more. I could have asked for a note on the drawing to the effect that struts must be fitted on waling centre lines. I could have made provision for uncertainty by adding web stiffeners. 'This was a formative event for me.'

Sainsbury described in considerable detail the vortex shedding problem which excited tubular piles in line with the tidal currents at the jetty which he worked on for Mowlem at Immingham on the Humber estuary in north east England - and his own feelings about the phenomenon.

'At three in the morning, alone in the hut out on the end of the jetty, I knew from the points on my graph that marine structures of this nature would be subject to this destructive phenomenon at any value of V/ND greater than 1.2, ie at a current speed about half of that calculated for peak excitation. I have every reason to believe that I was the first person in the history of the world to know this. I felt at the time, and I have been conscious since, how very extraordinary that was.'

Sainsbury went on to explore why this phenomenon had not shown up in flume experiments. He concluded that experiments were configured to study oscillations expected to occur across the flow and hence they suppressed in line oscillations.

'A lot of knowledge can sometimes truly prevent one from seeing.'

At the National Westminster Bank Tower in the City of London Sainsbury and his colleagues devised a structural steel temporary propping system which would apply a constant load to the massive insitu reinforced concrete cantilevers being cast to support the superstructure. Flat jacks were arranged to automatically compensate for compression and thermal strains experienced by the 36m high propping system.

But when the second concrete lift was poured: 'I was dismayed and perplexed on arriving on site the next morning to find that all the jacks had closed up by 10mm. There would have been no overnight increase in the column length, for the ambient temperature had remained constant.

'Accordingly, the cantilever must have been sagging. Some thought that our whole support system was failing.

'There was of course a simple explanation. The newly poured upper lift of concrete was generating heat and warming the top surface of the mature concrete, which expanded in length. This led to flexure and to a downward movement of the tip. One could predict that within a few days the jacks, applying their unchanging force, would open up again as the concrete cooled and the cantilever tip rose. This was indeed what happened.

'It was thus quite simple, and entirely predictable, but it had not been foreseen by even one of the many excellent engineers involved in the project. Our highly unusual support system had fortuitously allowed us to observe behaviour normally concealed by the methods we use.'

Working for truly rich and powerful clients brings pressure but also insight, says Sainsbury. He describes heavy work being carried out on a town house in Prince's Gate near London's Hyde Park: 'Within a few days of starting work the company received a magisterial letter from a lordly firm of solicitors stating that, if we did not stop work within 24 hours, an injunction would be taken out on behalf of the adjoining owner requiring us to stop. The final paragraph was along the lines, 'In considering your response, we think you should be aware that our client is British Petroleum and that this house is the chairman's London residence. We mean what we say.' What is the wise contractor's next move?

'In this instance, a letter was sent back expressing sympathy but saying that the work would continue as required by the contract. This letter too had a particular final paragraph. It was along these lines: 'In considering your response, we think you should be aware that our client is HRH The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.' That was the end of the matter, and what I learned from this episode is that there is no ace that cannot be trumped if one just happens to hold the right card.'

London City Airport is cited by Sainsbury as an example of his sub-text: 'No knowledge at all may sometimes be a benefit.

'I was gripped by a great determination to extend the runway, and thereby be able to operate the BAe 146 regional jet. This was a trailblazing endeavour which, with help from a lot of people, became a reality. I sometimes think that the fact that I had never previously been involved in an airport project was an advantage. I simply did not have the experience to understand that the aspiration to operate the BAe 146 was unrealistic.'

Sainsbury says the airport shows how very interesting the life of a civil engineer can be. It is 'about operation of facilities, about the environment, about people, about politics and about business'.

'It can also be about the law,' says Sainsbury, describing a case 'fought in court'.

'This was an experience as extraordinary to me as the oscillating piles. Two parties disputing whether or not work was proceeding regularly and diligently on a construction site entrust the matter to others-- who have one thing in common, namely that they have never worked on a construction site - and pay them unbelievable sums of money. Methods of analysis which we as engineers would regard as normal, for example that great masses of data should be interrogated statistically, are deemed to be not part of the legal system; objectively unsound methods are used instead.

'Towards the end of the hearing, I began to feel we were not going to do too well: we had put forward a most important piece of evidence in the form of a graph. After a couple of perfunctory questions the judge said 'I don't understand graphs. Let's move on to something else'.'

Sainsbury's advice on going to law? 'Don't - even when an objective analysis suggests that you should.'

His advice in general: 'It has not been an easy or carefree life. Any young people wanting an easy or carefree life should at once disengage from civil engineering. But it has been a rich, varied and constantly challenging life.'

'How does such work fit people to take on the very top jobs in industry or in society at large. Here I issue a word of warning. I believe that the skills, responsibilities and experience which can come to good young engineers give a background from which they may aspire to almost any peak. But we have to leave the engineering and construction that we love in order to come to terms with the wider world. In some respects too long an experience of 'our' world can be limiting.'

'The one thing we all learn early in contracting is that once one has signed up one must complete the contract, however dire the result. One cannot give up. These demands nurture stoicism, resilience and the ability to mitigate misfortune. These are important qualities, but people who grow up in this cast of thought may not easily acquire one of the important skills in the wider world of business, that of knowing when to give up on an enterprise.'

The wider world has uncertainty: 'in which process is is not always objective and analytical, and in which 'best answers' may not be discernible until years later.'

'In short, those who wish to aspire to leadership in the wider world must accommodate their thinking as engineers to that wider world.'

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