Roger Sainsbury's response to the most obvious opening question reveals more about ICE's new President than might be expected. 'There is no provable connection' to the supermarket family, spells out Sainsbury, with great precision.
Sainsbury knows this because some years ago his work as a director of contractor Mowlem on the extension to the Royal Opera House brought him into close personal contact with Sir John Sainsbury. In response to his own question, civil engineer Sainsbury found out that the supermarket Sainsburys had done a lot of work researching the history of the family tree but had been unable to track back more than a couple of generations.
Precision and fastidious attention to detail are hallmarks of Sainsbury's approach. He likes things to be right and derives pleasure from activities that are properly controlled and maintained in good order. Carelessness and errors by others promote an opposite reaction.
These characteristics, backed by a broad education from a first rank school and university, marked out Sainsbury for rapid progress as a civil engineer and businessman. However, the fact that Sainsbury has spent most of his distinguished career at the front edge of contracting comes as a surprise to many who meet him. For he is something of an enigma. Sainsbury has the bearing and presence more of a slightly diffident academic or consultant than the raffish bonhomie typical of a contractor.
But he does not fit the mould of the typical. By the time he was 31, Sainsbury had resolved a potentially company-crippling problem with tidal flow induced vibrations on Mowlem's design & build deepwater jetty at Immingham and been rewarded with the challenge as project engineer for construction of the National Westminster Bank Tower - the most technically demanding reinforced concrete building ever constructed in this country.
Success on the tower, also Britain's tallest building when completed 20 years ago, led straight to a Mowlem directorship for Sainsbury. He ran the company's building business then took a lead role on a string of innovative privately financed schemes promoted by the contractor. Beginning with the first proposal for a privately financed Thames crossing at Dartford, these included London City Airport, Manchester Metro and private prisons.
Being a pioneer inevitably had some mixed results. 'I've got though some tough assignments. It's what makes life interesting,' he summarises.
Sainsbury was born in June 1940 to a family that had no connnection with civil engineering. His father worked at the Bank of England and Sainsbury grew up in Hitchin with an elder brother and younger sister. Winning an assisted place to Eton College set him on the path of a broad education - 'very wide, not just cramming'.
'I had no plans to do anything when I was at school and my path to engineering was pretty haphazard. I wanted to go to Oxford or Cambridge and was doing maths and physics at A-level.'
A close family friend had quite a high position in a mechanical engineering firm and 'engineering had a useful sound to it'.
Winning a place at Keble, Oxford, Sainsbury started a general engineering degree on an industrial scholarship from Babcock & Wilcox. But near the end of his second year he had a 'bust up' with the company. 'So I parted from Babcock & Wilcox. It gradually dawned upon me that I didn't have to become a mechanical engineer.' Sainsbury switched to the civils option for the final year.
His sports were tennis in the summer, hockey in winter and bridge 'all night'. Sainsbury continued to play bridge until lack of time 'squeezed it out'. He enjoys the fascination of its blend of skill, analysis and element of uncertainty, comparing the game to the risk analysis required in business. Between study and recreation he found time to get involved with Keble: 'I was fortunate to be elected secretary and then president of college.'
Guided by advice from the university that it must be a good thing to join a consulting engineer, Sainsbury went as a graduate under agreement to Rendel Palmer & Tritton. 'They were one of the very top people,' he explains. 'I'm glad I started on the design side as I got very wide experience.'
From late 1962 until 1965 he worked in RPT's Victoria Street, London, office on design of Fawley power station before being sent to site to join the resident engineer's staff. 'There were lots of things going on: a transmission tunnel under Southampton Water and a dock with huge excavations.' Fawley was one of five 2,000MW power stations ordered by the Government to be built at prodigious speed. 'It was long range planning,' explains Sainsbury. 'But by the time the power stations were complete there was huge overcapacity because the economy had slumped.'
He uses it as classic example of the difficulty in predicting the future. 'At Fawley there were special orders that it had to be one of the most beautiful power stations ever built so that Americans would see it as they came up Southampton Water on the QE2.' But jet airliners were already flying the Atlantic and Boeing had 'bet the company' on the Jumbo. These came into service in 1970 and, apart from the cruise business, that was the end of ocean liners.
Sainsbury set out his own predictions for 50 years into the future when he entered an essay competition organised to celebrate the 150th anniversary of ICE's founding in 1818. 'I like writing essays,' he says. Obviously the judges could judge only on plausible ideas and the quality of writing. Sainsbury was pleased to secure third prize. 'In terms of actual predictions my essay was pretty hopeless. One of the biggest things just about to come was offshore oil, and I missed it!'
In 1966 he had passed his interview to become a full (as was) AMICE. He also moved on to Mowlem. 'I'd always intended to go and work for a contractor.'
There he started on the design side in the office at Brentford beside the elevated M4 motorway. Before long Sainsbury headed a team of 26. The project was a design & build deepwater jetty for Immingham. It had to run out half a mile into the Humber estuary and to 60 feet depth of water.
One day there was a phone call from site to say that the partially built structure was 'shaking about a bit'. That turned out to be something of an understatement. Spring tides flowing past the jetty piles at about 4 knots were inducing very violent oscillations in the steel tube piles.
A freshly driven freestanding cantilever of 30 inch diameter steel tube, if left unattended, would wave with an amplitude of 'several feet' and quickly snap off. Of even more concern was that piles supporting completed sections of the jetty were oscillating on every spring tide, vibrating in a bowstring mode in line with the tide flow - a quite unprecedented phenomenon.
Sainsbury had to find a cure, and Mowlem then made the knowledge public, rather than holding it for commercial advantage. 'There was no question of trying to hide it. The problem was so serious it was never something we could keep to ourselves.' Coincidentally the client's representative on site was Sainsbury's old firm, RPT.
While a technical solution was worked on, the legal position was also checked. The advice was that if the design had been created by a consultant there would have been no liablility since there was no negligence in an occurrence that had never been recorded before. But because Mowlem had a design & build contract it was under full responsibility to deliver a product fit for its purpose.
'I went to one or two supposed experts, who gave me wrong advice, then to Roger Wootton at the National Physical Laboratory. He gave me guidance on how to sort it out.'
Some fundamental data had to be collected relating the current velocity to pile diameter and natural frequency of the structure. Sainsbury found himself out on the partially built jetty in the middle of a February night dangling a current meter in the sea and ready to record when each part of the structure began to thrash backwards and forwards.
'I plotted a graph and that gave us the answer,' he summarises. An 'utterly secure' system to raise the natural frequency of all vulnerable tubes was designed and installed. It consisted of horizontal members welded on just above low tide level, together with diagonal braces. Later, cash was raised from industry for a full scale experiment co-ordinated by CIRIA and leading to a research paper. Sainsbury and the four others involved with this work still meet every year for a dinner.
Immingham was a huge problem for Mowlem. Resolving it 'was more or less a defining factor in moving my career forward', says Sainsbury. In 1969 he moved on to Mowlem Building, and construction studies including preliminary work on Seifert and Pell Frischmann's designs for the NatWest Tower. When Mowlem signed the contract he was appointed project engineer for the huge elevated tower on a reinforced concrete core.
'It has phenomenal reinforcement.' There were 25 layers in the foundation raft pile cap which was 5m thick and had to carry what was effectively a 150,000t point load. The core walls were 25% by volume of reinforcement. 'Even reading the drawings was difficult,' says Sainsbury.
There were eight layers of steel in each face. 'We had huge difficulty getting the steel in and the concrete around it. This was not a normal structure in any way!
'I was still a young man,' he says. 'To have the opportunity to be in charge was great. I started on day one and worked out all sorts of schemes as to how we would do it.' By the end of the project Sainsbury was in total charge as project director. In 1978, for his work on the bank, he shared with a colleague the Construction News Man of the Year award.
From 1979 to 1982 as director of Mowlem Building he had responsibility for a number of major projects including two hospitals, the Royal Opera House extension, refurbishment of Hertford House and two houses for Crown Prince Fahd. A move to the main board and new skills followed, with responsibility for Mowlem's management contracting, plant hire company and for London City Airport.
'The origin of the airport is not entirely clear,' says Sainsbury. 'The idea developed between Mowlem's chairman Philip Beck and Reg Ward of London Docklands Development Corporation. Beck arranged for a Dash 7 to be landed on Heron Quay (in the West India Docks) as a demonstration.' The plan was to convert the central quay at the east end of the Royal Docks into a runway.
'Philip called me into his office and said: 'I'd like you to take charge of the airport'.' It was entirely a Mowlem project and, after a public inquiry, consent was given and the airport in its original form was built and opened in 1987. Because of the impending end of production of the De Havilland
Dash 7 short take-off aircraft, it quickly became necessary to extend the runway. This amended design was technically ambitious and politically sensitive. Sainsbury had to win over the London Borough of Newham, which initially opposed the scheme, and work hard with the CAA, 'going back to first principles' to secure approval for the airport with its longer runway, for use by larger aircraft.
A primary difficulty was the buildings planned for Canary Wharf, due west and in line with the runway. The airport had obvious synergy with Olympia & York's glitzy new development but planes would need sufficient 'clearance ratio' above the tallest structure. Some hard bargaining was needed.
'They had planning permission for an 850 foot tower. We had no consent for our runway - and no proven technology.' To have the right clearance ratio for the BAe 146 jets needed to make the airport viable, the tower would have to be kept down to 800 feet.
'I think they must have had other reasons too, but somehow they were persuaded to take 50 feet off,' says Sainsbury. In the end all the difficulties were overcome and the extended runway came into use in 1991. Unfortunately passenger traffic was slow to build up, and not helped by the property crash.
Mowlem hung on and on until 1995, paying the running costs while traffic slowly increased. In the end the airport was sold. 'We got very little for it. It was something of a technical and political achievement, but the purpose was to make money. We lost.'
Since the sale the market has come right and consent has been given to double capacity, to some 2.5M passengers a year. 'Already it is the second largest employer in Newham and doing all the things we said it would. It's really galling,' says Sainsbury.
Another pioneering 1980s venture into private finance by Mowlem proved to be a brilliant idea which unfortunately did not bring a reward. Beck and Sainsbury put together an unsolicited bid to the Department of Transport for a solution to the problem of Dartford Tunnel, where lack of capacity was generating hour plus tailbacks on the newly opened M25 motorway. The idea was to make an offer to take over the tunnel and build a new crossing in return for a franchise on the tolls.
'Nobody had done such things before,' says Sainsbury. 'Beck's idea was to go for a submersed tube tunnel. We put a fully worked proposal to the DTp and very soon we were summoned to Nicholas Ridley. He said: 'This is wonderful! Just what we want the private sector to do. It's the best thing I've seen for a long time. I shall put it out to competition!'.'
Less than delighted by this, they waited for the contract documents to be issued. These allowed for bids of either a bridge or a tunnel but, on checking the clearances and limits on steepest incline, Mowlem concluded that a bridge could not be made to fit the basic criteria. The outcome, a Trafalgar House bridge, was inevitably a disappointment for Sainsbury.
From 1989 he took on corporate development and special projects and had a much more pleasing result on Greater Manchester Metro, a company put together with Mowlem, Amec and GEC having equal shares. Sainsbury's involvement was at the operating end, setting up a railway company from scratch. The Manchester Metro has been a great success.
In addition Sainsbury led Mowlem's partnership with Sir Robert McAlpine and US firm Corrections Corporation bidding for privately financed prisons. He found prison management 'a really interesting field!'.
One of Sainsbury's last major tasks at Mowlem was fighting the court case over the Carlton Gate project. He seems not to be a great admirer of the legal process but declines to discuss this case. 'Some things you just have to put behind you.'
At the home in Muswell Hill, north London, that Sainsbury shares with his wife Susan, both house and immaculately tended garden reveal his appreciation of finely honed details. A major extension built six years ago onto the frontage of their 1925 house is in such correct proportions, with materials and joinery so perfectly matched, that it is virtually impossible to detect which is old and which the addition. So keen was Sainsbury to avoid having a downstand beam interrupting the ceiling of what had to be an invisibly extended sitting room running across into the new part of the house that he had the entire gable wall above removed and replaced in lighter materials.
When not at home, one pastime is searching for European wild orchids to photograph and add to his carefully annotated albums. Sainsbury says that one of the joys of orchids is that they only grow in undisturbed natural countryside, typically limestone hills or mountains. 'It means that even if you don't find any orchids you have a good walk!'
He and Susan never seem to be idle. They are 'quite involved' with the Abbeyfield Society, which arranges care for the elderly, and spend time working for their church. Sainsbury's responsibility is keeping track of covenanted giving: 'to keep church donations on a tax efficient basis'. He says that his 'modest' computer skills 'just about stretch this far'.
His professional experiences have been shared in several papers written for the ICE as well as CIRIA. Involvement with running ICE affairs included work on Council and as chairman of Thomas Telford Ltd. Sainsbury was appointed as a succeeding vice president three years ago and his personal contribution to the Institution stepped up substantially early in 1996 when he retired after a long period on Mowlem's main board. Since then he has put his personal stamp on key ICE projects such as drafting of the SAID report Sustainability and acceptability in infrastructure development.
'One way or the other I've had a very heavy involvement with the ICE. I may have influenced policy more in three years as a vice president than I shall in one year as President.'
Apart from ICE, Sainsbury has been professionally involved on the executive of the Construction Industry Council, on committees of the Royal Academy of Engineering and is an adviser to the Director of Water Services. 'I soon found out that if you are no longer a wage slave, have some time and live in London, there is no shortage of things that need doing.'
Sainsbury is discreet as to what he might say in his presidential address - but he has revealed that it will be considerably aimed at the younger membership. His main theme in the coming year will be to
proclaim to the membership and to the world the value of civil engineering to society and the attractions of a career in civil engineering.
Roger Sainsbury will give his presidential address at the ICE next Tuesday evening, 3 November at 6pm. On Wednesday 4 November at 6pm he will give a special presentation for younger members of the Institution.