Sir Alan Harris: visionary, engineer, professor, soldier, raconteur and pioneer of British prestressed concrete has died aged 84.
The son of an Admiralty electrical engineer, Alan acknowledged his good fortune to have had a vehement vocation for engineering since childhood. He started work, aged 16, as a junior for Hendon Borough Council, gaining a degree in three years by studying five nights a week at Northampton Engineering College, now City University.
At the outbreak of war, he volunteered first for the Navy and then for the Royal Engineers as call up would be quicker. He trained as a diver and led a marine bomb disposal unit.
Landing in Normandy on D Day+1 he commanded an advanced party preparing for the construction of Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches, enlisting a fleet of 12 French fishing boats. He was later awarded the Croix de Guerre for this work.
He was demobilised with the rank of major in 1946 and later joined the Royal Engineers in the Territorial Army where he attained the rank of colonel.
Attracted by the new technology of prestressed concrete, he used his demob pay to volunteer to work for Freyssinet in Paris at La Societe Technique pour l’Utilisation de la Precontrainte. He was later taken on to the staff and gained design and site experience, the latter on occasion exploiting his diving skills.
In 1949 he returned to London as Freyssinet’s chief engineer and managing director of Prestressed Concrete, its licensee. With the use of steel restricted by post-war shortages, the economy of prestressed concrete found a ready market and he was to design bridges, reservoirs, jetties and buildings.
By 1955 he decided to set up as a consultant and was joined by his brother John and by James Sutherland to establish Harris & Sutherland. Initially exploiting their experience in prestressed concrete, the firm worked on projects such as aircraft hangars, notably at Heathrow and Gatwick. However, it went on to establish a reputation for buildings and infrastructure, with offices across the UK and in Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Alan was particularly involved in education and the Institutions. He was president of the Institution of Structural Engineers, vice president of the ICE and professor of concrete structures and technology at Imperial College. His contribution was internationally acknowledged with many awards and a knighthood in 1980.
However by many, he will also be remembered as a wonderful speaker, writer and raconteur. I particularly remember his sparkle as he recalled the tale of a chance meeting with Ove Arup soon after Alan had set up on his own. Arup’s advice: ‘Whatever you do, don’t get big!’