Carrying out the research into problem areas is something that has engaged Messrs Sandberg throughout
its history. And while construction might, for the most part, be a serious business, in among the regular projects, issues and commissions there are always some quirky technical issues to grasp.
Certainly, the firm's head office at Victoria, London, houses an eclectic range of pictures and artefacts that chart its past work - relics from a ship the firm played a key role in salvaging, a splendid citation from China, the chairman photographed atop Nelson's Column, a painting showing a patented rail treatment process in action. The labs have samples from tests done on anything from steel sections to collapsed direction signs; even crates full of tiny pieces of glass to be sifted through to find why the panel failed.
Messrs Sandberg has a long tradition in the consulting business, carrying out testing, quality control, inspection and advisory work. Alec Sandberg, chairman of the firm, and grandson of its founder, has a ready store of anecdotes of elephants, shipwrecks and royalty that paint a far more colourful picture than might be expected of a firm with its roots in approval of rails for export.
The firm was set up in 1860 by Alec Sandberg's grandfather Christer Peter Sandberg. His initial role was to check and approve rails for export to Swedish State Railways, but he also set up a general consultancy for permanent way and tramway materials.
His three sons - including Oscar Fridolf Alexander, Alec Sandberg's father - joined the practice in due course and they expanded the work into the mechanical aspects of railway engineering. And the family tradition continues, with Alec's son Neil now a partner too.
One the more unusual of the firm's projects was working with a salvage company in the 1930s, in bringing up some £1M of gold bullion from the P&O liner Egypt, which had gone down in 130m of water - an unprecedented depth to work at in those days. It took several years to find the wreck, and considerable ingenuity to retrieve the contents.
The firm also developed various steel processes. Of particular success was the firm's special controlled cooling process for rail manufacture, the use of which became mandatory in the US.
Under Alec, the work was diversified away from just steel and railways. The materials consultancy, inspection and testing came into being. Not all the rail projects were conventional in nature; for example the firm was asked by the Ministry of Defence to help ensure a rocket runway at Penenden was as accurate as possible, working closely with the manufacturer to select and position the best rails.
One of the original uses was for firing a (dead) pigeon into an engine at full speed 'to ascertain the effect on the engine rather than the pigeon'. Sandberg recently learnt that much of the Thrust project's testing had been done at Penenden, some 20 years later.
Current and recent projects include working as materials and quality consultant on Ting Kau bridge in Hong Kong; and earlier on the Lantau Link. There have also been steelwork inspections in China, advice on the materials for a 85m pagoda with a gold surface in India, an audit of pipework for a power station, and steelwork and welding inspection on various bridges.
Over the years, says Alec Sandberg, the emphasis has moved away from a policing role to being more of a constructive member of the team. For example, the firm is carrying out independent testing on two Road Management Group privately financed DBFO contracts and the work is not a paper ticking exercise he stresses. The idea is to play a positive part in the construction team, carrying out on and off site quality control of materials. 'The main advantage is that two heads are better than one,' says Sandberg.
It was essential to retain independence and integrity. While NAMAS is excellent technically, he says, visits are normally limited to one per year. 'I cannot see that a contractor's laboratory, testing his own materials on his own site, does not have a conflict of interest particularly where there is a debate on the acceptability of a section of carriageway or a structure,' he says. 'Self-certification runs the risk that every now and then you will come across a problem where commercial pressures may be overwhelming.'
But work is not always too serious. Lateral thinking plays a part, and Sandberg tells of preparing a report including references to all cracks up to 1/8th inch across. 'Could these be referred to as haircracks?' hoped the project's consultant. Sandberg duly visited the zoo, and enquired about obtaining an appropriately bristly hair from the elephant house. Sadly, Rusty the African elephant had had a fight with Lakshmi, his Indian compound mate, who had bitten off the only place where 1/8th inch hairs grow (the tip of his tail). Indian elephants only have hairs half the diameter, but one of these was duly stapled to the report with a 'On the basis of the attached hair, and allowing that it would have been larger if it had not been bitten off we would be happy to refer to them as haircracks,' noted the firm. 'This solemn report took much of the steam out of the argument,' recalls Sandberg.
Alec Sandberg's personal favourite test was 'the first literate chimney'. The 100m reinforced concrete chimney was to be demolished last year and the proposal was to remove the concrete at the bottom on one side in segments, inserting timber supports consisting of telegraph poles and wedges. Setting the timber alight would decrease the support, letting it fall in the correct direction. The project's consulting engineer had doubts and Sandberg was asked to test a full scale replica. 'The test results were so low that when the chimney was shown the results, it fell immediately to validate our findings,' says Sandberg. Cameramen had been lined up to record the dramatic and deliberate felling just a day later. 'Would that all our other clients could respond as effectively to our reports,' he says.