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That old black magic Can lucky numbers, colours or shapes help construction projects?

Thirteen was certainly an unlucky number for Denmark's resund crossing two weeks ago. On 4 August a failed bulkhead caused the 13th section of the immersed tube tunnel to sink prematurely and land on the sea bed 3m out of position. Moving the 57,000t concrete unit into place is likely to delay the project by as much as six weeks.

The irony is that resund Tunnel Contractors had named the segment '12a' rather than 13. Conscious of the number's association with bad luck the team renamed the element as a joke, according to project director Per Nielsen. He said it reflected the fact that until 4 August, the project had gone without any major hitches.

The tunnel contractor should not be ridiculed for its attempt to fool the gods. Superstitions play a surprisingly important role in construction projects. It is common practice for tall buildings - particularly hotels - to avoid having a 13th floor.

What is strange is that the fear of one particular number is not universal. Other cultures have other unlucky numbers. In South East Asia hotels miss out the fourth floor apparently because of the association. Elsewhere it is the number seven. Surely if any of these numbers were really cursed everybody would avoid the same numbers and none of our hotels would have a fourth, seventh or 13th floor (or multiples thereof).

It is not only numbers that can bring bad luck. Colours are associated with good and evil spirits. In parts of the Middle East blue and white are seen as good colours so construction workers keep evil at bay with blue hard hats.

In other parts of the world local religious philosophy has a major influence on the design of buildings. Like many buildings in the region, the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank in Hong Kong was designed in consultation local Feng Shui consultants. In Hong Kong, Feng Shui masters are consulted on the orientation of buildings and on the layout of space to ensure a flow of 'good energy' through a structure. The practice has even become something of a fad in fashionable western circles.

Given the age and nature of the construction industry, perhaps the most surprising thing is that British civil engineers are not more superstitious, particularly in traditionally dangerous areas like tunnelling. In Continental Europe a shrine to Saint Barbara, the patron saint of tunnellers, is constructed at the portal of tunnels.

But there does not seem to be the same reliance on such unscientific practices in this country. 'I can't think of any superstitions,' says Amec Tunnelling managing director Colin Mackenzie. 'In the 1960s women were not allowed in tunnels but I think that was more to do with decency - the men did not wear very much.'

Richard Thompson

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