Is it possible to be too creative in engineering?

The quick answer to the question in the title of this blog is yes.

The longer answer is yes, but in many cases it’s a risk worth taking.

I’ve been reading about a modern day Brunel who has taken huge risks to push the boundaries of engineering. He has launched his own radical space business to achieve his goal of getting humanity to Mars. This is as big a creative vision as any Brunel or Jobs. And unlike them he’s committed significant amounts of his own money in the enterprise. Why?

Because he believed that his creative vision wouldn’t be achieved unless he took the full burden of financial investment on his shoulders at least in the early stages. He also has the technical confidence to back this. Finally he pushes his employees to come up with creative engineering solutions to his problems by asking for impossible deadlines against very tight budgets. If they succeed they get due acknowledgement for their efforts.

If you don’t know his name by now then let me enlighten you. He is Elon Musk. It would be great to have a female version of him and his predecessors in due course as engineering is still a very male dominated environment.

Who was the first architect to design a bridge?

This year is the bicentenary of the founding of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1818. It is also 100 years since Sir John Wolfe Barry died. Next year we will celebrate 125 years since he completed Tower Bridge in 1894.

Wolfe Barry was President of the ‘Civils’ and in this role keen to ensure that young civil engineers were given the right training to design and build bridges. At that time architects were less involved in the design process for bridges but this was changing.

Was Sir John qualified to design and build Tower Bridge?

Yes, in terms of producing the right physical structure and having the general engineering skills needed to start and finish the project successfully. His drawing skills were also good, no doubt boosted by the family specialism in architecture. However, the original designs for the bridge were not his. They belonged to Sir Horace Jones, the Corporation of London’s architect. Wolfe Barry was consulted by Jones on the engineering practicalities and provided evidence to Parliament on these, which may well have been a deciding factor in getting construction approval. Jones died soon after building began, but was succeeded by his architectural assistant George Stevenson.

John Wolfe Barry’s business partner Henry Brunel was also involved in the design and build process for Tower Bridge. His father IK Brunel had designed and part-built Clifton Suspension Bridge until the money ran out and was also responsible for the aesthetically pleasing railway bridge across the Thames at Maidenhead.

So my question to Twitterati (see @behroutcomes) which became the title of this post was designed to explore the early relationship between architects and engineers in bridge-building. Names that have come up include¬†Vitruvius, Appollodorus, Li Chun and Palladio. Let’s see who else appears …

A blue plaque by the end of the year?

I applied for an English Heritage Blue Plaque for Sir John Wolfe Barry at the end of 2015. It’s a long process which requires evidence and research on the individual concerned and the buildings linked to them.

I get occasional updates from English Heritage as to progress and am still optimistic that something will happen by the end of 2018, the centenary year of Wolfe Barry’s death. If I hear any news I’ll blog about it of course.

If the plaque has to wait until 2019, that’s not too bad as Tower Bridge will be celebrating 125 years since its completion in 1894. I believe there’s at least one book in the offing to commemorate this and I assume it will give due coverage to Sir John as the lead engineer.

As mentioned before, there has been plenty of celebration of engineering in this bicentenary year of the Institution of Civil Engineers which is also the UK Government’s Year of Engineering. There’s also been a great video campaign by the Royal Academy of Engineering to promote careers in the sector to young people. Finally,¬†Roma Agrawal’s book BUILT is doing well and she is planning a version for young children, to help explain the stories behind structures and point out that while architects often get the credit for designing buildings, there are many others involved.

Were there 19th Century project managers?

I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a project manager.

It’s certainly much better defined nowadays than it was in the 19th Century when John Wolfe Barry first started in civil engineering. Indeed the father of project management ‘appeared’ in the early 20th Century when Wolfe Barry was still alive: Henry Gantt had worked for Frederick W. Taylor the originator of scientific management approaches to industry, beginning with US steel in the late 19th Century. He is attributed with inventing the Gantt chart around 1915-20, an all too familiar tool for modern day project managers, though much credit is also due to Karol Adamiecki who was a contemporary of Gantt’s from Poland.

But even if a science of project management didn’t get off the ground until after Barry had died, I’m sure there are aspects of its operation which he would have easily recognised as part of his daily activities in civil engineering from the very start. For example, you need to make sure your scoping exercise for a project pay heed to the demands of all key stakeholders who will be impacted by it. This requires listening skills, not just the ability to direct others. Wolfe Barry seemed to have had these in abundance.

Then there is the whole process of planning and supervising the effective delivery of a project to meet the end requirements of the commissioners. You require a core team of technical experts to work together in harmony towards the same vision. You need to regularly assess progress in reality versus the plan and decide how much you can afford to shift deadlines and resources. You must keep an eye on the financial details or you may blow the budget prior to satisfactory completion. There are many half-finished white elephants out there!

These were all skills which John possessed and building Tower Bridge was arguably as big a test of them as he ever underwent in his career, just as his father had tried to do with the New Palace of Westminster. He must have felt incredibly confident with his project leadership when the bridge was finally opened by the Prince of Wales in 1894.

Admittedly it was over budget, but in his defence it was a unique solution to a unique problem where others had failed in the conception stage.

Standards are about people communicating with each other properly

John Wolfe Barry helped establish the British Standards Institution in the early 20th Century to produce material and production standards, some of which still apply to this day. Prior to that he advised on setting up a National Physical Laboratory which would be responsible for physical standards. Finally, as President of the Institution of Civil Engineers and a mentor to his apprentices and staff, he promoted professional standards in his discipline.

Standards are important in life as they set the level of expectations for a society. They inevitably have to be based on consensus in order to work – imposed standards can be set and followed by robots if required, but as we know too well, humans are different. They bring with them the unexpected in the form of new ideas and approaches to problems. This is also an essential part of society. Without them it will stagnate.

What binds this all together?

People are developed by other people and themselves. They are motivated by many different things, including food and material possessions, but feeling good about themselves also rates highly. Professions can provide this to them through opportunities to help others in their sector and their social communities. Civil engineering does this well with practical examples of joining together villages in previously inaccessible parts of the world, or allowing waste products to be disposed of safely and without harm to future generations. But humans can also mess things up as we know too well from past wars and conflicts, or environmental disasters. This is because we may not listen to different views about standards even though they have merit.

Standards are about people communicating with each other properly.

Why study great engineers of the past?

I’m reading a biography of the 19th Century Scottish engineer William Fairbairn. It has been very well researched with hundreds of references to primary and secondary materials. Personally, I find it a fascinating read, but I could imagine it doesn’t appeal to many. Too technical and detailed they might say.

That’s where the challenge comes along to those who would like to spread the lessons from historical biography. These are case studies of significant individuals who have clearly made a difference to an area, a sector, a technology, a community, a nation, a world etc.

As Roma Agrawal has shown with her book BUILT, people are interested in stories about other people. This allows us to entice them in the direction of more scientific and technical issues which have traditionally scared them away.

Even though William Fairbairn didn’t have a proper education, he learned by doing and by reading voraciously in his little spare time. He was driven by a bigger purpose than making money for himself and his family. He wanted to change society for the better. This is surely a reason for knowing a little more about him and his personal and physical achievements.

Engineering versus Architecture concluded

This is my final post on the topic of engineering versus architecture on this website. Previous ones are here and here, respectively. It’s a theme I’m very interested in so will probably explore elsewhere.

I’ve just finished Andrew Saint’s book ‘Architect and Engineer: a study in sibling rivalry’. I won’t go into detail as it is well reviewed elsewhere on WordPress. Suffice to say that is a comprehensive academic analysis of the intertwined history of the two professions.

It refers to Sir Charles Barry’s major project on the New Palace of Westminster as a pivotal moment in the 19th Century. This is because it brought together key individuals (including the highly talented Augustus Pugin) with new materials to create a unique building, at a time when the traditional roles of architects and engineers were being tested by rapid technological change initiated by the First Industrial Revolution in Britain. Iron making had expanded from a village craft to a large scale manufacturing industry. The new textile mills which had proven to be the drivers of industrial growth were being built with iron to protect them from collapse during a fire, the scourge of timber-framed construction. This transferred across to other buildings and Charles Barry was an early adopter amongst British architects.

The Houses of Parliament still contain a large amount of iron behind the traditional wood and stone interiors and exteriors. Most of this is located in the floors and roof spaces, but a significant amount was to be found in the Victoria Tower until it was refurbished in the 1950s and 1960s. Given the sheer size and height of the tower, let alone its significance to the reigning monarch, Charles Barry was clearly keen to ensure that it stayed upright! For all these reasons he sought regular advice from a contracted engineer during construction.

It would seem that ground-breaking projects such as the New Palace of Westminster have forced architects and engineers to work closely together. As mentioned elsewhere on this website, Charles Barry’s sons Edward and Charles, both architects, worked closely with their brother John Wolfe, a consulting civil engineer. Their shared admiration for their father no doubt helped to minimise any sibling rivalries (literally).

Nowadays architects still appear to get most of the credit for the inspiring design side of novel structures. This epitomises the ongoing cultural divide between desk-bound ‘creatives’ and those who get their hands dirty actually building things.

Would Pugin were still here with us to give his views!