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!

The BUILT environment

I often use the term ‘built environment’ to encompass a knowledge and skills sector that covers civil and structural engineering, architecture, construction, building services, surveying and other related disciplines.

This is an important sector for the world economy because without it we wouldn’t have much of the infrastructure we rely on in a civilised culture. It may also help us build the platform for expansion of humanity off the planet, an increasingly important issue given the ongoing risks to us of global warming, population increase and religious/cultural intolerance. These all mirror previous reasons for exodus if we look back at mass migrations of the past.

But ‘BUILT’ is also the title of Roma Agrawal’s first book which is reaching out to broad audiences with stories about building structures. For example, she describes the biological origins of bridge-building by looking at the amazing Darwin’s bark spider which can shoot 25 meter silk lines across rivers. Roma posits that perhaps one day humans will be able to do the same on a much larger scale with innovative new materials.

So the BUILT environment is a play on words.

It tries to capture the fact that we need to create a wide community of interest in the value of designing and making structures, particularly in those largely Western countries where this basic skill set has been superseded by the ability to argue a highly technical legal case before a judge, or undertake intricate surgery to keep bodies functioning longer than they might naturally be designed to do.

This is not to undermine those professions, but perhaps to re-balance things back to where they used to be in ages gone by. Hence the Year of Engineering in the UK this year and the associated longer term ‘This is Engineering’ campaign. Not to forget the Institution of Civil Engineering’s 200th Anniversary in 2018 which includes celebrating 200 great global civil engineering related accomplishments during the course of the year. One of those added to the list is the foundation of the British Standards Institution (BSI) in 1901 by Sir John Wolfe Barry, more about which can be read on this website.

Who are the modern day Brunels and Wolfe Barry’s?

Architecture has its modern day heroes such as Enzo Piano or Norman Foster or the late Zaha Hadid.

Civil and structural engineers are less well known nowadays compared to the legends of the past.

What has happened?

I would venture to suggest that people are more impressed nowadays by creativity and aesthetics than by downright structural solidity.

Is this fair?

No, but then it’s not fair that medicine attracts huge numbers of applicants and quite happily rejects large percentages of them in the upper echelons. No shame in not making the cut, you can always try another profession (by implication, easier).

I hope very much that this bias will change over time. I don’t believe it helps any profession. It’s not the obvious that matters, rather the less well perceived.

However beautiful a skyscraper or a bridge, what we need to be sure of is that they will last serving a good purpose. They won’t if they collapse or if they produce more problems than solutions for the communities in which they are built.

Civil engineering inspiration since the Victorian Age

The Victorians were huge achievers on a global scale.

Amongst the many contributors to this process were civil engineers such as Telford, Brunel, Hawkshaw, Fowler, Baker and Wolfe Barry.

I attended a wonderful book launch this week for Roma Agrawal’s new book BUILT during which she kindly signed my copy. The occasion was hosted at the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe on the site of the first traffic tunnel under a navigable waterway, the River Thames. The civil engineers responsible were Marc and Isambard Brunel, father and son. As I’ve posted elsewhere on this site, Isambard’s son Henry became a close business partner of John Wolfe Barry.

The final chapter of Roma’s book is called ‘Dream’. Everyone dreams, literally, but not so many actually achieve them in real life. Roma managed to write her book which started as a spreadsheet and she’d previously designed key structural parts of the Shard, an architect’s dream come true.

Young people ever since Victorian times (and before) have wanted to fulfil their dreams. Civil  and structural engineering is one very visible way of doing this – not just a small, invisible component of a household object, but a big, visible, in-your-face statement of how conceptual design can change the world physically for the better.

Where there was no hospital there now is one to treat the sick, where no bridge now one stands to cross a river.

Communities can flourish and in turn have an influence on their environment, gradually ensuring that it reflects shared ideals and aspirations, including beauty, sustainability and using an ethical approach.

John Wolfe Barry would have been happy with such an outcome.