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of designing and making structures, particularly in those largely Western countries where this basic skill set has been superseded by the ability to argue a highly technical legal case before a judge, or undertake intricate surgery to keep bodies functioning longer than they might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.

Commemorating 22 January 1918 #sirjohnwolfebarry

Monday 22 January 2018 marks exactly 100 years since the death of Sir John Wolfe Barry, the man who built Tower Bridge, London. He died peacefully at his home in Chelsea at the venerable age of 81.

His lifetime is commemorated on this website, the culmination of a project that started many years ago. It is also commemorated on a window in Westminster Abbey, below which lies the tomb of his famous father the architect of the Houses of Parliament.

At the time of his death Sir John had achieved many things in addition to building Tower Bridge between 1886 and 1894. He had been President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in the 1890s, a famous organisation celebrating its bicentenary this year. He was credited with founding the Engineering Standards Committee at the turn of the 20th Century, which eventually became the British Standards Institution, home of the Kitemark. He was pivotal in helping to establish the National Physical Laboratory at around the same time.

Less well-known about him was the fact that he chaired the Board of the telegraph companies which were eventually to become Cable & Wireless. His close business partner for many decades was Henry Brunel, younger son of Isambard K Brunel. Sir John took over the lease of the Brunels’ house in Westminster, London and made it his own family home before he moved on to Chelsea.

Finally, Sir John’s civil engineering consultancy eventually became part of the same company which helped build the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, at the time of writing the world’s tallest building.


The story behind structures #Built

Roma Agrawal is publishing her book ‘Built: the Hidden Stories Behind our Structures’ on 8 February.

I’m fortunate to know Roma and we share common interests in opening up (structural) engineering to a wider base, particularly getting more females into a profession traditionally dominated by men.

One of the stories Roma writes about in her book is on the Quebec Bridge in Canada. It’s a bridge I don’t know too well so I decided to find out more using my favourite search tool, Google of course! This brought up the Wikipedia reference used in the above hyperlink. If you want to delve further you can connect to other steel cantilever bridges around the world including the Connel (Ferry) Bridge by Sir John Wolfe Barry, and the most famous example of all, the Forth Railway Bridge built by John Fowler and Benjamin Baker (a close friend and business partner of Wolfe Barry).

But what is so special about the Quebec Bridge?

It is a world record holder as the longest spanning cantilever bridge ever built – this was to prove the downfall of the first version of the bridge which collapsed during construction on 29 August 1907 with the loss of many lives. Roma will tell you more in her book.

Famous bridges aren’t the only structures to have stories behind them. The building you live in may have more than one stor(e)y. Perhaps not as exciting or indeed tragic as the Quebec Bridge …



A Benjamin Baker’s dozen

There are 13 days until we commemorate the death of Sir John Wolfe Barry, one hundred years ago.

The play on words in the title of this blog is obviously to do with the number thirteen, but also allows me to tell you a bit about Sir Benjamin Baker.

Baker was a close friend and business associate of Wolfe Barry and like John was also President of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He is most famous for designing and building between 1883 and 1890 with Sir John Fowler the iconic Forth Rail Bridge in Scotland, which still stands and functions as it was intended.

The steel for the bridge was supplied by William Arrol, who also provided the steel for Tower Bridge and the Connel Bridge, both built by Wolfe Barry.

Benjamin Baker went on to design and construct a number of docks with Sir John including the Royal Edward at Avonmouth near Bristol. Subsequently he  built the new Aswan Dan in Egypt to tame the Nile, no doubt well informed about the nature of river currents and movement of sediment.

Like Barry, Sir Benjamin has a stain glass window commemorating him in Westminster Abbey.

Hawkshaw and Brunel

I’ve just written another section about John Wolfe Barry’s connections to Sir John Hawkshaw, another eminent Victorian civil engineer, to whom he was apprenticed. Also included is information about his business partnership with Henry Brunel, son of Isambard K Brunel. They would both build Tower Bridge