Four years ago I was working at the HQ of the BSI Group in Chiswick, London.
For those of you who don’t know, BSI stands for the British Standards Institution and is the guardian of the Kitemark plus many international product, process and people standards.
I’d happened upon this contract-based employment which wasn’t far from where we lived. But I knew BSI well from my previous research on John Wolfe Barry and of course I couldn’t resist looking into their archives. I also found out that they had just started awarding a medal in JWB’s name to honour key stakeholders who help produce standards.
This was all impetus enough for me to resurrect my past focus and start applying for an English Heritage Blue Plaque for Sir John. I submitted the completed application at the end of 2015 and my last update post was a year ago.
Fast forward over three and a half years since I started. Yes, it takes that long for things plaque-related to happen!
I am on the verge of believing that a plaque may really be in the offing before the year is out …
With this in mind, I’ve started preparing for the launch of both my new book, Building Passions, and the unveiling of a plaque commemorating Sir John Wolfe Barry’s life. The big prize is if both can take place on the same November day.
Sir John Wolfe Barry is credited with establishing the British Standards Institution in the early 20th Century.
In fact it was more complicated than that as you can read elsewhere on this website.
The purpose of technical standards was to bring some order to a complex system. This would benefit all in terms of consistency and wider economic impacts. I have worked on policy reports for the current BSI which have said as much.
But an area of perhaps more controversy is to do with building codes. These are in part technical standards, but they are also partly competence standards designed to prevent unscrupulous builders from erecting unsafe housing. Architects and structural engineers need to be fully aware of them before designing their structures. However, there is a risk that genuine innovation in building may become stifled by the need to regulate bad behaviour. Students of structural design need to be made fully aware of this tension and understand how best to approach it ethically.
The ability to make such judgements requires maturity of thought. Arguably this can only be achieved through responsible education which allows learners to discuss sensitive issues within an evidence-informed environment.
The big question then is whether we are producing enough of this type of learner. Only schools, colleges and universities can provide a satisfactory answer.
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.
Monday 22 January 2018 marked 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 this centenary date the world’s tallest building.
In 1901 Sir John Wolfe Barry was closely associated with the founding of the precursor to the British Standards Institution which would become famous for its Kitemark. I’ve added some new content about this.