On solving difficult structural problems

I’ve had the privilege of working with leading civil and structural engineers over the period since early 2016.

I am not one of them, in the sense that I don’t have their knowledge, understanding and skills in the technical requirements of civil and structural engineering. However, I do understand much better some of their key attributes and motivations.

One that stands out is their approach to solving problems. If a building or a bridge falls down killing and injuring people then the first question asked is: who built it? There may be some context for this, in the sense that if the structural failure was due to an ‘Act of God’ such as an earthquake or tidal wave, then some leeway is given to the identified responsible person. However, if as in the Grenfell Tower inferno, or the collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, there is some sense that the blame was entirely linked to human neglect, then the repercussions can be very severe for those found wanting.

On the other hand, progress through technical advances is only really made as a response to a crisis of some kind. If we had no crises then life might appear easier for all of us, but there would be costly consequences. Society would become stale and complacent, more susceptible to potential threats that could have much bigger impacts for larger numbers of victims. There are difficult choices to be made with pros and cons each way.

Civil and structural engineers therefore solve problems as ‘scientifically’ as they can, based on hard evidence of past failures and successes, but also with due acknowledgement to present circumstances and future possibilities. The professional standards they set for themselves assure that this is the case, and if the public is not sufficiently convinced then Government legislates as a further safeguard.

The 19th Century Barrys, about whom I am currently writing, faced these same issues as builders of structures. They also tried to guide the conversation through their involvement with developing professional bodies in architecture and civil engineering. Charles Barry junior and John Wolfe Barry were both Presidents of their Institutions (RIBA and ICE) and Sir Charles Barry won a preeminent Royal Gold Medal from Queen Victoria for his professional services to architecture.

The end of the Year of Engineering but the start of a new age of UK design and build?

New Year’s Eve will mark the end of the Year of Engineering 2018.

This has been a UK Government led campaign to promote engineering as a career option to young people. Simultaneously, it coincided with the bicentenary of the founding of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1818 and the launch of a similar video-based campaign by the Royal Academy of Engineering called ‘This is Engineering’.

I have been privileged to be a small part of this all through my day job as Education Manager at the Institution of Structural Engineers. We published our own careers videos at the start of this year.

What can we now expect of the legacy?

To be honest it’s difficult to tell currently as the Year of Engineering website continues to list and seek submissions for engineering related events into 2019.

What would I like to happen?

I’d like the Government and the engineering sector to broaden out the messages to all those interested in careers in ‘design and build’, but particularly those defined audiences who could be helped to overcome any cultural or other barriers to success. This might include people with specific age, gender, race and other personal characteristics, depending on the nature of any barriers and the proposed solutions to removing them.

This could kick start a new era of design and build capturing the spirit of global volunteer programmes such as Bridges to Prosperity or the Grenfell Tower and similar schemes that have sprung up locally as a result of a terrible tragedy.

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.

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.

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.

Commemorating 22 January 1918 #sirjohnwolfebarry

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.