Generalists vs specialists

Life seems to have two choice of strategies. You either specialise in a niche area or you broaden your outlook and cover all the bases. There are risks with both strategies but it seems to me the generalist one offers the most opportunities.

The construction industry is full of specialists: architects, surveyors, structural engineers, interior designers, builders etc. But it is technically possible to construct your own house. You may need people to check on your work from time to time, and if you make too many mistakes it can prove costly either in money terms or more seriously with implications for the health of the inhabitants. However it can be done.

Specialists come into their own when you want to try something different. A good architect will be able to respond to a challenging design brief by using their creative abilities to blend vision with reality. They in turn will work closely with a structural engineer to provide technical solutions to the new problems that arise from pushing the limits of construction. Materials specialists may also become involved. No generalist could manage this on their own.

Saying that, many project managers are generalists who are able to bring together specialists into combined teams for defined periods of time. They exist in all spheres of life and started to appear in their own right during the 20th Century. John Wolfe Barry might have been a possible candidate for this role if he had been born a century later.

Augustus Pugin’s gothic talent

I’m reading a detailed biography of Augustus Pugin by Rosemary Hill.

For those who don’t recognise the name, Pugin was the architect who co-designed and furnished much of the elegant gothic interior of the Palace of Westminster in the 19th Century. He also contributed to the design of many of the unique exterior features including Big Ben. There was much controversy at the time about whether he or Sir Charles Barry was chiefly responsible for the gothic revival look of the new Houses of Parliament. Certainly Sir Charles was the man in charge of the build and the layout was very much based on his classic design principles.

The biography refers in snippets to this creative relationship between the two men. Inevitably, I feel, there is a bias towards Pugin’s contribution in the book. Clearly Augustus was a remarkably talented individual with great ability, acquired from his French father, to draw intricate detail based on sketches of historic structures and artefacts. He could also work with the highly specialist artisans who created the end products required. However, he was also volatile and wouldn’t necessarily listen to reason. He needed to be inspired by muses, who were often young women with the right spiritual and physical attributes for him. The ones he married had to handle his peculiar lifestyle.

Caroline Shenton, Barry’s biographer, tells me that he’d spent years defending his designs  for the Palace to politicians and fighting off criticism and so probably felt to reveal Pugin’s involvement would set it all going again. She also thinks that over time Pugin had turned from an equal collaborator at the start to ‘just another supplier’ under the intense pressure to get the job completed. Both of them appeared to be perfectionists, so one can imagine the pressure they put on themselves and the impact of this on their health and families.

I’ll keep reading to the end of Pugin’s life as it fascinates me both for the positive and not so positive about his character. Extreme talent is a rare and precious thing – I watched lately a fascinating documentary about Magnus Carlsen the chess prodigy. He reasoned that no-one could understand what goes on in his head, so it was best to just leave him to it.  Perhaps this is a luxury some of us are allowed to enjoy in life?

Plaque news: latest update

So, I contacted English Heritage last week to see how things are progressing with my Blue Plaque application for Sir John Wolfe Barry.

It seems that the owner of the building where Sir John died is fine in principle so once planning permission is given then hopefully we will have our plaque.

It looks more and more as if this will only happen in 2019, hence we may well miss the centenary year of JWB’s death. However I’ve already blogged in anticipation of this highlighting 125 years of Tower Bridge next year.

Once I get a date for the actual unveiling of the plaque I will spread the message as it would be good to have a few people there to witness it. In preparation I’ve found this website where you can order your own blue plaque: perhaps one day I’ll get one for myself in anticipation of my passing into history. Just need to persuade someone to fix it up when I’m gone …

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.