Director of independent civil engineering consultancy - Wilsham Consulting www.wilsham.co.uk
Comment on: 19 November 2015
I note your article -Airport Security putting people off public transport and the comment about "very hard to see how public transport works for families at airports". I have a family of 5 and with holiday luggage, we perfectly fit into a fantastic door to door system of privately run public transport called "my car". Then when we reach the airport we join hundreds of other people all going the same way, on the ultimate in sustainable public transport - an airplane. It depends where you live, but I find it is practically impossible to justify "publically" funded transport like buses and trains, when they are so slow, undependable, expensive and not direct. I have just bought my family flights from London to Turin with BA for less than it costs for off peak day returns for a 45min trip to London from my local station and you don't even get food and drink!
Mr Armitts comments are similar to those of Politicians, who fundamentally don't understand how the construction industry works and why it is so fundamentally different to manufacturing. To compare civil engineering to the airspace industry is ironic. It is in fact a perfect example of why the industries are and always will remain completely different. The commercial airline industry is essentially dominated by only two companies – Boeing and Airbus. Both companies are extremely conservative, applying the same proven techniques for decades. Consistency is the key to safety, which can be well controlled in a factory mass production manufacturing environment. The environment and standards in which a plane operates are essentially the same all around the world. As both operate essentially in a monopoly there is more than enough money to undertake research along with tax payer funded grants. Where as in civil engineering every project is bespoke. This is not a choice, it is a fundamental requirement. There are many factors which influence design which are different at every site. For example to design a soakaway, you need to understand the site permeability, hydrogeology, risk of solution features, proximity to foundations, appropriate design flood return periods, effect of failure etc. In 20 years I have never had a site with the same design or construction and rightly so. Often the old fashioned ways are best, a soakaway is often best constructed with gravels, as it has for thousands of years, not needing a manufactured product at all. “Can you name another industry that separates design from manufacturer?” asks Mr Armitt. We don’t manufacture civil engineering work at all, so how is the question even relevant? We don’t manufacture housing estates, roads or sewerage systems. We design them and construct them - they are all unique. They are not mass produced in factories. At the top for many years there is a flawed logic that bigger is always better. If Contractors merged with Consultants they would become bigger and more efficient. Contractor domination in some areas (NHS PFI and the Highway Agency etc) according to the Public Accounts Committee has been a disaster. Such domination has never worked in any industry. Just look at what happened when the Banking industry was allowed to merge (Lloyds/TSB etc). Bigger means lower competition, less communication, greater inefficiency, reduced quality and higher costs. Demerged TSB now offers a far more innovative and cost effective range of products then it did when it was part of Lloyds. But there is hope. In every market there are signs that when permitted, free and fair competition can break through the cartels – just look at Lidl and Aldi in the supermarket sector. If the civil engineering industry is to improve efficiency then it is breaking up the cosy frameworks and let the civil engineering equivalents of Lidl flourish in a fair and open construction market. The public sector should follow the private sector model of free and fair competition and stamping out discrimination against SMEs by the dominant players.
I noted David Negus comment in relation to the project which used open spaces for attenuation, as this project caught my eye also, but I have a different take. Firstly, it is rare for a civil engineering project to be awarded. I find there are endless awards for bridges, buildings and BIM. Sure, its not an innovative idea, but a sensible practical approach which draws on common sense. Putting insulation in buildings, or making bridges out of steel and concrete is not innovative either and yet they constantly win innovation prizes. It is the fact that it is exceptionally rare to see any kind of joined up thinking or responsibility between the different stakeholders. The project is innovative in that it provides an example of what can be achieved if the EA / local authorities and sewerage authorities look outside their narrow silos of responsibility. As regards "dilution of talent" I think the problem is consistently civil engineering has not been respected compared to structural engineering, never mind architecture.
Why would anyone want, or be forced to live in a shipping container, even if it has low energy lighting, good insulation and a set of herbs on the roof? Better to put the money to building a decent house in the first place.
Comment on: Google chief speaks at Chicks with Bricks event
I first thought this was a joke. But its actually wrong on a whole series of levels, not just the obvious. I don't see how the term "chicks" is appropriate. Perhaps female construction engineers, construction professionals etc. Again is "bricks" appropriate, they are not bricklaying and I would assume bricklaying is not a large element of the Thames Tideway Project. Lastly, less than 11% of nurses or primary school teachers are male. Both very important jobs. Yet there is little evidence of any concern in the nursing or teaching profession that this inequality of numbers needs to be addressed.