A picture paints a thousand words

Signs of Community

People leave marks on their environment, evocative clues revealing the spirit that was, is and could be.  Signs of community explores this, describing the emotionally charged process of rebuilding communities in the wake of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami.

Home is where the heart is drops us into the aftermath of a harrowing event, into a place devastated by tragedy and ravaged by Mother Nature.  A deserted place haunted by the energy, love and happiness that once inhabited it.

The image from which the series takes its title addresses the multicultural context of the rebuilding collaboration.  Foreign aid workers flooded into the area, making connections with those who remained, seeking to integrate into local culture whilst retaining their own sense of heritage.  This photo, taken outside the NGO office, depicts diversity through choice of languages and implies communication via the telephone lines.

Put simply, The fire in our bellies explains what makes all the effort worthwhile.  To share a meal, cooking together as a community, locals and foreigners united in a story of loss, healing and triumph.  A community rebuilt.

People affect their surroundings, stamping identity, leaving traces of the community spirit that was, is and will continue to be.

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No such thing as a free lunch!

A friend and I were astonished to hear security bandying around code words at a recent Royal Academy of Engineering evening lecture.  Was something exciting happening? Who was in the building?  Well, apparently they were warning each other that the freeganers had landed; people who turn up for the final ten minutes of a lecture and then swoop on the canapés!  I couldn’t believe this was a real pastime; I mean, I know my university track record for time keeping wasn’t great and in true student style I continue to love free food, but I’m sure I could never have been mistaken for a freeganer!

Despite initial disbelief, I’ve since been wondering if this could be a sustainable model – engineers are facing hard times after all!  The catch is, I love to learn so wouldn’t be able to survive on only ten minutes of cranial nourishment!  As a compromise, I propose a month of evening lectures as sustenance.  Whether or not the food is good, at the very least I’ll be feeding my brain!

So, I need your suggestions:  London lectures and events for me to attend and blog about in December.  The more absurd the better; if I’m going to try freeganing better to do it outside the box so I don’t actually get mistaken for homeless…

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Expedition Workshed is the place to go to have engineering explained in a useful way for a change.

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Cut the carbon!

All Party Parliamentary Engineering and Information Technology Group (APPEITG) dinner debate chaired by Professor the Lord Broers, with distinguished speakers Lord Lawson of Blaby, Sir Alan Rudge, Professor David Mackay and Adrian Bull.

Only a few days after bonfire night, which celebrated 403 years since quashing the Gunpowder Plot, I found myself standing tall, slipping through a secret door in Westminster Underground Station and gliding serenely across flagstones worn by the feet of many wise men, in surroundings more than slightly akin to a Harry Potter novel. I’m sure the stories these parliamentary walls could tell would make extraordinary reading too.

As a young engineer, I had been invited to participate in a parliamentary debate entitled ‘Will we be able to pay the price for our energy strategy?’  Sparky speaking tested everyone’s policy knowledge, illuminating wide-ranging facts and provocative beliefs that had questions tumbling from all lips once the motion was thrown out to the floor. Hummingbirds retained the magic of the evening, hovering just out of reach above every head throughout proceedings, or at least that’s what the tiny microphones dangling from invisible wire would have been if this was the Ministry of Magic.

Central to the debate was consideration of how we will deliver electricity to the UK in the future.  Whilst, everyone present was agreed that changes need to be made to our electricity production, it seems people generally fall into one of two camps when it comes to the reasons why; those who believe change in sourcing is necessary to ensure continued security of supply and to reduce the UK’s dependency on trade with countries that have bad human rights records and lack democracy, as these are the regions fossil fuels tend to be located; and those who are keen to reduce the environmental impact of our energy production and focus on meeting government targets for carbon reduction.  (It was interesting to note that many are still sceptical about global warming and our associated responsibility to reduce carbon release into the atmosphere, despite scientists repeatedly stating that evidence points to this almost certainly being true and engineering codes of practice already forcing engineers to design for an increased future climate.)  Other compelling reasoning included the UK’s future well-being resting on its  ability to improve its balance of trade and become self-sustaining.  Also mentioned was the option of mitigating UK energy needs by educating and incentivising individuals to make lifestyle changes, hence reducing demand.

Whichever the primary reason driving the need to change our energy sources, it seemed that almost everyone in the room agreed that this is what needs to happen.  Whilst one speaker focussed on playing devil’s advocate, pointing out that we have had forty years worth of extractable oil left for the last thirty years and that no other country has a mandatory commitment to cut carbon emissions because no other country is so stupid, the majority of the debate focussed on what strategies could be employed to deliver change.  Having recently spent time focussing on tactics for delivering education about nuclear power to school children in order to alter negative perceptions, it was topical to note that nuclear power is going to be an important part of UK energy strategy going forward in the absence of having sufficiently developed, reliable, renewable sources. There is the intention to build new nuclear power stations in the UK – with 2018 being the date the first wave are expected to be commissioned – to increase the proportion of electricity produced by nuclear power in the UK from 17% to 30%.  However there is no actual commitment as yet and in order to make it a viable option it’s important we learn from others.  France have 58 nuclear power stations all of which are built to one of three designs.  The UK has 19 stations of which there are 15 different designs! We would do well to introduce standardisation and implement economies of scale.

Elsewhere it was noted that, as we have not yet found the philosopher’s stone of sustainable energy solutions, we would be wise to continue investing in and developing our other options.  Of the renewables, harnessing tidal energy is favoured, due to its supply predictability, and wind is seen as an expensive investment for little benefit. Despite the carbon emissions associated with its use, gas was also mentioned as development in technologies to extract gas from shale make it almost abundant in supply. Whilst informative and thought provoking, the proceedings weren’t lacking a sense of humour; it was noted that if only we could harness the hot air filling the room, we may be on our way to resolving the issue!

APPEITG is leading the way with its enlightened inclusion of young engineers in high-level scientific debate.  It’s a sight to behold to see so many young engineers voicing their opinions and equally so many discerning guests taking the time to engage with us. Whichever reasons you choose to prioritise, energy source strategy affects us all and isn’t going to go away – it is an issue that will factor prominently in the decision-making we make throughout our future careers.  As engineers and policy makers we are better placed than most to influence change, so initiatives such as APPEITG should be praised for strengthening links between sectors and exposing us young engineers to the factors influencing the legislation we work within, broadening our understanding of fundamental issues that will help us become the ones making positive judgment calls.

Hear hear!

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How many hamsters does it take to power New York City?

Royal Academy of Engineering PolicyNet talk by National Statistician Jan Matheson

We spend our lives under the influence of statistics.  They shape policy from government level down and often shape our personal beliefs.  It was, therefore, insightful to have the opportunity to find out from the Office for National Statistics how these statistics are derived and regulated.  The ONS was set up in response to the statistic that only 13% of people trust politicians to tell the truth!  As an independent body, they establish and publish statistics to be available to everyone and enforce good practice in their use.  Measures they employ include giving only 24 hour advance sight of statistics to only the politician directly affected by their announcement, before they are made common knowledge; ensuring statistics aren’t manipulated and misconstrued as they have been in the past, such as in the reporting of ‘falling’ gun crime; devising methods of collecting statistics that stand up to interrogation by including both quantitative and qualitative questions (remember the ‘are you a jedi?’ question on the 2001 census?  well that was apparently useful not only in portraying how people feel about religion but also in provoking more ‘jedis’ to complete the census!); and encouraging people using statistics to really understand them and incorporate them in a meaningful way.

Having spent the last few months working out the tonnage of embodied carbon per covered seat in the London 2012 Olympic Velodrome – which roughly equates to 106 million cups of tea for the structural elements, which happens to be less than the number of cups of tea drunk in Britain each day!  – it rang very true to hear a statistician say that the value of statistics is in their use.  It is so vital that the industry is able to learn from projects which are hailed to be exemplary, contributing to an across the board raising of the bar.  The velodrome design team are making the effort to quantify how their process and decisions improved the velodrome’s sustainability credentials, with the aim to share the meaning this has for our industry’s future.

By the way, assuming we are using adult male Syrian hamsters, with an average mass of 100g, running at a velocity of 3km/s and the kinetic energy is converted to electrical energy with 50% efficiency, then to power New York City you would need approximately 300 billion hamsters.  As there are approximately only 6.8 million hamsters currently in the world, it may be time to start breeding!                                                                                              (Disclaimer – these statistics haven’t been approved by the ONS)

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Break a leg!

Assertiveness and presentation training with Linda Maher

Well, you don’t actually have to break a leg, but do uncross them, don’t stand with them too close together, or too wide apart, don’t bend your knee and do open one leg out to the audience.  And don’t smile girls, your smiles are precious and to be given sparingly! Whilst you’re at it, don’t pin your elbows into your waist and if your feet and arms are telling you they want to move, go with it.  But do it slowly, confidently, deliberately – captivate the room.

So began a day crammed full of useful insights into how myself and a colleague come across in various scenarios, reinforced with role plays to build upon, and eliminate, certain character traits.  Traits we weren’t always conscious of, despite feeling generally perceptive about how we are received.  It seems I, for example, have a tendency to impose an Australian, upwards inflection, on my speech when nervous – such as the start of presentations.  In no uncertain terms, I was told that this made my otherwise perfect Southern Standard English (my Yorkshire heritage is rolling in its grave at this point!) sound rather girly! Not exactly the effect I’m generally aiming for in presentation scenarios.  Speech exercises (to practice in front of the mirror at teeth brushing time) and a number of body language role plays later and I’ve been set on my way to becoming a compelling presenter.

From the moment I entered the stage doors of the Noel Coward Theatre and weaved my way through the rabbit warren that is backstage, I was captured by the magic of the place. For one day only, I was Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, at the finishing school any modern-day female sniffs at but every little princess wants to attend.  Be assured, every modern-day female should be offering their right leg (broken or not) for the opportunity to attend such a course.

Today I learnt the je ne sais quoi that makes certain people so charming, so compelling, so present.  The tricks of slowing down actions, using your eyes, opening up gestures and pausing effectively, that are immediately recognisable in said charmers.  The best secret weapon?  The power to influence and persuade – to have the pull factor.  That is, the useful tools for initiating and directing difficult conversations into an outcome where people choose to follow you rather than feeling pushed.  This was all termed as being high status, without any of the negative connotations that is often associated with the phrase.

As always, the mantra is practice makes perfect, so, whilst the rain in Spain is falling mainly on the plain, I shall be attempting to delight my companions with my newly acquired charm, wit and high status!

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Give and take

Life is challenging at the moment, in the best possible way.  Every sunrise I wake with a million things to do and by sunset my mind is teeming with what I’ve learnt through ticking a few things off my list!  I’m enjoying it because the constant stimulation means I’m learning loads, but there is a tougher aspect; the equally constant criticism I’m receiving.

Most recently I’ve been pitching a business proposal to the Royal Academy of Engineering.  Writing is a very personal occupation and in this case especially so, as the pitch is to win money to realise one of my own concepts, meaning I have a vested attachment to the project.  As I’m keen to learn and make the pitch the best it can be, I’m developing it iteratively, passing it around for rigorous scrutiny by my elders at various stages in the process.  This makes for transformative learning; I’m genuinely leaving discussions feeling like my understanding has jumped to new levels.

When opening yourself up to feedback, there’s a fine line between receiving criticism positively and feeling useless.  Whilst a proportion of this is down to choosing to take criticism in good faith, I’m pretty sure I don’t have the skin of a hippopotamus.  Therefore, the answer must be that those giving the criticism are doing so in a truly constructive manner.  This has had me reflecting on what does make good feedback and in doing so I came across the BBC rule:  Feedback should be balanced, believable and constructive.  An equally important point was avoiding ‘but’ sandwiches, meaning don’t hide negatives in the middle of praise – get them out in the open where they can do some good!  Haven’t we all been guilty of offering but butties at some point?

When receiving criticism, I find it’s really useful to engage with mentors in person, working my way through a solution with them.  But in this age of technology and travel, the best person to talk to isn’t always next to you.  So the next frontier on my feedback crusade is tackling how to build the level of rapport that arrives through face-to-face discussions via email.

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Life in 3-d

Designing for a 3-d world: IStructE North Thames branch evening meeting

We live and work in a time of large-scale social and economic change with ethical and environmental issues gaining prominence in strategic decision-making.  The building sector needs to become leaner, cheaper, faster and safer to proactively steer these changes and best benefit society.

As we engineers build 3-d structures for the 3-d world we occupy, wouldn’t it make sense for us to also be designing them in 3-d?  Effective use of 3-d design software could be one of the most useful tools to help the building industry shift towards a more efficient model.  As with any tool, there is a time and place, and we must keep at the forefront of our minds that the role of an engineer is to make a judgement on what is appropriate, when.

3-d design tools empower us to increase the level of integration between different members of the design team, enabling holistic consideration of the entire problem rather than each discipline acting discretely.  For example, modelling software allows shared ownership of drawing files, omitting the need for repetition of drawings and enabling simple coordination and checking between disciplines.  This has the potential to greatly improve working efficiency and is something we really need to focus on driving forward as, at the moment, our industry seems stuck in prehistoric times.

A few years ago Expedition designed the Infinity Footbridge, Stockton.  The bridge’s shape was form found to maximise its structural efficiency and this led to some rather complex geometry.  The complex problem was simplified by producing one data set which was used to both create an analysis model and generate the drawing geometry.  This model was then handed directly to the steel manufacturers as construction information, from which they produced the steel sections.  Whilst the software facilitated this simple exchange and eliminated potential for errors, it did not address an altogether different problem; the legalities of information status and ownership.  This was solved by creating the digital version of a rubber stamp.  A problem that couldn’t be solved, however, was building control’s requirement that their checking work was entirely independent. Hence, they refused to interrogate the design through the 3-d model.  So, in the end, having theoretically designed and constructed the bridge without using paper, a set of drawings did end up being produced – solely for the checker.  This is clearly a shortcoming the industry needs to resolve.

A second useful capability of 3-d design software is as a drawing tool; 3-d sketching enables a number of complex geometric shapes to be rapidly realised, compared and rationalised, greatly simplifying the process design teams go through when developing complex structures.  In the future we envisage parametric modelling to facilitate live design development between architects and engineers.  This is, in fact, a process we are exploring on the Thames Cable Car project.  As the cable car is intended to be inaugurated by the 2012 Olympics, manipulating 3-d design tools to speed up the design process will be greatly advantageous.

A parting thought – leaving the cinema having watched Avatar 3-d the man in front turned to his friends and said “that was great, I wish life could always be in 3-d!”


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Forces of nature

A tsunami has once again swept Sumatra, making for a reflective mood.  Arriving in Sigli, Aceh (the northern tip of Sumatra) at the tail end of the rebuilding efforts post-2004 tsunami, it was genuinely difficult to comprehend the devastation my neighbours had lived through.  I’d arrived in a brand new place where life moved on; people got up and rolled with the punches.  Never was this more apparent than when, after six months of living there, it was an Indonesian colleague who finally raised the tsunami topic.  Over a banana leaf of steaming satay he recounted the story of that day, in a detail that made us flinch.  A level of detail that had your ears straining for the faint whisper of the glassy ocean and left you wondering how anyone managed to find the courage to rebuild their fishing livelihoods.

I learnt a lot about human nature that evening.  My self-awareness increased dramatically as I realised western-inflicted taboos had prevented me from ever broaching the subject, despite my natural curiosity.  And from my Indonesian friends, I understood then what I saw in them every working day; their gift of perspective, the origin driving their understanding that life is too precious to stress about daily trivialities.

As my heart goes out to all those now suffering, the engineer in me is considering the practicalities of overpowering Mother Nature.  My role as architect-engineer in Indonesia really was one of jack-of-all-trades. Employing sound engineering knowledge to construct a tsunami- and earthquake-proof school goes without saying.  There are many practical measures that can be taken, ones that don’t require calculators; the field is a place for grass-roots technology.  Elevating the structure on piloti foundations to alleviate built-up water pressure for example.

Vitally, my job description trespassed far beyond my engineering hard-hat, far off into the realms of biology and education.  Whilst the new school needed to be structurally safe, pausing on site for a moment to enjoy the sun setting behind the distant volcano you saw a glowing red reflection on the adjacent fishponds.  It was as if the water were alight.  What you wouldn’t see though were trees, and this is where it became clear that you have to interrogate everything you see (or sometimes what is missing).  Over the past twenty years the Sigli area has seen mass deforestation of seafront mangrove habitats, to make more room for the fishponds the economy depends on for survival.  These mangroves though, would provide better protection for my school, in the case of a tsunami, than any man-made intervention could.

And so it was time to study mangrove botany.  To research the science behind the different species you find in a mangrove and the practicalities of rearing a new plantation.  Even then we hadn’t gone far enough.  There would be no point implementing a replanting programme without it being community driven.  The trees would not win the battle with the fish farmer’s need for space.  We needed to reeducate the local population and facilitate them to choose the mangroves themselves, by equipping them with information about the important safety role mangroves play in dissipating wave energy.  And actually, about how the case for mangroves stacks up economically too as many of the plant species aerate the pond-water stimulating a healthier breeding ground for fish.

Reality is not a series of well-defined school subjects; every strand of life weaves together into a giant canvas.  Accounting for the bigger picture in every engineering decision we make is imperative.  In fact, what we need to employ is perspective.

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Going for green

The marathon that is venue design and construction for the London 2012 Olympics is nearing the finish line.  Not only is Expedition Engineering‘s and Hopkins Architects‘ collaboration on the Velodrome on track for a christmas completion, it is streaking ahead of the pack in the race for green.

Way back in 2005 London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games on the basis of the Olympic committee promising to make it the most sustainable games in the history of the event.  The reality of delivering on that promise has seen different extents of success but one venue that really is being inundated with accolades for setting new standards in sustainable design is the Velodrome.

From the outset the design team worked closely together, taking a holistic approach to create a stadium whose elegance is born from form following function.  This means that all the man hours spent playing with the structural geometry to find the most efficient shape for the Velodrome really helped in the quest to cut the carbon.  Having spent the last few months assessing the amount of embodied carbon associated with the velodromes construction, I am delighted to report that the London Velodrome contains ten times less embodied carbon than Beijing’s 2008 Velodrome and an estimated eight times less embodied carbon than the Zaha Hadid and Arup designed Aquatics centre.  The Velodrome is talking in terms of hundreds of tonnes of embodied carbon rather than thousands!  Furthermore, the design team are being proactive about publishing the results as part of a report detailing how the entire industry can learn from their experiences.

The Velodrome really is one of London 2012’s success stories and widespread adoption of the design philosophies it employs will be instrumental in helping the UK construction industry, which is responsible for almost 10% of the UK’s carbon emissions, meet the ambitious government targets for reducing carbon use by a massive 80% (compared to 2008 figures) by 2050.  Maybe the race isn’t quite finished but I know lots of people who believe, where the Velodrome is concerned, that green medal is fully deserved!


Expedition are giving a talk about designing the Velodrome on the evening of Thursday 28th October.  Please see the attached flyer for details:

Designing for a 3-D world

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