ICE Essex Debate

“Civil Engineers are in direct conflict with initiatives to create a more sustainable planet”.  That was the motion put forward at a recent debate organised by the Essex Branch of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE).

The debate was a new venture for the branch and was held at Colchester Royal Grammar School (CRGS) with the aim of including students in the debate and in the audience with a view to further promoting and educating about the profession.  The event was held on Tuesday 8th March and was promoted around the school as the first event of national science week that begins on Monday 14th March.

Colchester Royal Grammar School

The venue was superb.  The debate was held in the main hall and excellent refreshments and facilities were provided for us.  The debate was organised by ICE Essex committee members Steve Ellis and Paul Chaplin and very many thanks go to them for the work needed to stage this event.

The debate was opened and closed by me in my role as Chairman of the ICE Essex branch and was chaired by Paul Chaplin.  Paul is a Chartered Civil Engineer who has spent over 25 years training future generations of civil engineers.

Speakers for the motion were independant sustainability practitioner Dr Stephanie Wray and CRGS Student Jo  Milik.  Arguing against the motion were Steve Ellis of AECOM and Laing O’Rourke graduate civil engineer Stuart Luffman.

Dr Stephanie Wray is an independent sustainability practitioner and non-executive director who has worked for almost 20 years in the UK construction industry.  She was previously a Director of Hyder Consulting, responsible for a team of 200 civil engineers working mainly in the property sector.  Her current clients include the Highways Agency, Welsh Assembly Government and National Grid.  Stephanie is a Fellow of the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management.

Jo Milik is a year 12 student from the school who is currently studying A levels in Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Latin.  In his spare time, Jo is a keen public speaker, entering competitions at local and national level.

CRGS Year 12 Student Jo Milik

Steve Ellis is a Chartered Civil engineer with over 25 years experience in the industry, spent mostly in highway design and project management. He has led design teams on various schemes including the A2/M2 Widening in Kent and the A11 Attleborough Bypass in Norfolk. As a technical director and Highways Practice Area Leader for AECOM he currently divides his time between technical issues, business development and running an office in Chelmsford.

Stuart Luffman is a graduate civil engineer with Laing O’ Rourke. He has an MEng in Civil Engineering from The University of Nottingham  and is currently on site, working at the new £1billion T2a Terminal at Heathrow Airport.

Paul opened the debate with a timeline presentation on the development of infrastructure in the UK.  This gave an interesting potted history to the development of civil engineering driven party by the age of steam and the subsequent development of engines of one form or another and introduced the ICE that was founded by those who had the vision to harness nature for the benefit of society.

As is traditional, a vote was held before the presentations by those defending and opposing the motion .  The motion was unanimously opposed.

Please note at this point that the comments below on the points made by the speakers are not direct quotes and are taken from my hastily handwritten notes at the debate whilst also taking photographs and listening to the speakers.  As such the comments below should not be taken as direct quotes and indeed may not to strictly accurate.

Dr Wray opened the case for the motion with a passionate and animated presentation without slides.  She gave some very persuasive arguments.  She proffered that many structures – particularly tall buildings and long bridges – were only the size they were as monuments to their designers egos and that there is a cost effective limit to all such items above which the benefit is outweighed by the cost.

She went on – making points such as engineers being risk averse and not designing to the very limit, and that waste in the whole design to construction process is still a huge issue.  She made an interesting point that university courses are good on technical content but poor on the creative side of the engineering profession which prevents engineers from being really radical and creative in their thinking.  She closed with the example that civil engineers should not be claiming to be sustainable by reusing highway planings in subbase – that if we really were being sustainable they would instead be developing news ways of travelling.

Dr Stephanie Wray speaking for the motion

Steve Ellis then defended the motion very much from the dsesign consultants point of view. He countered many of the points made by Dr Wray and made some very valid points of his own.  The main thrust of his argument was that society is accelerating in its demands for the things that it takes for granted.  The living spaces; the means to travel; the means to communicate and as such it is society itself that is to blame  – not the civil engineers.

He continued that civil engineers are those best placed – with close contacts and a respected voice with government – to develop and build the backbone of society in all these things. New power generation technologies were cited along with innovative ways of getting more out of the existing infrastructure such as managed motorways to increase capacity without taking more land.  He finished with examples of increased use of re-use materials in civil engineering such as tyre bales and crushed glass for filling.

He finished his opposition to the motion with an example of the ultimate in re-cycling – the recent re-use of the first underwater tunnel in the world – the Thames Tunnel constructed by one of the greatest civil engineers ever – Marc Brunel and his son Isambard – as part of the newest railway in London; the East London Line.

Steve Ellis opposing the motion

Jo then provided a passioned case defending the motion – a well researched and accurate defence of a motion he appeared to be convinced was the truth. He admitted that he was confused when he first started looking into the subject and that he started a speech in opposition to the motion but that the more he researched the topic the more he became convinced that the motion was indeed true.

He cited an example that modern buildings are 70% less efficient that cottages built many years ago and that dam’s that generate power and supply water in ever increasing quantities are wreaking havoc on our environment.  He cited research from the Royal Society of Engineers and concluded that the biggest issue currently is money as all work is done for a profit.  He also highlighted the phrase a ‘green-wash’ with respect to civil engineering company’s claims to being ‘sustainable’.

Jo used the Burj Dubai – also highlighted by Dr Wray – as an example whereby the building is claimed to be highly sustainable – by example saying that it uses condensate from the glazing to water the plants.  He argued that the only reason this is cited is that it is the only sustainable aspect of the entire project.  He mentioned also the excellent and recently opened A12 new Junction 28 north of Colchester.  A great project efficiently executed but a pointless one nonetheless as it serves no real purpose in its current location.

He did accept that civil engineers had the potential to help society enormously and contribute to a more sustainable planet were it not for the profit that underlay it all. He suggested that if clients had the bravery to spend more to really improve things then the civil engineers could deliver.

CRGS Student Jo Milik defending the motion

Stuart ended the formal presentations with some examples of where his employer – Laing O’Rourke – were taking leaps forward in initiatives to improve the sustainability of cvil engineering that is driven by society’s craving for more infrastructure.

He re-iterated examples of recycled fill materials in embankments; of optimised construction depths for highway surfacings contrary to overly conservative design codes and for the use of materials like negative carbon concrete that actually absorb carbon.  A cited an example of his current project – the Terminal T2a project at Heathrow – where 92% of the existing structures being demolished are being recycled and re-used.

Gradate Civil Engineer Stuart Luffman completing the presentations

The speakers then retired to their seats and a lively discussion with the audience followed.  Many of the points made on both sides of the motion were challenged and in many cases supported. It was clear from the discussion that some of the audience had had cause to rethink their opinions on the subject.

Steve Ellis, Stephanie Wray, Jo Milik and Stuart Luffman facing the audience

A final vote was then taken which – whilst it still came down in opposition to the motion – the majority was less and some of the audience were sufficiently swayed to abstain.

The debate and discussion continued  even after the formal proceedings were concluded with many of the audience staying to network and talk individually with the speakers.

Thanks go to the organisers , presenters and hosts for this event which was an overwhelming success and which we hope will be repeated again in future years.

A news item on this event is also included on the ICE East of England website which can be found here.

If you have comments to make on the motion or on the event itself then do please post your comments below.

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