Q&A: Terry Hill, former Arup chairman
Civil engineer Terry Hill CBE FREng has delivered some of the UK’s most recognisable engineering projects and also led a government review into the cost of infrastructure development. He was presented with the Royal Academy of Engineering’s prestigious President’s Medal at the academy’s awards dinner on 17 July.
Congratulations on being presented with the President’s Medal. It can be seen as a kind of lifetime achievement award.
Oh, I think there’s still a lot more to achieve yet.
I’m currently President of ISO, the International Standards Organisation. It’s a two-year post, and I’m going to try and have some impact in the world standards in my background in infrastructure and civil engineering and construction. I think there’s a lot we could do there.
While it’s fantastic to get this award, there’s a certain irony because it’s about me as an individual, and the field I’m involved with, which is major projects and infrastructure, can only be delivered successfully with big teams.
Crossrail which I’m involved with now, involves thousands of people. So did HS1, which was my project - I took that through in Arup. That’s essentially what the success story is for infrastructure.
Surely leadership makes a big difference to the success of those projects?
I think you’re right, and I don’t want to dismiss that, but leadership has to have pretty good followership as well. Otherwise you end up being so far ahead that nobody sees you.
How did you get into this game originally? What inspired you to become an engineer?
I started work, a long time ago now, working for New Towns. We don’t do New Towns now, but they were incredibly inspirational at the time. We really did think we were creating the New Jerusalem. There was a lot of experience from that. What I learnt then, and I hope I’ve got a bit of it now, is that humility, where civil engineering differs from other sorts, in that until you’ve dug that hole in the ground, or until you’re out in the English weather, you haven’t a clue what you’re going to find. You can be warm and sitting in the office and doing all the analysis and the calculations, but you do have to think on your feet when you’re working with the ground and working with the weather. That’s what civil engineering is all about, and why I think it’s so fantastic.
Looking back, what have you liked best about your career? What’s interesting and enjoyable?
The thrill of seeing it built. You could go and look at the Dublin Port Tunnel, or the new Tyne tunnel in Newcastle, which again was my job, and see the thing finished.
Also there’s HS1, the first high-speed rail line in the country. Just go and stand in St Pancras station. You can’t help but get a buzz from seeing that.
I suppose the other thing that’s exciting about my job is it can’t ever be routine, because once it’s built you’ve got to find the next thing. I can’t just go back to the new Tyne tunnel and sit there and think ‘oh, that’s me done’. You have to keep moving on.
Actually the thing that’s difficult for a lot of people to grasp is thinking what it was like beforehand -when you look at derelict parts of the country, or run-down neighbourhoods, and then have been a part of something that’s remade a place where people want to be
If you look at Kings Cross Lands [in London], there’s now the University of the Arts in there, Google are going to move in there, the Guardian headquarters are there, there are restaurants, bars, and there are people not only being employed and having creative work to do, but also relaxing. It’s just fantastic compared with what I knew that area to be. But quite honestly, when I first went there I was recommended not to go into that neighbourhood, because it was dangerous.
Infrastructure’s not just about pouring concrete and placing steel. It’s also about changing neighbourhoods and societies and helping create communities.
That’s a long answer to your question, but the simple one-liner is ‘seeing it built’.
The citation for the President’s Medal refers to your contributions to “supporting UK engineering around the world and promoting excellence in engineering education”. Tell me about those aspects of your work
I think that’s relatively straightforward, because I am fortunate to have enjoyed my career in Arup, which is a totally global company. Its registered address is in London, but it is very devolved.
The idea of a headquarters is not right because we are promoting engineering around the world, and have been a key part of celebrating engineering in lots of countries and helping the Institution of Civil Engineers set up in lots of countries around the world and growing its membership, and also mentoring engineers as they come on and make their way in the world So ‘supporting UK engineering around the world’ is what comes with working for a company like Arup.
Arup now has 70 per cent of its turnover outside the United Kingdom. Now, I don’t know what you think the definition of a global company is, but seems pretty good, when most of your business is outside your country of origin. It isn’t just about doing your work overseas; it’s about doing most of your work overseas. So I think that’s the first one.
As for ‘promoting excellence in engineering education,’ I’ve been privileged to go teaching on several courses in universities. In fact I was just recently at London School of Economics where there was a course on Cities that I spent some time teaching on.
And Arup helped set up a course in Cambridge University which is a bit of a mouthful. It’s IDBE - Interdisciplinary Design for the Built Environment - which has engineers and architects together. I worked in that as well.
But again, Arup has got a mission to find better solutions. It is driven to find a better way of doing things. So we very rarely accept what has gone before. We always try and find a new take on it if we can possibly do that. And we encourage that. We champion innovation in all the work that we do, and I personally try to take that into other areas.
So for instance I chair the British Government’s Construction Export Group, which is taking UK construction expertise into China, into India and elsewhere.
But I do believe that the UK is both world-class and also a leading exponent of the work of regeneration. I think it’s because the UK was the first into the Industrial Revolution in the middle of the 18th century. And that means an awful lot of our own infrastructure is now life-expired.
We are now having to come into these derelict areas in cities up and down the country. We know that we have to deal with the complexity of unknown ground conditions, of contaminated soil, of derelict buildings and infrastructure, and make it new. That has application worldwide, so that together with green and low carbon infrastructure is something that globally is being demanded more and more, and that the UK is in the lead in. We know how to look after and regenerate our infrastructure.
That brings me to the next question, whether we do it as well and as efficiently as we could. Because you led the government investigation into the cost of infrastructure development.
You’ve got me there, because earlier I’ve been saying all these wonderful things, and then blow it, I go out and find that it actually costs more to do it here than it costs somewhere else.
So we want to understand why that is, and what I’m going on to say now is this. The sort of infrastructure that I am talking about is big and major. The starting price is £5 billion and goes upwards. When I did HS1 that was £6 billion. I’m on the board of Crossrail now, though I’m not leading it in any way, so I can see that’s £15 billion. HS2, they reckon, is £30 billion and upwards. So you can see that a politician or a banker would think twice about getting involved in that sort of money. First of all because it usually takes more than one political term so it goes from one election to the next and beyond, and second because it’s a big slice of government budgets, and therefore there are tough choices to be made between, say, healthcare, unemployment benefits or building new rail lines, and how do you do those trade-offs.
So I think that there is a natural but unfortunate conservatism in people’s approach to infrastructure. They just want to have somebody who’s done one before, without any changes, whereas I think that the future of infrastructure demands innovation. If you think about it in every other field of economic activity, we’ve seen tremendous innovation. Whether it’s the research that goes into a new jet airliner, or the research that goes into drugs or IT and computers, and however much companies put into mobile phones and all of those things that come along, nuclear power stations. It does demand big levels of innovation, and I don’t think we’ve had that yet in construction.
That’s what came out of the work that we looked at for the UK government: how do you get the construction industry to become more efficient, and part of that is that clients need to encourage efficiency innovation.
One of the key conclusions in our report was about long-term workflow. Because if you have a company and you want to build a major project costing billions of pounds, would you put a lot of investment into training and research if you have no idea whether the government is going to go ahead with it this week, this year, next year or never?
You know, the funding of Crossrail, a £15 billion budget, was not secured until three months before the first contracts were let. Now how does a construction company plan on that sort of basis? So it is important that we get this longer-term certainty about funding and delivery of projects.
And the government’s seen that, to be fair. It has now published long-term workflows of infrastructure projects. You can see it online, it’s on the InfrastructureUK website, and that enables people to plan better.
My question really was ‘has anything changed since your report came out at the end of 2010’, and you’re saying there’s at least one thing.
I think there are several things. One is what’s called the pipeline - you can interrogate that and look at that.
Another thing we found is that quite often the commissioners, the people who are letting the contracts, bright and brilliant though they may be, will not have the experience of letting these huge jobs, and therefore are risk-averse rather than knowing the supply chain, knowing the people who can deliver these things and therefore making that judgement call when they let those contracts. So what the Treasury did was set up this course at Oxford University for those good people, and it’s not just in government - in water companies, in railway companies, in power companies, they need that experience. It’s about senior positions. So that’s a second thing.
Third, an enquiry is going into standards and whether that leads to inefficiency or not, and there is also work on contingency and probability - the way risk is managed across a portfolio of major infrastructure projects.
So I think there is positive progress now. And although I’m not actually directly involved in it, the construction industry is moving on, and the current Government Chief Construction Advisor is taking all this work on. So they’ve actually appointed a full-time post for rolling out all the changes that we recommended.
Could you elaborate about the impact of standards on project costs, and the things you want to achieve in construction during your presidency of the ISO.
Everything has to be ‘smart’ these days, so I want to encourage smart, intelligent use of standards. What I mean by that is, there are some things where the standard has to be mandatory, such as a nuclear power station. It’s not my field, but I’m sure there are some things that are mandatory about that. But actually there’s an awful lot of big infrastructure projects that are open to innovation and alternative ways of looking at things. So what I want to encourage is an intelligent use of standards.
I generally hate acronyms, but just think about RAG - red amber green. So you can think about a standard having Red parts, the mandatory parts; Amber, which is what is normally done and if you do it this way it’ll be fine, but it may be open to challenge; and Green, which is ‘this is just a suggestion, but if you can come up with better ways of doing things then good.
I know that when the M25 motorway widening was being done, they came across some innovative ways of a) keeping the traffic going and b) being less disruptive with the construction. But it was not totally compliant with the standards that had been set up. But because you had a very informed and inspiring client in the Highways Agency, actually it allowed these alternative ways of working.
One of the simple examples is that the bridges were allowed to be clear-span across the whole of the construction, so there was no need to disturb the central reservation of the M25. You can see that there’s a lot of simplicity added into it. But it did require some of the standards to be challenged. Now that to me is an innovative way of looking at how these standards could work - actually encouraging suppliers within construction to challenge standards and coming up with deviations or, as we call them, derogations. The more we can do that, the more efficiency we can get into the industry. That’s what I’d like to encourage internationally as well.
Finally, what are you doing now? I’ve seen you’re chair of Arup’s board of trustees. You’re on the Crossrail board, you’re President of the ISO. Are you doing lots of other things? Are you semi-retired, or full-time and frantically busy?
I suppose I’d have to say both. I’m retired from full-time at Arup, but the industry is a fantastic one to capture my attention.
At Crossrail, for instance, I’ve been asked to chair its innovation forum, which is absolutely wonderful. You can look it up online. It’s called Innovate18, because Crossrail’s going to be delivered by 2018. We’re seeing there the sorts of things that are being looked at for innovation.
And even better than that, I’ve now just been appointed to one of the research Catapults. It’s a UK government programme - I think ‘Catapult’ because it’s supposed to catapult you from pure research into development and implementation of innovation. There are seven of them. I’m on the one for Transport Systems, which is headed by Will Whitehorn. I’m pretty excited about that, as well.
And there’s my Construction Export work, which is part of UKTI, and enables me to leverage my international experience.
So it’s the best of all worlds. I can still engage with what Arup is up to, at the same time as doing other things.
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