Update from the President: 1 March

Published: 01/03/2017

Another update for members from Ian Firth.

Greetings from 37,000 feet, or so. I am on my way home from a very enjoyable visit to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where I have been visiting the UAE Regional Group with Martin Powell. It was my first visit to the region (apart from several times passing through Dubai airport in transit), and I must admit that it was a very pleasant eye-opener. My sincere thanks to Mohamad Al-Dah (Group Chairman) and the committee members and others who organised the visit and gave up so much of their precious time to look after us.
Looking down on the city from the top of the Burj Khalifa (well not quite the top but you know what I mean) is a memorable experience, with what looks like a structural engineers' playground spread out beneath your feet. There are many extraordinary buildings in the region. Not all of them are architecturally worthy and many are frankly ghastly, but every one testifies to the vital role that structural engineers play in creating our modern cities.

The Burj Khalifa itself is a beautiful and elegant mega tower which stands super-tall in a world of tall buildings. Whatever you think about the concept of building so high, the nature of high rise cities or the thought of living or working up there, this is an exceptional example of structural artistry, and it is no surprise that it won an award in the Structural Awards in 2010. (Incidentally don't forget to get your entries in for this year's awards by 10th April. More information here.)
Considering how little time has elapsed since the first towers started appearing here, and notwithstanding the ups and downs of economic fortune that have affected the region in the last decade or so, one can't help wondering what the place will be like in another 50 years, and what kind of urban environment we will have created. I have my concerns about the nature of that environment and the quality of life we are creating for our grandchildren who will live there, as anyone who has read my inaugural piece will know, but there is no doubt that this remains a place of considerable enterprise and opportunity for our members. The importance of our Regional Group in supporting and promoting our work there, and in helping to build our relationships with the universities, professional associations and others in the gulf region, cannot be over-stated.
I rather liked the new elevated viaducts and stations of the Metro Red line, and was pleased to have been able to see the extraordinary (would it be too much to say notorious?) Sheikh Zayed Bridge in Abu Dhabi. It is a monumental and notable piece of extravagant architecture, which testifies to the amazing creativity and imagination of the late, great Zaha Hadid, but it is certainly not an example of logical, economic, engineering design! It must have been very challenging and expensive to build, which is probably why it took so long.
Readers of my contributions looking forward to exciting new structures being completed this year will know that one of those is the Louvre in Abu Dhabi. Sadly it was not possible to arrange a visit to the building which is evidently almost finished, but I was able to see it from a distance which confirmed for me that this will be a visit worth making in the future. The dome structure is by Buro Happold and it certainly looks fascinating from a distance; I hope to be back.
Whilst I am pleased to have been able to see all these structures, this was not (you will be relieved to learn) the purpose of the visit. I attended important meetings with the Society of Engineers and representatives of Heriot Watt University, the American University in Dubai and the New York University in Abu Dhabi. I was also pleased to be invited to a reception at the British Embassy (in the pouring rain!) and to meet the Deputy Consul General, Mr Alastair Long, who was very keen to explore ways of promoting the high standard of structural engineering excellence epitomised by chartered members of our great institution. The importance of citing the MIStructE qualification as the gold standard for structural engineers in the region was not lost on him, and I hope that conversations started this week will continue towards that end.
And of course I subjected an audience to a version of my inaugural lecture, which seemed to go down reasonably well. This particular audience was a group of engineers preparing to sit the CM examination, and I was pleased to be able to speak to them and wish them luck in the exam. A big thank you to Matthew Esther, John Price and the other tutors who are delivering this CM exam prep course, and of course to all those whose names I don't know but who do the same in the other Regional Groups around the globe. These exam preparation courses are excellent, and the Institution is very grateful to all those who give of their time and expertise to help others in this way.
So much for my trip to the UAE. I have a day in the office tomorrow to catch up with other things and then it is off to Belfast for my visit to the Northern Ireland Regional Group, which I am looking forward to enormously.
Last week I was in London for the Board and Council meetings. I always enjoy these two-day Council meetings which happen twice a year. They provide the opportunity to hear from and debate with the Regional Group Chairs, Young Members and other elected Council members who converge from all over the world to discuss strategic issues and the future direction of the Institution. Look out for the reports which will emanate from these meetings, and by all means respond or get in touch with comments of your own on the issues raised.
The week before that I was in Nottingham visiting the East Midlands Regional Group for the installation of their new Chairman, Steve Swindale. The evening dinner was held in the Galleries of Justice Museum, and before dinner we had a tour of the very well preserved Victorian courtroom and the scary medieval dungeons which are carved into the rock on several levels underneath. The museum is well worth a visit, but not if you are of a claustrophobic disposition! It was a very enjoyable evening and it was good to meet members of the committee and a privilege to present awards to some student prize winners from local universities.
When I last wrote in this column, I was about to visit Dublin with Martin Powell and our wives for the Annual Dinner of the Republic of Ireland Regional Group. This was a splendid occasion on 10 February at Trinity College attended by about 150 people. The evening was hosted by the Group Chairman, Peter Finnegan and included a thought-provoking address by Ann Power, a lawyer and judge involved in the Kosovo crimes against humanity trials. Earlier in the afternoon, Martin and I attended a reception at the offices of Dublin City Council where I gave a short address based on the theme of my inaugural which stimulated some lively discussion.
At all of these visits and in several meetings in between, I have had discussions about the need to fight for improved terms of appointment in those circumstances where these do not allow structural engineers to do the vital professional job that is needed to ensure public safety. I have found strong support for this, and an acknowledgement of the worrying trends towards a reduced scope of work (for example cutting out any construction stage services or site supervision), insufficient time, inadequate fee, or in many cases all three. This is a concern that I raised in my inaugural lecture and will be a subject I return to no doubt throughout my year as President. The recent SCOSS Alert which reported on the Edinburgh schools failure drew attention, among other things, to exactly these types of problems. It is clearly time that something is done, and I shall continue to highlight this issue as we work together with other built environment professional bodies to find a way to reverse these worrying trends.
Finally, and on a lighter note, did you know that the Burj Khalifa is three times taller than the Eiffel Tower and six times taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza?  Of course you did!  But can you tell me what it weighs, and how that compares with the great pyramid?
Ian Firth, 1st March 2017

(Image: by wilhelmtittes, Wikimedia Commons) 

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