A creative thinker with a passion for solving complex engineering challenges, Ricardo Villamil, Senior Civil Design Engineer at Whitfield Consulting Services (WCS), believes innovation and fresh perspectives are vital in driving progress in the field of civil engineering design.

With decades of civil engineering experience spanning continents – Africa, South America, and Europe – we catch up with Ricardo as he talks about embracing new ideas in construction, his focus on renewable energy projects, and why WCS feels like ‘home’ to him.

What drew you to structural and civil engineering?

I was drawn to structural and civil engineering because of my fascination with the design and structure of bridges and buildings. This interest grew throughout my time in secondary school in Colombia, where I started exploring civil design drawings, finding joy in the handmade aspect of it. I’m passionate about bringing new ideas into construction and, as someone who loves problem-solving and building relationships, civil engineering design seemed like a natural fit for me.

Tell us about your current projects at WCS

I’m involved in projects across the renewable energy spectrum, with a focus on power & energy projects and rail electrification. Right now, I’m working on a major project to upgrade the Piccadilly Line (read more here), providing all detailed civil engineering design for London Underground Limited and UK Power Networks Services (UKPNS). 

Recently, I also provided civil design support for Westminster City Council’s project to introduce the UK’s largest fleet of electric refuse collection vehicles. This involved the design of a new substation support and foundations and associated cable routes (read more here).

How do you use your skills to find solutions to project challenges?

I thrive on finding creative and efficient ways to address our clients’ challenges. For example, we encountered a challenge on the Piccadilly Line upgrade where the project required the installation of new switchgear. One option was to remove all existing equipment first, which would have taken a lot of time, and, due to the critical nature of the London Underground, shutting down operations for such a task was impractical.

Instead, we proposed an alternative solution: demolishing an existing wall while installing the new equipment. This allowed for minimal disruption to operations. By employing our design skills to devise this solution, we met the client’s requirements while also saving them a significant amount of money and disruption.

What do you find most enjoyable about your work?

The interaction with clients. I love being part of discussions where we explore various options and solutions to complex projects. Often, clients may initially lean towards a single approach, but I enjoy sharing different perspectives based on my expertise and experience. It is not just about the design; it’s also about sharing the knowledge and insights gained from practical site experience.

What is it like working at WCS?

The warmth and friendliness of the people make it feel like such a welcoming environment. Collaborating with experts in the team, including Nick Lowe, Asa Whitfield, Matt Smith, and Jeremy Barnes, who are technically impressive and also open, friendly, and supportive, has been inspiring. Their wealth of knowledge and willingness to help us succeed is fantastic.

The people I work with are genuinely kind, and the office space, especially our new open layout, contributes to a positive atmosphere. The overall office environment and team are fantastic, and I genuinely enjoy being here every day; it feels like home.

Working at WCS feels like being part of a supportive and nurturing community, which makes every day a rewarding experience.

How has your experience been moving to the UK?

In the UK, the rules and regulations are vastly different from those in Colombia or Ghana, where I previously worked. Adapting to different design standards and upskilling has been an exciting learning opportunity. There are more regulations to navigate, but despite these differences, my experience has been so positive. Embracing these challenges has allowed me to grow both personally and professionally.

Prior to joining WCS, I had already worked for several years in the UK in the retail sector – working on civil engineering projects for clients including Asda, Sainsbury’s, Land Rover and Ferrari – and I also completed a masters in Structural Design and Construction Management at Kingston University London.

WCS provides Continuing Professional Development (CPD) opportunities to ensure that we stay up to speed with the latest developments, across a range of topics from sustainability to construction best practice. These training sessions are so helpful, allowing me to enhance my skills and knowledge base, keeping me abreast of industry advancements.

Do you have any advice for other engineers looking to make a move internationally?

My advice for other engineers considering a move internationally is not to be afraid. Fear of rejection or uncertainty about fitting in can hold us back, but from my own experience working across many continents, it’s important to remember that making such a move is entirely possible, regardless of where you come from. Embrace the opportunity with confidence and an open mind.

Any advice more generally for individuals looking to start a career in civil design?

My advice would be to remain open-minded, relaxed, and expressive. Do not be afraid to bring in new ideas, even if they challenge the status quo. Just because something has been done a certain way for the past 20 years doesn’t mean it’s the only way or the best way. If you have a good idea, do not hesitate to share it and work on developing it. Be prepared to prove its value and viability. Innovation and fresh perspectives are vital in driving progress in the field of civil design, so embrace the opportunity to contribute your ideas and make a difference.

How have you seen technologies in civil design evolve over your time in the profession, and what do you see coming in the future?

Over the course of my career, I’ve seen advancements in civil design technologies that have revolutionised our approach. One focus is the increasing emphasis on sustainability as the UK seeks to transition to a Net Zero economy. Technology has enabled us to better understand and utilise existing resources, promoting reuse rather than constant expansion (read more about WCS’ approach to sustainable construction here).

Rather than solely focusing on introducing new materials and products, I believe in using technology to preserve and make the most of what we already have.

For example, on the Piccadilly Line upgrade project, we used Ferroscanning to assess the existing floor slabs and determine whether they are likely to be able to withstand the new equipment to be placed there. Where possible we are prioritising strengthening existing structures rather than opting for complete demolition and reconstruction. By doing so, we not only reduce waste but also enhance the existing infrastructure.

Looking ahead, do you identify any other opportunities in the rail and power & energy sectors?

Looking ahead, there are fascinating developments unfolding in both the rail and power & energy sectors. With the growing emphasis on renewable energy sources, particularly with electrification, there is a significant shift towards embracing sustainable solutions.

WCS is actively involved in projects that are helping to meet the increasing renewable energy demands, including projects involving battery storage energy systems (BESS) and synchronous condensers. This transition presents everyone on the team with opportunities for innovation and growth, especially given our specialisation in this area. I see a promising future ahead for us in these evolving sectors.

Read more about how we work with synchronous condensers here and how we work with BESS here.

If you would like to discuss a project in the rail, power & energy space, please get in touch by emailing info@wcs-consult.co.uk or calling +44(0)20 3581 7847.