Associate and CRE (Contractors Responsible Engineer) of Whitfield Consulting Services, Nick Lowe, shares his thoughts on how his early experience of seeing the realisation of a local infrastructure project influenced his career and what has driven his approach to civils design for rail environments.
How did you discover engineering – why did a career appeal and what was the starting point for you?
I think I was always interested in buildings, structures and bridges and, around the time that I was choosing my ‘options’, I saw the Dartford Bridge being constructed. And I just really liked the thought of working on construction projects. I made A-level choices that would move me towards that goal and then I chose to do an engineering degree. They used vocational profiling at school, which helped to recommend careers; one suggestion for me was land surveyor which was interesting as it combined working outdoors and being involved in building projects, so I chose a degree based on my love of construction.
It is so rewarding to do a job where you can see something being built as a direct result of the efforts that you put in. I think it is so inspiring to play your role and then to see something physical at the end of it.
An engineering degree values placements and real-life application as highly as engineering theory, would you agree?
Yes definitely, it is a very varied course. I went to Loughborough University, and I found that the course they offered, as well as being academic, was also practical, including modules on construction management. They also offered a placement year in industry so, after completion of your second year, you spent a year working for a contractor.
I chose to work for a civil engineering contractor and worked on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link which at the time was the biggest project in the country. Working on that completely affirmed my love for my chosen career. I went back and worked hard to finish my degree, and then I was ready to enter the industry as a graduate. That was 2001, so 21 years ago.
Did that contractor placement play a role in your choices within engineering?
Yes definitely. I spent the first 10 years of my career working on site as a site engineer, section engineer, site agent, and senior site agent, working my way up to a reasonably senior level, and then at that point I had the opportunity to switch and move to the design side. So, I have spent half my career on site in construction management, applying the designs that had been provided by the designers, and then I switched to creating the design.
This gives me a huge advantage, because I’ve got that practical experience of building and managing the build, not sitting independently in an office creating designs. I have the knowledge of how the build is carried out, and that ability to apply knowledge into buildable designs, which is so important, something we at Whitfield pride ourselves on.
One of Whitfield’s values is “designing with constructability in mind”. What does this mean to you?
Once you have managed £100million+ projects to erect steel work for a huge building, you see the bigger picture when putting pen to paper for the designs we create.
Having this extensive in-house site experience enables us to pass on that understanding to our team members, so that they will also consider what they are designing, and we get everyone on site as much as we can.
Does the experience you’ve gained create empathy with those on site or in the meetings in the run up to kick-off, understanding a response from others by seeing their point of view more easily?
Yes exactly. Sometimes, when the contractor asks questions, I understand why they are asking them and I can empathise with them as I have been in that same position in the past, whereas some designers without site experience may not understand the contractor’s perspective.
Which projects have been most memorable for you during your time in engineering?
There was a London Underground project I was involved in, Griffith House, which was part of the SSR4 (Sub Surface Rail Package 4) power upgrades that Asa and I worked on together. That was a significant size project, it was a large 132 -kV incoming substation in the Edgware Road area that formed a bulk supply point, providing 22kV and 11kV power to the other LUL substations within that area of the network. A very complex project from a civils point of view; we had a narrow plot of land, only about 10-15 metres wide, triangular shaped, and we had to dig down about 10-12 metres to then form a cable basement, then a switchgear basement, and then build it back up to ground level with the transformers on top of that and then coolers for the transformers. So overall in height, the building was somewhere around 20 metres, but half of it was buried underground.
We were parcelled between a road and the Hammersmith and City Circle Line, which is in open cut, so it was a rather complex civil engineering job for which we had to manage the construction. Although we didn’t create the design, we were contracted for design management – Asa managed the design, and I managed the construction process with the civils contractor. Ensuring it was being constructed as per the design was my responsibility, alongside all the quality control which we carried out on behalf of ABB. It was a 3-year project and involved cabling in the tunnels around that area, we had to get the cables from the bulk supply point to the various substations around Baker Street and Marylebone and a few other areas, we carried out numerous surveys and then made sure the cable routes were feasible, followed by the installation.
From a client perspective what aspects of the project held importance?
All survey and install works had to be carried out in Engineering Hours so there is only a short period of time, from midnight until 4am on London Underground. Ensuring that those hours can be put to best use is critical in ensuring no delays to the programme.
It’s great to look back on such a successful project which created close collaboration with clients like London Underground; we built strong relationships and went on to work with some of that team on later projects with London Underground, Network Rail and other clients.
Our electrical knowledge has continued to expand since that project, 12 or 13 years ago. We proudly reflect on that project and our place with the power sector as a result.
Are there standards and ethics of working that are of particular importance?
There are standards that apply across the industry, and then certain clients have more particular requirements. For example, because we have experience of delivering complex London Underground projects, we can ensure the design takes into account the interface with London Underground assets and tailor operations so that we can use the strength of our experience and produce a very buildable design.
What have you been working on recently?
Recently we designed a substation at Mile End, where we performed an upgrade and a change in switchboards. Whitfield designed the structural analysis of the existing floor slabs, consequently the floor had to be cut and slots opened up, so that we could position the cables to the new switchboard. We designed the steel work to support the floor, with blast vents to expel gasses from the substation in the event of a fault. I attended site multiple times, helping with the interface as well as delivering the design and the constructability. Some challenges arose around the limited space for building, to allow for the switchgear; these were resolved smoothly.
Another project that I’ve been involved with was on the cable routes were designed for Package 10, Royal Oak to Griffith House cable route, which is more than 1km long. This fed in to supply Crossrail with some of their power at the western end of the western Crossrail. It’s great to say I’ve been involved in HS1, HS2 and Crossrail amongst other notable projects.
Are there any projects that will always hold a particular sense of achievement?
One of my highlights was enabling the then new A380 Airbus to land safely at Heathrow Airport. Taxi-way renewals and aircraft standing renewals were required in order to accommodate this new, heavier ‘double-decker’ plane, and I remember the first time the plane arrived there was huge press coverage of it. Gordon Brown was there, the Chancellor at the time, and he gave a speech. We all watched as it came in and there was a real sense of achievement from a civil engineering point of view. In the airport sector that was an important occasion, to have the infrastructure for this huge new plane. So, I would say that was one of my early career highlights and I’m proud to have been involved in a project that had such national significance.
Nick Lowe is a Chartered Civil Engineer and Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers with over 20 years’ experience working across a range of private and public sector projects. He is a specialist in the management of multi-disciplinary projects with complex civil engineering, building, mechanical and electrical aspects. With extensive experience of managing rail interfaces & railway operating procedures (London Underground) as well as CRE civil design and construction on many Network Rail projects.