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A graduated approach to engineering excellence

Maintaining high standards in the building services design sector requires an injection of fresh ideas. The best way to achieve that is to attract high calibre new entrants. Ian Vallely talks to one of them
If it is to avoid slipping further down the international innovation league, the UK will need to dramatically increase the number of science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) graduates it creates.

This stark warning comes from the Royal Academy of Engineering which also argues that 100,000 Stem graduates are needed simply to maintain the status quo.
Attracting the brightest and best into engineering is a perennial struggle, but it is exacerbated in building services because the sector lacks the profile of many competing engineering disciplines such as aeronautical, automotive and chemical.

However, strenuous efforts are being made within the industry to address this problem and they are beginning to pay off; the CIBSE ASHRAE Graduate Award scheme is testament to that.

Designed to reward the innovative thinking, hard work and skills of young engineers, these annual Awards invite graduates from around the world in a building services-related discipline to enter their presentation on a chosen topic.

Combination of disciplines

Last year's winner was Angela Malynn, a bright 29-year old who works for Arup. Angela is unusual in the consultancy world in that she began her working life as a project manager, only shifting to building services engineering when she took a post graduate course. However, the combination of the two disciplines will, she believes, stand her in good stead in her future career.

Indeed, she was attracted to building services engineering partly because it gave her the opportunity to develop skills that go beyond engineering. She explains: 'Friends who have gone into other industries tend to be involved in very technical stuff which means they don't have so many opportunities to interact with people; they sit at their desks and do things in an isolated 'box' so to speak.'

Angela finds the collaborative approach offered by building services particularly appealing: 'It is a team-oriented sector and I think that's a really attractive aspect of what we do. An individual can't make a change without it having a significant impact on the project as a whole so we have to work together if we are to achieve the right result.'

While team working is one of the positive things about building services, for Angela, there are also barriers to recruitment and retention in the sector. One of these is the clarity of its pay structure: 'I think it would make sense for there to be more guidance about what people should be attaining at each stage of their building services career so that they know where they stand and what to expect. Unfortunately, pay structures in the sector are not very transparent.'

She also detects a change in consultants' position in the supply chain as a result of working practices such as 'design and build', and this too impacts on pay: 'Previously, we were employed independently and were treated as a separate design cost. Now, we are often absorbed within the construction discipline. That's not an entirely bad thing because it pushes the consultant and contractor closer together and encourages collaboration, but I do think it has pushed costs back onto consultants so that their earning potential has diminished.'

There is a widespread view that engineering lacks the status in the UK it enjoys in other countries such as Germany. This, it is argued, has resulted in a slew of lobbies and online petitions demanding that 'engineer' should be a protected title.
Angela disagrees: 'We already have a title - 'chartered engineer' - and I think we need to be selling that as a brand rather than simply focusing on 'engineer'. Engineer means different things to different people and we need to respect that; there are people called engineers who do valuable hands-on work and we can't take that away from them.

'I believe the emphasis should be on portraying the chartered engineer in the right manner so that people are able to grasp the difference. That means the institutions going out and making clear what makes a chartered engineer special.'

Part of what makes chartered engineers special is their ability to grapple with problems, such as climate change, that impact on a global scale.

Indeed, for Angela, the big challenge facing the building services sector in the coming five years will be the unpredictability resulting from climate change. She explains: 'I think most people think of climate change just as global warming, but actually it is extreme weather events - more wind, less or more rain, hotter or colder, and so on.

'We are engineering for a future case and not just the case that has existed for the past 100 years so we can't rely on historical data. We need to be defining the criteria at an early stage with the client and presenting options.'

Angela's working life so far.....

In 2001, Angela was completing a fortnight's work experience at consulting structural engineer Price and Myers when, out of the blue, she was sent an application form for the pre-university scheme run by Arup.

The scheme is a placement programme designed for those who have just completed their A levels, but who wish to take time out in industry before going to university to study engineering.

Angela explains: 'At that point, I was keen to take a break from studying so I applied and got onto the scheme.'

Nine months later, she embarked on a mechanical engineering degree course at Queen Mary, University of London. Because she had completed its pre-university scheme, Arup sponsored her and she spent summer placements at the firm.
Angela graduated from the four year course in 2006 and was immediately employed as a project manager at Arup. The role was mainly concerned with master planning urban design rather than building services.

After nine months or so, Angela decided she wanted to get more closely involved in engineering so she took advantage of an internal transfer in order to practice building services engineering at one of Arup's 'Buildings London' groups.

Here she found her niche and her post graduate degree was an MSC in building services with London South Bank University which she studied part time while working at Arup. This was a particularly challenging time for her since she was also a mechanical engineer on the large and challenging Kings Cross redevelopment project.

Nonetheless, Angela graduated with a distinction and entered the CIBSE ASHRAE Graduate of the Year Award which she won last year.

Spelling out the need to help communities

This year's CIBSE ASHRAE Graduate of the Year, Lee Tabis, is an electrical design engineer at NG Bailey. He won by successfully addressing the issue: 'How I will help to engineer better communities'. Lee split his presentation into five key elements.

Collaboration. He emphasised the importance of working together, adopting a multi-disciplinary approach and compromising in order to find the most effective solution: 'As an Institution, we have a responsibility to collaborate, continuously sharing knowledge and experience and regularly tapping into our pool of talented engineers.'

Initiatives. Lee said financial constraints affected the number of projects we could win and impacted on our ability to incorporate technologies such as renewable energy. This meant it was important to be aware of available initiatives, support the use of renewable energy, become a more financially viable option for clients and strive to improve the life-cycle costs of their buildings.

'I intend to keep up to date with available initiatives and ensure projects include the best possible options in renewable technologies. I believe this will help improve the outlook of the building and our communities as a whole.'

Balance. 'Renewable technologies are not a quick fix for a better community. Recent projects highlight the difficulty of accurately estimating energy demands for buildings. Recent news also highlights the consequences of not coping with future power demands, with potential power-cuts possible as soon as 2015.

'This demonstrates the importance of efficiency and balance [for example, where there is a complex comprising a mix of studios, apartments and restaurants where there may be a big deviation in energy demands at different times of the day]. It is important to rationalise energy consumption by, for example, adopting a community-wide approach.'

Sustainability. 'Identifying the energy needs of our community is only part of the overall solution. We also need to look at how we provide this energy with the most suitable sustainable energy solution [which might include combined heat and power, photovoltaics and natural ventilation].'

Lee was particularly keen to encourage large, community-wide schemes: 'I plan to use every opportunity available to influence developers to incorporate these concepts when designing new communities.'

Education. 'We all have a responsibility to maintain an attitude to improve and adapt with the times and to develop ourselves and those around us using all available resources. I am extremely passionate about training, particularly providing engineers of the future with the greatest possible opportunity to mature and grow.'

He concluded by stressing the importance of continuing to promote our industry and provide the greatest learning environment for young engineers with both practical and theoretical work: 'This will help develop the versatile, multi-disciplined engineers we will need for the future.'
8 November 2012

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