Article - Issue 56, September 2013
Professor Chris Wise FREng
Professor Chris Wise FREng
From being a director at of one of the world’s leading engineering businesses, Chris Wise decided to go it alone 14 years ago and set up a small engineering operation with big ambitions. He tells Michael Kenward how he has, and always will, advocate the value of being unconventional.
The waiting area of Expedition Engineering’s office on Regent Street in London is scattered with awards recognising the impressive achievements of Chris Wise and his colleagues. There are none of the glass-fronted display cabinets that many companies prefer, and many of these awards – the ones for the Olympic Velodrome and Stockton’s Infinity Bridge, for example – are tucked away at the back of bookshelves.
Wise’s muted approach to these public successes matches his own description of himself as having gathered an “embarrassment of key personal awards”. Among the projects that Expedition has undertaken are international ones such as the Las Arenas in Barcelona, a restoration of a disused bullring that the company carried out. Expedition worked with architect Renzo Piano on the green HQ tower for Turin’s Intesa Sanpaolo Bank and in Athens on the new Greek national Library and Opera. The company was also involved with the Thames Cable Car in London as well as conducting R&D for human-powered transport in the US.
Some of his career favourites are the UK projects such as the Arup/Foster collaboration for the American Air Museum, at Duxford. “And I love the Millennium Bridge in London,” he says. “I am also really proud of the Infinity Bridge that crosses the Tees in Stockton,” pointing over his shoulder to a large photograph on the office wall of an elegant footbridge – which featured in Infinity Crosses The Tees, Ingenia 43.
While it is the architects who often get the publicity and the prizes for major constructions such as these, such projects would not be possible without structural engineers. But what do these kinds of engineers do? “I think of it as a spatial discipline,” says Wise. “You are responsible for generating and creating the three-dimensional space in which everything happens. You have to conceive it, you have to put it there, you have to hold it there.”
The Infinity Bridge in Stockton, designed by Expedition. The 230m-long concrete walkway across the Tees is supported by a pair of asymmetric steel arches
IN THE BEGINNING
He may have had a significant impact on structural engineering, but Wise says that he stumbled into the profession after school. Wise’s father was an architect and at that time, in the mid-1970s, this field was going through one of its periodic recessions, so he counselled his son against an architectural career. Instead, a careers advisor at school suggested that, with his evident ability in maths and science, he should study civil engineering. Wise went to Southampton for what he describes as: “a less-than-inspiring engineering degree course”, an experience that influenced his later determination to do something about the education of engineers.
School and university gave him the opportunity to play plenty of rugby, once vying with fellow-student John Inverdale for the same full-back position, and cricket – which he has played for the last 40 years, as an opening bowler at the same club. While on his degree course, he got to know and work with his mentor, Peter Taylor of Gifford, who was also engineer-in-charge of the fabric of Salisbury Cathedral. Wise’s involvement with the cathedral led to a student thesis that may have had a positive influence on his early career.
On graduation, Wise was surprised to have several job offers to pick from. He joined Ove Arup and Partners in 1979. “I accepted Arup’s offer because they were the only people who had done anything that I had heard of, the Sydney Opera House.” As a young engineering recruit, Wise had no say in what sort of engineering he could work on. Thanks perhaps to the cathedral project, Arup decided Wise was destined to work in ‘structures’. “It wasn’t through choice,” he adds. “I could have been selected for geotechnics, industrial engineering, or railways or any variety of options.”
While it may have been serendipity that turned Wise ‘structural’, it was clearly a good career move. His ascent within Arup was swift. In 1992, he became Arup’s youngest director, going on to become one of five board directors responsible for 500 engineers and support staff.
At Arup, he worked with such leading architects as Lord Foster and Lord Rogers, a relationship that continues to this day, although Wise dislikes pigeonholing people as engineers and architects. He sees no clear dividing line between the two disciplines. In many cases, he says, “the engineering is the architecture. If you’re taking on the not insignificant challenge of making a big three-dimensional space and stopping it falling down, understanding the physical drivers and making it beautiful is fundamentally the engineer’s job. In effect, a good piece of engineering is synonymous with the architectural product.”
Wise feels that the education of architects and engineers conspires against this notion. “I do think that their training and our training are not well configured,” he says. “Architects are being de-skilled on technical matters. Engineers are being de-skilled on context and intrinsic physical elegance.” The education of engineers is important to Wise, who is both a teacher and a practitioner. His rising reputation at Arup gave him an opportunity to do something about the state of engineering education. The company, along with the Royal Academy of Engineering, supported his professorship at Imperial College when, in 1998, he became the first Chair of Civil Engineering Design.
Unlike some practising engineers who also teach, Wise’s Chair was a full professorship. “This was important,” he explains. “Unlike a visiting professorship, it gave me some authority within the department. As a full professor, you have a meaningful hand in shaping the curriculum and how to teach it.”
Design review on Chiswick footbridge crit session with Expedition Engineers, 2013
At Imperial College, Wise conceived and co-founded the Constructionarium, an initiative that exposes undergraduates to the real work of engineering, or, as the organisation puts it, “a hands-on construction experience” – see Building To Learn, Ingenia 24. The course continues to this day, and now takes in students from universities throughout the UK.
It may be only one week in a four-year degree course, but it is the only time many students are confronted with the reality of thinking how they would build their designs – creating scaled-down versions of the Millau Viaduct, the Gherkin and other well-known structures. This week at the Constructionarium represents, says Wise, “an injection of reality” into their education. Students learn how to put knowledge gained at university into real-risk practice.
Students aren’t the only people who sometimes need to think about their futures. Around the time he turned 40, Wise’s career went through what some might describe as a mid-life crisis. Most engineers would be happy to be in a position where, as he puts it, “everybody listened to what I was saying as if I was correct”, but Wise says that he felt uncomfortable. “I thought that that was ridiculous.” Maybe it was just because he worked for Arup, “this big organisation which is hugely respected. So if I say something it must be true.” Wise set out to reflect on this idea by taking leave of absence. When his chairman Duncan Michael FREng asked Wise if he would be coming back to Arup, he confessed that he probably wouldn’t and was “immediately, albeit kindly”, shown the door.
The short-held notion of leave of absence came to an end when he was talking to Richard Rogers. The architect was keen to work with Wise, but there was a snag: as Wise reports it, “He said, ‘It’s fantastic that you are on your own, but you will need to have a practice, otherwise we won’t be able to work together”. In other words, it wasn’t just Wise’s position with Arup that made people listen to him after all. “That was very nice because [Rogers] was expressing confidence in me as an individual.”
Soon after, in 1999, Wise set up Expedition with Séan Walsh and Chris Smith – now with developer Argent. Never one to do the expected, it seems, in 2008 Wise, Walsh and Ed McCann, the three remaining shareholders, gave the company over to the benefit of its employees, becoming the Useful Simple Trust. “We wanted to put the future of the whole endeavour into the hands of the people who put the most into it, rather than into the wallets of the people who had founded the place.” Among the new trustees was that same past Arup Chairman, Sir Duncan Michael.
That wasn’t Expedition’s only revolutionary move. The rules of engagement for the new business said, in the first line of the trust deed, that it should be a “trailblazing endeavour”. “We have spent the last four or five years trying to work out what the hell that means!”
In fact, the business has done some trailblazing in its approach to staff development. The company managed to grow through the recession, but when project work was thin on the ground the company decided not to lay staff off, but instead set aside money so that its engineers could think about their future. “In the first year of the recession, we put £400,000 into the pot for people not to work. Instead we said ‘You can come in to the studio on Mondays, but you’re not obliged to do anything’,” says Wise. “We paid them to come in to investigate their own futures.”
The experiment has paid off, giving birth to two new businesses. Useful Simple Projects is a strategic sustainability consultancy, while Think Up focuses on engineering education, inspiring career choices, and skills for sustainable development.
With the engineering practice growing from strength to strength, and branching out into new areas such as education and sustainability consulting, Wise began looking for a way to get back into education. The opportunity came in an invitation from University College London (UCL), where he has doubled his teaching time to two days a week, again as a full professor, working once more with RAEng Visiting Professor of Innovation in Teaching, Ed McCann. “UCL is fertile ground, very enlightened in terms of its undergraduate programmes,” he explains.
Public engagement: Chris Wise worked on the BBC series Building the Impossible. In each episode, Wise, the structural engineer, worked with materials scientists as they attempted to reconstruct an object that hadn’t been built for hundreds of years, if at all. As far as possible, they had to use only the knowledge, technology and materials that were available at the time. Among other projects, they rebuilt the first submarine and foiled Egyptian tomb raiders
IMPORTANCE OF RESEARCH
Wise says that the traditional emphasis on research distorts academic preoccupations today. Over the past 20 or 30 years, an academic’s career has been built around research achievements. “You can’t even become a professor just by being exceptional at teaching.” And yet, for many civil engineering departments, income from teaching now exceeds declining incomes from research. Students now demand something in return from their rising fees, however. “They are becoming increasingly vociferous. If you’re going to teach as a service to your students, you have got to recruit people who can do that. If students are going to pay the best part of £40,000 to be educated over four years, they are right to expect top quality teachers.”
In general, says Wise, universities need to think about their role in providing 21st century engineers. “It is not to provide people who are human calculators who will only have a job for a few years before they are replaced by computers.” That is a very small part of what a contemporary engineer needs to know. “I have argued strongly in favour of T-shaped designers, or even double-T or triple T-shaped designers.” These are people who have a depth of understanding of their own discipline but who can also understand how they can benefit from expertise of other specialists. And those T-shaped people need to join up and encircle problems.
University research may also be less important in civil engineering because it isn’t as important a driving force in innovation as in other disciplines. Many new ideas come from architects, engineers and the construction sector itself. Here, Wise cites the role of architects such as Foster+Partners. “They have really been significant players in developing that sort of front-end research in the built environment.” For example, 20 years ago, the Foster/Arup/Roger Preston team developed the fledgling idea of natural ventilation and daylighting for contemporary buildings and designed it into a revolutionary skyscraper in Frankfurt’s financial area, a conservative sector not normally associated with groundbreaking ideas. With an example like this to point to, other designers had something to show to clients and the idea is now mainstream thinking.
Innovation in construction does not have to be left to imaginative companies. Wise thinks that major public projects could deliver novel thinking as well as essential infrastructure. He points to plans to build the high speed rail link HS2. “These big publicly funded projects have a responsibility to use research and prototyping to deliver more for less, and to be a springboard for the next generation of technology,” he says. “We should go back to first principles and run the HS2 design through as an intellectual exercise,” he insists. “There are many ways we can use contemporary engineering thinking on HS2 so that performance and reliability will improve. It will use less embodied carbon, the operational risk will go down, and negative environmental consequences will be less.”
He is not, though, optimistic that it will happen. “Even as I speak, I can hear people saying, ‘That is all very well. But that would entail a very long programme and then we would have to get approval from everybody all over again.”
Wise would like to see some equally innovative thinking in other areas of structural engineering, in the excessive use of materials, for example. He points to the London office block that Expedition occupies. “You could take 50% of the material out of this building and you would not affect its meaningful performance at all.”
The approach is all wrong, says Wise. “We have just got ourselves into this embarrassing cycle of overdesign with conservatism on conservatism on conservatism. You haven’t got enough people prepared to challenge the big industrial players who just want to sell you as much stuff as possible.” He feels that the industry then institutionalises itself with “a whole raft of commercial structures and commissioning structures” that make it virtually impossible to buck the system.
He is equally agitated by the industry’s failure to do something about the ubiquitous steel girder. With its I-shaped cross section, the design of rolled-steel beams is practically unchanged since it was invented more than a century ago. Given variable flanges, depth and width, perfect steel beams would save between a third and a half of the weight of ordinarily rolled beams, “and they do exactly the same job,” says Wise. “In fact, they do a better job for half the material.” Once again, the resources implications are immense. “For every single beam that gets built anywhere on the planet, half of it is doing absolutely nothing. It could be used in another beam somewhere else.”
Can Wise persuade the steel industry to invest the £25 or £30 million it would cost to set up rolling mills that could roll perfect beams? It is unlikely to happen soon, even though all of the technology already exists. Cultural change does not come easily to something as traditional as the construction sector.
Wise’s growing interest in the bigger picture explains why he no longer sees massive “vanity projects” as the most exciting activities. “I’m getting to the point now where I am not really so interested in just designing glory projects. It’s still great to do them, especially if they can be used as exemplars, but it is much more important to tackle things that are in the mainstream. You have got to hit the mass market.”
An ambition to change the face of civil engineering, and the education of engineers, seems like a tall order for someone whose parting words are “I don’t think of myself as being particularly gifted”. Wise reckons that anyone could do what he has done. “There is nothing particularly cunning about all this. It is just trying not to conform to the expected stereotype too often, without at least thinking there might be another way.”
So, his advice to young engineers is to do something different – take up playing guitar or abstract painting, two of his pastimes – that can then be woven into the day job. “I think it is getting increasingly easy for people with more rounded interests to be engineers, and to be really good engineers at that. Arguably, in the future, they could be the most important ones because they don’t conform.” The last word anyone would use to describe Wise is “conformist”.