London must be the sustained capital of tunnelling, says CH2M director Martin Knights.
“Apart perhaps for China, Singapore and perhaps Hong Kong. I do not see an area of the world where clients have the same confidence, the same funding, or see as clearly the need to continue to invest in major infrastructure projects, especially underground infrastructure.
“A lot of competitor cities are going to be looking at the way London does things; the way it has managed to get the private sector invested in programmes of public works. They realise that we need to get people into and out of the capital efficiently, and that lasting benefits to quality of life only help the city.”
It is of course the politicians that drive these projects, and even the largest scheme is at the mercy of state whims, but repeated successes for the industry breed confidence, and a more reliable pipeline. This is key says Knights, as it allows the industry to invest with a degree of confidence.
“When the industry can recruit people, and train them, as I currently am and have the confidence to do,” says Knights, “there is a surge in confidence and innovation. If you look 20 or 30 years ago, when the industry was stop-start, it is no wonder tunnelling was conservative; no wonder that nobody wanted to invest. We would wait for the next large-scale project to arrive and would provide the same old solutions.”
This confidence in the pipeline allows for more certainty in future planning. Using the UK as an example again; there is currently a minor lull in British work, a gap between site work in the immediate aftermath of Crossrail. However, CH2M has been recruiting on an investment basis.
“There are large programmes of work that require detailed planning, design and engineering from our Practice, as well as construction management requirements I can see the significant pipeline as well, and recruit for the present and the future. There are a lot of good people around at the moment, and investing in their skills is good business for what is coming. If that is taking advantage of the current market, then I am happy because I will be ready for the future.”
The CH2M tunnelling and civil engineering division is about 600 strong. Knights describes it as not unlike a rugby team in effect, recruiting and training good people, mentoring and developing them, and moving them in and out of projects and among business groups that need the resource. On that basis an enduring pool of skilled staff is required, rather than hiring and firing as contracts dictate.
Knights elaborates: “I run a Practice andit`s all about managing talent and excellence with cost, and that is how I would like to be measured. Most of all I care about service to the business groups: water, transportation, energy, who win, own and deliver projects because of our skills Being able to successfully recruit so we have people ready to be deployed on big projects; providing career development so people are being mentored and there is a healthy succession plan within the group.
“The other thing is to nurture the excellence of the historic tunnelling legacy that Halcrow was noted for,” says Knights. “CH2M bought Halcrow in 2011, largely because of its technology and engineering capabilities. Also a lot of our underground projects are located in urban areas and is highly complex. A strong engineering DNA.”
Sometimes CH2M is perceived as a ‘just programme manager’. This is perhaps a residual effect of the work CH2M started doing in the 1950s and 1960s, a period when a lot of US cities did not have the capability to run large programmes of work. CH2M stepped into this role and became known for its work as a supporting arm of clients.
“But the beating heart of the company is this engineering, science, planning, and environmental heritage,” says Knights, “so when we take on the large scale programmes, they are undertaken with the heart and soul of engineering and science as a basis. There is an excellent technical side and capability within the company.”
On this point, more and more of the world’s major infrastructure programmes are placing emphasis on an underground component. This, by its nature, is hugely complex and technical work, and client confidence in a consultancy is absolutely critical. Although the Tunnels and Earth Engineering Practice at CH2M is only 600 people out of a total 26,000, it has increased significance in allowing CH2M to get into urban programmes where these skills will be essential.
“We are very significant to the wider business,” says Knights, “the depth and range that CH2M acquired with the Halcrow legacy, which when added to the legacy CH2M Tunnelling capability, strengthens assertions to clients that they understand the programmes that they are managing. It gives authority to the general delivery of projects.”
Looking to the future
As for the future, CH2M is looking at technologies that will be emerging over the next five years. The industry is encouraged to innovate, “but what is innovation?” asks Knights. Industry must try to recognise when a good idea becomes an innovation, and how to spot technology trends that are coming up in the future.
Occupying the minds of recruiters is who to employ and what skills are needed, as well as which university courses or government-sponsored research establishments to invest in. These are judged on whether they are sharing or promoting technical solutions that might affect underground structures over the next five to 10 years
CH2M for example is co-investing with Cambridge University and other like-minded companies in the Smart Infrastructure Programme, and also research on geopolymer segments at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia.
“If you talk to a pure technologist,” says Knights, “they will say it (innovation) is all about improving material science and developing effective design processes. But innovation can take many forms. A lot of it can be around logistics, or procurement, or even the way client culture permeates projects. Bank Station in London has been groundbreaking in client approach and is all down to the confidence London Underground has, and hopefully other clients can pick up on this. Finally, innovation can come from challenging design codes – if you can get past the lawyers.”
Knights concludes: “I would just like to reiterate that there is a steady pipeline of work for the next 10-15 years, particularly in London. The success of tunnelling in the UK’s capital has attracted more talent into the industry. Crossrail has been in the papers for the right reasons and not the wrong reasons, and the recent BBC documentary shows we are not just men with wheelbarrows.
“Politicians are enthusiastic, there is a new confidence in underground space that is all down to being safe, while delivering on-time and on-budget. That is the difference, the big change that has happened in tunnelling over the last decade. It has raised its image by attending to the simple things, and has effectively been able to communicate that.”