An engineer’s perspective on the state of global infrastructure design
March 31, 2017
Geotechnical engineer Peter Chamley is Arup’s global leader for infrastructure. I spoke with him about the current state of infrastructure design and the changes we’re likely to see in the future.
What trends do you see in infrastructure design today? How do they vary from region to region?
Right now there’s a significant number of major projects happening around the world. Overall, the projects seem to be getting bigger, almost as if clients feel if they’re going to deliver something, it should be big and impressive.
But there are different needs in different environments, of course, and even if there are some global trends, the solutions can’t be one-size-fits-all. There’s the new world, places where they are putting new systems in for the first time. There are the countries that are still developing their infrastructure, extending their logistics systems: Australia, places like Melbourne and Sydney. And finally you come to the old world of Europe, North America. In some ways that’s the most difficult, because we are replacing or adding to the aging systems a little bit at a time.
Over the next 10 to 20 years, I think we’ll see growth in terms of both the size and complexity of infrastructure projects, specifically urban infrastructure projects. In order to respond, firms like Arup need to think about both design and procurement. We’re seeing a continuing move towards design-build contracts as well as P3 [public-private partnership] and private financing. This makes the planning stage all the more important. As trusted advisors, we should be able to not just design infrastructure but also take a blank sheet of paper and turn it into the business case for, say, a metro line.
We need to be asking the relevant questions: Where are the key population areas? Where are people working? Where can the metro be a development kick-starter? Where do people want to come from and go to on a regular basis? Where are the areas that can be regenerated? We need to look holistically at the developing opportunities that can be tied into a need for transport and think about how we can create a service that delivers more than just moving people from A to B. How can the metro be much more than just a transportation system — how can it create employment, allow housing development, or be the catalyst for investment?
You worked for a contractor early in your career. How has that influenced your approach to infrastructure design?
Before joining Arup, I worked for a German firm called Bauer, who I refer to as the Mercedes-Benz of piling contractors. I was their UK contract manager. That experience really stuck with me. Designing and building together, I think that’s the closest you can get to Ove’s vision of total design — which makes sense, because he started as a contractor too.
Personally, I really enjoy working with contractors to produce a design that’s easy to build. The first questions designers ask should be, “How do you want to build this? What equipment do you want to use? What is more important, time or materials?” Too many designers really, really do not understand the value of time. In a construction project, time is often the most expensive commodity — not materials, but time. So as designers we need to remember that efficiency doesn’t only exist in the materials, it exists in the construction process too.
How does this kind of dynamic typically play out on an infrastructure project? Can you give me an example where you think that considering the contractor’s needs has led to major benefits for an infrastructure project?
Well, the project here in New York that I’ve been most proud of is the No. 7 Line extension. The MTA [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] wanted to extend the existing 7 subway line from Times Square out to the new Hudson Yards development. We were hired as the designer to the contractor and put in charge of all initial ground-support elements, including three shafts, the 70-foot-wide 34th Street station cavern, two interlocking caverns, starter and tail tunnels, and numerous adits.
The construction calendar was very tight. The first question we asked the contractor was, “What equipment are you going to use to put in the rock bolts?” Their response was, “Why do you want to know that?” So we explained: “Well, if you tell us what length of rock bolt you can put in, we’ll design all the rock bolts to match that piece of kit rather than making you go find the equipment that will fit the design.”
Unsurprisingly, their response was, “Nobody has ever asked us that before.” But it was good for us and good for them, and ultimately good for New York. It’s not usually a big ask for us to design within contractor parameters if we start that way from the beginning, and the benefits are often huge.
How has technology changed infrastructure projects during your career? What changes do you foresee in the coming years?
For one, technology has helped geotechnical engineers significantly improve our knowledge and understanding, along with our ability to predict what the ground is going to do. When I first started we were OK at that. Several decades on, the computers are much more sophisticated, so we’re now immeasurably better at prediction.
The downside is that we’re in danger of losing some of our ability to analyze things for ourselves and use judgment. There seem to be far fewer engineers who have ability to engage eyeball and brain, and make a decision; instead we see a lot of people saying, “I’ve got a computer and the computer says no.”
Another technology-driven change is that whereas tunneling was once a very dangerous, very hard graft for a team of manual laborers, it’s now probably the most high-tech area of civil engineering. The tunnel-boring machine, the TBM, is absolutely the most sophisticated piece of kit. We can now safely construct tunnels in ground that 30 years ago would’ve been impossible. There are relatively few sets of ground conditions where tunneling is very difficult now. The size of tunnel that we can now construct is also way beyond what it was before, which opens up countless design opportunities.
And finally in all aspects of infrastructure design, and rail especially, we’ve become much more engaged with data analytics. On Crossrail, which is a giant rail project in London, during the construction, thousands of ground-movement sensors are being monitored. Initially I was concerned that we were just going to get data overload and we wouldn’t be able to see the woods for the trees, so we took a step back and we asked ourselves, “What can we do with modern-day analytics?” We teamed up with a bunch of really smart guys in a firm called QuantumBlack. Together, we created a tool for looking at ground-movement information in a way that nobody had ever done it before. We call it AIM — adaptive instrumentation monitoring. We’re getting to where it can teach itself using machine-learning techniques, which allows us to make very accurate predictions about what movement will take place.
But I want to do more with data. We’ve got to get a better handle on using it. Previously, data was expensive. Now that it’s cheap, having it isn’t a very big deal. It’s what you do with it and what insight you can create that really sets you apart.