A bit of nostalgia

Some pictures from the second site that I worked on, as a student, in 1963.The project was to lay a twin 24 inch (pre-metric) diameter spun iron pipe line to take the Monkland Canal and clear space for the Townhead Interchange in the North side of Glasgow. This involved pipe laying in open trenches and in timber headings under roads and railways. I did much of the setting out.



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Above is the site manager or site agent as he was titled. This was Charles Arthur Robinson. Better known as Big Charlie standing at almost 6'6'' Charlie at that time seemed to be everything I could never be: big and athletic. He was Britain's Basketball Team Captain. The attributes that made him a leader in sport also shone through at work.

His personality was as big as he was and he had a commanding presence. He was well able to direct the workforce and manage the plant and machinery. He was a manager that achieved and each day he had the site strive to do more than it had the day before. He also had the ability to engage with the Resident Engineer, the design staff that we interfaced with and the representatives of the client. No one intimidated him and he dealt with them as equals.

He was at his best directing the labour force, not usually known for their intellectual capacities, but Charlie could always motivate them to work well, willingly and effectively and he also dealt with indiscretions of the workers in a skilful way. I learned a lot about management of people from Charlie.

He also taught me the fundamentals of construction management. What mattered was that the work was done for less than the cost estimate. Working methods that drove productivity and delivered a quality output first time were at the top of the agenda.

Working methods, productivity, quality, planning, estimating and cost control were the principles of construction management then and now. To underpin these a motivated workforce is essential. I first learned of these from Charlie. I look at construction management now and I see the same principles being applied. Sometimes the applications are dressed in some modern language but the principles remain the same: working methods, productivity, quality, planning, estimating, cost control and workforce motivation.

Once I set out a timber heading under a railway line 8.5” (ie inches) high. Halfway through driving the heading I discovered this. I confessed to Charlie. The next half hour has been eradicated from my mind! Then we sat down and worked out the solution. We were driving the heading on an upward incline so that water would flow away from the face.The solution was from the halfway point we would drive horizontally. The pipes would go in higher than designed at the entrance to the heading but exit the heading at the design level.In effect we changed the gradient of the pipeline through the heading. Being a pressurised system this would not interfere with the functioning of the pipeline. I was then left with the duty of walking across the site, down the shaft, up the heading and informing the miners that we were changing the levels that they were using to drive the heading. In a confined space 6’0” wide, 5’0” high with three large miners explaining my error was a ‘learning experience’. But that was the end of it. Other than Charlie, the miners and myself no one else was informed. I was not subjected to ridicule. Charlie had taught me about taking responsibility.


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The three gentlemen above are, left to right, Big Ned the site foreman, Paddy who made us tea and looked after the house keeping and Pat Duffin who tried to teach me to drive that truck.


My memory of Big Ned was when he said to me 'If you want to be a leader of men'-this was not insensitivity to gender differences but simply all his workforce were male-'If you want to be a leader of men, you've got to know what you want to do and impose yourself!' My response at the time was 'well Ned when you are as big as you are you'll have no difficulty in imposing yourself, some of us are less advantaged'.


Years later in academia Ned's words came back to my memory too frequently. There are two elements to his advice 1) know what you want to do and 2) impose yourself. It seemed that academic managers were keener on element 2) and less assured on element 1). This allowed me on numerous occasions to politely pose the question 'what is it you are trying to achieve'. Too often the reply was less than convincing.


My experiences on site as a young student engineer and later on Hinckley Point B Nuclear Power Station and the Invergordon Aluminium Smelter, working with some inspirational people, fired my lifelong enthusiasm for construction. Upstream of the Big Neds and the Big Charlies there is only paperwork, drawings, specs, contracts but downstream there is real physical entities created by the act of construction. Nothing could be more exciting than creating something that wasn't there before you and your colleagues constructed it.

Moving to academia (where I never intended to stay) I invented my own version of grounded theory which was to visit construction sites as often as possible. Not to collect data or conduct a specific study but to observe, to absorb , to fraternise with the site staff and the workforce. To understand the industry and its challenges was a necessary backdrop to more specific teaching and research. Some academics seem to shy away from contact with industry claiming they don't want to be overly influenced in their research. This is completely beyond my understanding. It has lead to some interesting times at conferences when the latest solution to a perceived industry problem is presented and opened the opportunity to ask' when were you last on a construction site'. Too frequently the reply has been embarrassing. I worry about the content of such staff's teaching and what is passed onto the next generation. I know that it is essential that all construction academics visit construction sites frequently just to become familiar with and undestand the industry they are dedicated to improving by providing good quality graduates and through their research. In my early years as an academic visiting students on their industrial placement provided the ideal opportunity, later having built a network of senior construction staff  I found it easy to pick a project and ask for a visit.These experiences shaped my teaching and research.


It seems to me that it is unarguable that the objective in construction and construction management research is to influence industry and change practice. That is why the UK has, at last, in their 2013 research assessment exercise created a section to present the impact of research. The weight of this element will be bigger in the next research exercise. This has been late in being included and should be welcomed.  Construction research without impact on the industry isn't research.