Peter Head OBE

Doctor of Engineering

14 July 2008 – Orator: Professor David Muir-Wood

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, Peter Head

When Peter Head delivered the Arup Lecture in 2007, the largest lecture theatre in the Faculty of Engineering was full to capacity (and beyond) to hear him speak about ‘Dong Tan – eco-city’. To be able to develop an entire Chinese city (or two) on sustainable principles requires a special engineering skill.

Peter Head was born in 1947 and educated at Imperial College where he is recalled as studious and focussed. Perhaps his choice of civil engineering can be linked back to major earthworks on Cornish beaches as a child: his school careers advisor had never heard of the subject.

We are told that today’s graduates can expect to have several distinct careers during their working lives. Peter has engaged in a number of novel areas of civil engineering design of which sustainable urban development is just the most recent. The first three decades of his career were dedicated primarily to bridge design and construction working with Freeman Fox and then Maunsell. The visible outcomes of civil engineering that bridges provide may have inspired some of today’s graduates: si monumentum requiris circumspice.

Following the report on several dramatic failures of steel box girder bridges, produced by a Committee of Inquiry chaired by a former Vice-Chancellor of this university, Sir Alec Merrison, new design standards were introduced in 1973. Peter was responsible for putting these standards into effect on the Avonmouth Bridge – some of us may have cursed at the delays which resulted.

Inevitably any career in engineering is scattered with projects that might have been. In Peter’s case there was the design of steel cable-stayed bridge spans for the EuroRoute fixed link across the English Channel. Would a Channel Bridge have been more commercially successful than the Tunnel? We will never know. The Second Severn Crossing and Kap Shui Mun bridge in Hong Kong were indeed constructed. His proposals for wind shielding on the Dartford crossing were turned down with the consequence that the bridge has to close in conditions that the Second Severn Crossing (which includes Peter’s wind protection) can tolerate.

When you travel you probably imagine that the bridges over or under which you pass are made from steel or concrete with possibly the odd timber bridge thrown in. Plastic may seem an unlikely material for a structure but if it can be used for an aircraft such as the Airbus A380 then why not for a bridge? – and for the same reasons: to reduce the weight for a given strength. Peter’s enthusiasm for the structural use of plastics stemmed in fact from a chance remark from a naval architect: the benefits of interaction with other disciplines are clear.

The world’s first plastic foot bridge was built across the River Tay for Aberfeldy Golf Club in 1990 with a length of around 113m. Designed by Peter Head with Maunsell Structural Plastics, it is remarkable for its use of plastic throughout – deck, towers, support cables. The resistance to the use of structural plastics from the construction industry – which saw it as a threat rather than an opportunity – was avoided by using the voluntary labour of final year students at Dundee University who relished the possibility of building an unorthodox bridge under Peter’s direction. The combination of the lightness of the units and a clever method of construction meant that no on-site craneage was required. The novelty of the project attracted interest from ‘Tomorrow’s World’ who filmed the launching of the deck on a very wet day in a very wet summer – adding an extra dimension to an already intricate procedure. The launch took place during the brief lull provided by the eye of a deep depression passing over Aberfeldy and was given Wagnerian divine blessing by a tremendous clap of thunder. Were there Tay-maidens disporting in the rising waters of the river below?

In recognition of his contributions to bridge design and the use of structural plastics he was awarded the Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal for an outstanding contribution to British engineering, 1995; the Prince Philip Award for Polymers in the Service of Mankind, 1996 and the OBE for services to Bridge Engineering, 1998. Also in 1998 he became just the second British engineer to receive the Laureate of the Award of Merit of the International Association of Bridge and Structural Engineers for outstanding contribution to the world-wide construction industry.

Having become Chief Executive of Maunsell in 1997 and having played some part in the merger which led to the creation of Faber Maunsell, he moved to Arup in 2004 to lead their work on Planning and Integrated Urbanism, and took up the challenge of sustainable development in which he had become interested while overseeing the construction of the Second Severn Crossing.

According to the Chinese Minister of State Environmental Protection Agency ‘China’s current development is ecologically unsustainable, and the damage will not be reversible once higher GDP has been achieved.’ Is it possible to develop a new city in China with an ecological footprint close to the global earth share of two hectares per person? Peter Head is confident – and high level government to government agreements have given the project at Dong Tan, covering some 8,400 hectares in the mouth of the Yangtze, very high prestige and publicity.

What does it need to lead such a project? In Peter’s case, unwavering conviction and preparedness to turn life upside down in order to shuttle round the world to work alongside a demanding client. ‘Conviction management’ combined with a technical thoroughbred is a winner, making things happen against all odds (provided there is a loyal team prepared to keep the pieces in order when he sails close to the technical edge).

For him the future of cities lies not in the dystopian ‘Blade Runner’ image which has prevailed in the past few decades but with sustainable mixed development. Locally relevant frameworks are needed to improve long-term social, environmental and economic conditions. For example, systems solutions are required to integrate resource requirements of energy, transport, food, water. Putting this credo into effect in developing a new city on a more or less green field site near Shanghai is one sort of challenge. In another project to turn a collection of villages outside Beijing into a second eco-city, Peter has demonstrated that it is possible, with mixed development, to obtain the required population and commercial output with vastly reduced resource consumption.

Peter was Chairman of the London First Sustainability Unit and, at the request of the Mayor, became a Commissioner on the newly formed London Sustainable Development Commission in 2002. Trying to inject a spirit of sustainability into the juggernaut that is the London Olympics is rather different from the construction of a new city – what chance is there that the 2012 Olympics will be a ‘carbon-neutral event’? And converting Victorian cities into models of sustainability? Peterborough and Bristol are mentioned as possible targets for the sustainable make-over: Peter relishes the challenge.

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, if he had arrived in Bristol at Brunel’s Temple Meads railway station this morning, Peter Head might have noticed a nearby public house called the ‘Reckless Engineer’ – at first sight a disappointing juxtaposition for members of the profession. No-one would suggest that Peter has been careless or rash in his engineering but he has certainly been prepared to venture into areas of civil engineering that others never reach. Peter is ever the optimist, always courteous, backs his staff and is a good colleague to all. One interview begins: ‘On first glance, you might mistake him for … a kindly bank manager. But looks … can be deceptive. Peter Head … is that rare breed, a law-abiding revolutionary.’ Tolerant and understanding on the surface, robust and resilient underneath: he is a model to all of us in his energetic campaigning for what he believes in and for what we all know is essential for our future.

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Peter Richard Head as eminently worthy of the award of the degree of Doctor of Engineering honoris causa.

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