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“…That great, far sighted engineer, who probably did more good, saved more lives, than any single Victorian public official … Of the great sewer that runs beneath, Londoners know, as a rule, nothing, though the Registrar – General could tell them that its existence has added 20 years to their chance of life.”

Such was written in a London Times obituary, 1891, of Joseph Bazelgette, the Victorian municipal engineer who spearheaded the construction of London’s sewers. Bazelgette, as a civil engineer, offered a tangible and valuable contribution to society. The more you think about it, the more you see the ways in which a profession like civil engineering has the ability to increase life expectancy and quality.

Such are the thoughts of Professor Priyan Dias, a senior Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at Moratuwa University in Sri Lanka. For Dias, it was a combination of an innate understanding of civic responsibility, his aptitude for mathematics and what he sees to be a subliminal influence from his agronomist father, that spurred him to opt for a civil engineering degree.

Education in Sri Lanka is free of charge, providing great social mobility for those from even very grassroots backgrounds. Universities were, and still are, he explains, spheres of political action where keenly felt social disparities are protested. This freedom of education, and the state-given right to explore spheres of knowledge within a serious educational context, spurred Dias further to pursue a PhD in concrete structures and technology from Imperial College, London, equipping him to teach reinforced concrete design at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. It has also resulted in a book of design examples, widely used by practicing engineers in Sri Lanka. A career as an engineering academic was always his preferred choice because of his interest in both teaching and research. “I thought I could interact with industry and make my practical contributions through my consulting practice. I have been fortunate in being able to pursue all these interests through my career at the University of Moratuwa,” he said.

During his tertiary education Dias discovered that analysis, which is a natural extension of mathematics (central to engineering),was a handmaiden to design which involved choice, and where solutions could be better or worse, rather than right or wrong. But the design process, he explains, includes a multitude of uncertainties that must be tamed: “Structural engineering is the art of moulding materials we don’t wholly understand, into shapes we can’t fully analyse, so as to withstand forces we can’t really assess…”

This logic is being put into practice. Dias is now part of a Moratuwa University team that performs independent checks on the design and construction of a 350-metre-tall broadcasting tower (Colombo Lotus Tower), a design and build project undertaken by a Chinese contractor. This is considered a landmark project because it will become the tallest tower in South Asia on ‘topping out’. Dias was invited to head the structural engineering team and made sure that many of his university colleagues with varying expertise – materials, geotechnical, modelling and seismological – were involved. He finds that it has been an interesting learning experience for all concerned, e.g. the relatively new technologies involved, such as foundation excavations over 10 metres deep up to bedrock for a 43 metre diameter foundation with the associated earth retention; and 30 hour continuous concreting operations using five suppliers simultaneously for the foundation.

While the design process is about taming uncertainties as Dias explained earlier, it also requires time-consuming negotiations. “We have learnt that getting the contractor to change their designs depends not only on technical arguments but also on negotiating skill, which in turn is based on a feeling for deviations or changes that will have the greatest impact – in other words, an awareness of the sensitivity of the outcome to changes in the inputs; this is a key ‘systems’ idea,” he says.

“I was involved in two week-long visits to Beijing to discuss concerns with the Chinese designers. I used to joke that the first visit was just to achieve an increase in concrete slab thickness of 5 mm and the second a similar increase in steel mast thickness. There were of course other things we achieved too, but the above changes were fought ‘tooth and nail’ by our counterparts, and demanded all our negotiating skills.”

Checking, in any case, is not an easy task, because like design, it is done with incomplete information. Since the tower mast is particularly tall with respect to the tower itself, members of the team felt that the designers should have performed a separate wind tunnel test only on the mast, in addition to the one performed on the entire structure. The designers demurred, and the compromise made was to commission a much cheaper desk study by the world expert Professor John Holmes, previously of James Cook University and CSIRO. They were fortunate to have on their team Professor Priyan Mendis, an alumnus of Moratuwa University now at The University of Melbourne, to perform a liaising role. This gave Dias et al much greater confidence in the design.

Apart from this, he has undertaken “troubleshooting” type consulting for the construction industry, utilising his expertise to bring solutions to problems in ways that satisfy all parties concerned – the client, the contractor and the project consultant. But his ‘troubleshooting’ skills have also been used in a more literal context. “They once landed me on a site under threat of ‘real’ shooting,” Dias recalls. “This was when I led a three-member team to ascertain whether the fabric of the Jaffna Public Library, in the northern provincial capital of Sri Lanka, could be restored.” The Sri Lankan state was fighting an insurrection in the north at the time, but trying to win the hearts and minds of the population there by rebuilding this iconic symbol, previously damaged by both fire and shelling. The person in charge of the entire project was the then (later assassinated) foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar (a one-time president of the Oxford Union), whose charisma and infectious enthusiasm made it difficult for Dias and the others to decline the invitation to inspect the building. So the three found themselves flying to Jaffna with non-destructive testing equipment in a troop carrier (some of which were known to fall out of the sky due to missile fire or even mechanical malfunction); inspecting the premises while being guarded by sharpshooters on the roof; treated to military hospitality by the Jaffna army commander; and jostling for seats on the return journey among soldiers who had been waiting to get back on home leave after six months of combat!

“I am happy to say that we were able to recommend that the structure could be rebuilt; which it was, and stands once again in iconic splendour, although alas some books lost due to the fire, allegedly instigated by a previous regime even before the conflict, were irreplaceable,” he said.

Any new structure erected today requires consideration of its environmental impact.Environmental sustainability has been another strand of Dias’s research career, and he does indeed note that cement production is environmentally damaging, not only because of relatively large energy costs but also because both the energy consumption and chemical conversion processes release carbon to the atmosphere. Disaster reduction can also be seen as a subset of environmental sustainability he noted, and is another area that he started working on after the tsunami of 2004 devastated many Indian Ocean rim countries – specifically on the vulnerability of structures to tsunami loading.

“Environmental sustainability is high on the list of research and practice priorities for many institutions and funding agencies; and rightly so,” says Dias. “And some gains have been achieved worldwide, I think. The share of renewable energy is moving up, and buildings are indeed getting ‘greener’ in both construction and operation,” he suggests.On the operational side, he says that financial benefits have been driving the ‘change to green’. However on the construction side, making a building ‘greener’ or more disaster resilient will require investments that may not have tangible personal benefits. It’s about the tragedy of the commons. The construction industry may not want to incur the additional costs, especially in cash strapped economies, because using renewable or recycled materials may actually cost more while being slightly inferior; and the benefits would accrue to the earth or humankind, as opposed to individuals. “It is difficult to incentivize against the tragedy of the commons,” he says.

Looking at environmental sustainability from a community-level, he questions whether lifestyle changes are perhaps the more important ones. If the average dwelling area per person is increasing, should we perhaps be taking small measures such as utilising public transport, walking more often or using less power throughout the day. Professor Dias reduces his carbon footprint by using public transport, albeit with some difficulty in Sri Lanka where the transport facilities are poor and car travel is seen as a status symbol. “It helps to be a professor though in pursuing a slightly counter-cultural lifestyle,” he says.

At present, while most of his research is in the ‘systems thinking’ area, now that he is a senior academic it is time for him to play some elder-statesman roles, one of which is the promotion of research, both through strategic research funding and the recognition of research performance. He is Director of Research at Moratuwa University, sits on Sri Lanka’s National Research Council, and also tries to help maintain the status of the university by helping graduates to target the best universities in the world for their graduate studies – over the past decade or so Moratuwa’s Civil Engineering Department has been averaging one PhD scholarship per year from Cambridge University for its best graduates.

“Encouraging younger academics and helping them to build their research careers is something else I do,” he says. He headhunts not only the brightest and best but also those who see the value of doing excellent work out of resource-poor conditions. He is happy to report that he has had some success in recruiting them as Moratuwa academics.

As an educationalist, Professor Dias says that he would tell students and young graduates to embrace hardship and do the ‘hard yards’ before thinking of fame and fortune. The latter set often depend on the former, and the former is of value in its own right. One such obstacle is that schools in Sri Lanka teach in Sinhala and Tamil, and therefore when students reach university, their English is not up to standard. But Professor Dias insists that those who tackle head on the hardships involved in following engineering courses delivered in English, far away from the comforts of home, often outshine their peers from more comfortable backgrounds, going on to secure doctorates from the best universities in the world.

“Engineering students and graduates also need to find ways to account for the ‘big picture’ and be aware of systemic interactions,” he says.

“They need to be prepared to think philosophically and strategically about whatever they do. They are after all, the intellectual heirs of people like Joseph Bazelgette and Isambard Kingdom Brunel (the bridge engineer who was second only to Winston Churchill as the greatest Briton of all time in Britain’s millennial poll), who solved some of the biggest problems faced by humans.”

From the bridges we drive over and irrigation systems that revitalise our agriculture, to transport systems and other infrastructure that is an intrinsic part of our lives and wellbeing, the work of civil engineers is indispensable.

featured image: dronepicr, Colombo sunset aerial Pano / FlickrCC