And the winner is …

This week, Metric Views takes a look at a recent awards ceremony in the construction industry.

Blame the Oscars. Nowadays, it seems not a week goes by without a presentation ceremony, as one group after another publicly recognises the achievements of its members. And this phenomenon is not limited to the entertainment business. Even construction is bidding for attention:  the presentation of the British Construction Industry Awards took place on 9 October and then, later in the month, it was the turn of the Consultants of the Decade Awards promoted by the Association of Consultancy and Engineering (ACE).

Examination of the ACE’s six awards shows an interesting pattern:

Award for outstanding achievement.
Winner: Keith Clarke CBE
Citation includes: “But it is his achievements over the last 10 years including the rescue and stabilisation of Atkins which stand out. … Key to this was his drive into the Middle East where key projects included the multi-billion pound Dubai Metro.”

Award for specialist consultant of the decade.
Winner: HR Wallingford (once known as the Hydraulics Research Station)
Citation includes: “Three years ago HR Wallingford branched out into water and floods advice globally, winning work in south Asia, the Americas and Africa and it expanded its maritime and energy business in the Middle East and Australia … HR Wallingford is now a true global specialist with 58% of its revenue last year coming from overseas …”

Award for UK consultant of the decade.
Winner: Arup
Citation includes: “With over 11 000 staff in offices across the UK and around the globe …”

Award for global consultant of the decade.
Winner: Mott MacDonald
Citation includes: “With over 75% of its staff working on projects overseas, a portfolio of projects in 140 countries and offices in 50 of them, it is truly ‘a global consultant with a UK HQ’ ….”

Award for small and medium sized consultant of the decade.
Winner: Tony Gee
Citation includes: “… working on some of the biggest and most technically demanding projects around the world including … Stonecutters Bridge in Hong Kong … . Business has continued to grow over the decade with income from the UK and overseas, primarily the Middle East and Asia. Last year the company expanded its office in Hong Kong and also opened a new base in Abu Dhabi.”

And the pattern? Yes. You’ve guessed. A theme through the awards is of overseas involvement. Only the citation of the award for young consultant of the decade, won by Sarah Royse of RES Advisory, does not include mention of overseas activity, but there is still plenty of time for this to change.

This pattern not limited to consultancy and engineering. For example, Sir Norman Foster, now Lord Foster, was appointed architect for the reconstruction of the Reichstag or Parliament Building in Berlin after re-unification and for architectural embellishment of Millau Viaduct in France, designed by French Engineer, Michel Virlogeux.

But what has this to do with the UK’s prolonged metric transition?

Older readers may recall that construction was one of the first industries in the UK to make the metric changeover. The decision to go metric was announced in 1968. Metric standards, codes and design tables began to appear in design offices in 1969 and the first metric jobs began construction on site in 1970. The changeover was largely complete by 1975. Without this carefully planned and thorough adoption of the international system of measures (SI) it is difficult to see how construction professionals – engineers, architects and surveyors – could have continued to do business in an increasingly metric world, much less achieved the dramatic expansion of business seen over the past three decades as reflected in the ACE awards.

This is confirmed by the frequent takeovers of UK firms by would-be global consultants in the USA as reported in the past by MV. As recently as September, US consulting giant Jacobs paid £765 million for Australian engineering consultant SKM – SKM has significant operations in Australia, Asia, South America and the UK.

For its presentation ceremony next year, ACE may wish to consider a new award: UK construction innovation of the century. We believe there is already a clear winner: the metric changeover, 1968-75.

12 thoughts on “And the winner is …”

  1. The USA is becoming increasingly marginalised in its refusal to go metric, especially in the construction industry, and the only way it can maintain its presence in a metric world is to buy or otherwise work with firms in metric countries. It is fortunate that in this respect, the UK construction industry has a world-wide reputation for being metric.

    Many years ago, when living in Canada (where the construction industry there also spearheaded the country’s metric conversion), I was retained as a consulting QS by SOM (then known as Skidmore Owings and Merrill), in Chicago, who were designing an office block in the Middle East. The ME client wanted the prestige of SOM, but the contract required the use of a consulting QS, something that the Americans are deficient in (although today, unlike back then, many British QS firms now have offices in major US cities). While I wasn’t the main QS, I did do some preliminary work in SOM’s offices for a few days helping them lay out the building in rational metric units, after they had done the preliminary design in imperial (and soft converted all the dimensions into metres – not millimetres – to umpteen decimal places!). SOM had looked to Canada to fill that gap in their expertise, knowing that QSs in Canada also worked in the metric system.

    Reasons like this are why it is imperative that all sectors of the UK are not only metric, but are seen to be metric – road signs included.


  2. I know very little about the construction industry, but have to comment that it is a great shame that the real estate side of the industry, the public face, is to a large extent stubbornly non-metric and sometimes anti-metric. They still use m² for office space as requiered by law I believe, but ft² (if at all) for domestic space. Do I miss something here? Would a simple change in law rectify that overnight? Would it not be easier to use all the same measurements anyway? What I do not miss is just how stupid (and ‘stupid’ is putting it mildly), this looks to me and presumeably any overseas buyer looking to invest in this country.
    The circle goes round again, the country needs the ordinary people of this land to use metric, think metric, do metric in work rest and play. A piecemeal approach is just not working, never will work and never could work.
    The government on the other hand not only will not change any laws, nor even a viewpoint, but actually want, request and require this silly mess to continue.
    Diverging to the wider topic of winners, top marks goes to the BBC 2 ‘Autumn Watch’ programme this week, almost fully metric, and about as close as they could get, even using in most cases km instead of miles. This all the better in a live, off the cuff programme. I am not sure they all understand it, but at least it is there, all the better for doing it.
    Well done, 9 out of 10 for that one.


  3. @BrianAC
    It is even more stupid than that. Roads are designed and built in metric, then speed and distance signs in imperial are erected because metric ones are banned. Buildings are designed and built in metric, then re-measured so that they can advertised in imperial. Apparently, “Offices 1200 sq. ft, £60 000 pa” is legal, as it is a description. “Offices £50/sq. ft” is not, as it is covered by the price marking regulations.
    I sometimes think that, without pro-active support from the Government, the British measurement muddle could go on indefinitely. As you might expect, the Government believes otherwise.


  4. I travel quite a lot around Europe and see a lot of road signs in the process. I find British road signs on the whole to be well designed and aesthetically pleasing to look at. Like the UK’s roads, the road signs are also designed in metric units. The total nonsense is the fact that these road signs still display ‘imperial’ units of measurement when virtually the entire UK economy has shifted to metric and metric has been the standard system taught in schools for around forty years. Most British people are completely baffled if you ask them ‘how many yards (or feet, or inches) are there in a mile?’ and will often reply that you don’t need to understand that to drive on the road. Well, perhaps you don’t. But is that not like saying that imperial is so meaningless in modern life that we do not even understand it ourselves any more (if we ever did). Returning from a continental voyage to the UK often seems like a journey back into the past. I honestly don’t know how continental HGV drivers manage with miles, feet and inches on our roads. I often think they just ignore the signs, assuming they know the national speed limit equals 112 km/h. That cannot be a recipe for safe roads. Just when will our politicians bring our road signs into the 21st century?


  5. I’m a Brit who has lived in Australia for twenty years. Two years ago I returned to Europe for a short holiday. I hired cars when I was in England and in Italy. Despite my limited knowledge of Italian, unfamiliarity with driving on the right side and kamikaze bikers on the road I found the experience of driving in Italy far more pleasurable than England due to the logical metric road signs for speed limits and distances.


  6. I recall when the BBC “One-show” did an item on the metric/imperial muddle. In that they talked about Concorde and how they allegedly managed with British engineers working in imperial while the French worked in metric. With the help of the chief test pilot (who ought to have known better) they came to the absurd conclusion that it was perfectly OK.
    I wonder what happened in the case of the channel tunnel. Anyone know?


  7. @philh
    The UK construction industry had largely completed its metric changeover by 1975. So when an, ultimately successful, attempt to build a channel tunnel began in 1987 the only contest was between older and newer versions of the metric system. The French and British tunnel drives met on 30 October 1990, and the difference in their centre lines was 358 mm horizontally and 58 mm vertically.


  8. In my experience, mechanical engineering design in the UK has also been completely metric since the mid 70s. In fact, I was partly responsible for my employer’s standardisation programme.

    My company (a US business) started life designing products using customary units (the US equivalent of imperial). When it wanted to expand sales outside the US, it came to the UK to take advantage of favourable design, production and sales opportunities.

    The first products sold outside the US had to be converted first to non-US electrical power requirements, then paper sizes and finally nuts, bolts, bearings sheet metal thicknesses, etc. etc. plus displays and manuals in non-English languages for world markets.

    People around the world demand the best products at the lowest possible prices. This demand can only be met by adherence to common standards, SI, ISO and all the rest. If we fail to recognize this, especially in our education system, we are failing our children’s generation.


  9. And the loosers ..
    I have just been looking at replacing my home radiators.
    It seems they are still rated in Btu, somewhat less than helpful, that means absolutely stuff-all to anyone.
    I am not going to bother with any conversions, why should I?
    Just what does it take to start talking sense?
    Something else I will have to buy when next in France.
    Get up to speed you loosers.


  10. I recently replaced my boiler. I calculated the likely heating load based on knowing that a 3 kW fan heater would heat any room very quickly. When I researched boilers I discovered that Potterton was still advertising its products in BTU. Like BrianAC I not only couldn’t be bothered to do the conversion, I didn’t see why I should, so this British manufacturer never even joined the competition for my custom. The winner was an 18 kW German model.


  11. Regarding boilers, gas bills are given in kW.h (which can then be compared with electricity consumption), so why are not all appliances that use gas also quoted in kW?


  12. @Robert
    Spot on there. The boilers are in kW, the radiators in Btu, not very helpful.
    As it happened I did have to bite the bullet. I found that one gave the kW values quite correctly in the specifications table, others less than good.
    But as pointed out, electric heaters, boilers and pretty much everything else, even car engines are rated in kW, so just what is the problem with domestic radiators? Can anyone in the trade explain why, if boilers are rated in kW and only kW for many years now, do you need the radiator value in Btu? Even the domestic heating calculation tables are largely Btu, requiring that good old British tradition of converting the units before calculation! When will people realise that by using all the same related units, conversions become un-necessary and life gets easier.
    I did discover though that as near as dammit, 1 Btu is equal to 1 kj, so maybe the unit was not as daft as I have been thinking, it works if you convert it to metric!


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