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Interview: Creating a lasting legacy

Just a few months into his chairmanship of the British Geotechnical Association, Martin Preene is already focused on what he will leave behind.


Martin Preene took over as chairman of the British Geotechnical Association in June this year.

Tremendously proud is how Preene Groundwater managing director Martin Preene describes his feelings at taking on the chairmanship of the British Geotechnical Association (BGA). Preene says he is not proposing a radical change during his two year tenure, but will be focusing on offering members value and creating a lasting legacy of knowledge.

“I will be focusing on what we do well as an association and trying to build on that,” he says.

“Our evening meeting programme offers tremendous technical content that is free to members and non-members alike.

“Past BGA chairman Stefan Jefferis helped to develop the network at these events by opening the bar after the lectures and gaining sponsorship to provide free drinks. Essentially we do London-based events well.

“Where I think there is room for growth and improvement is in delivering a series of single issue conferences with around 100 papers and a technical exhibition,” he says.

“We are looking to replicate the success of the 2015 Edinburgh conference which we delivered for

International Society of Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering, but on a smaller scale.”

Planning for the first event is in full swing, with the two day Engineering in Chalk 2018 set to take place next September. Work is underway on the second which is scheduled to take place in 2020.

“BGA members will qualify for delegate discounts, and proceedings will be published after the event that will then be made free to members after 12 months through a planned members-only area on the BGA website,” explains Preene.

“In time, the proceedings from these conferences will create a legacy resource with quality papers that people can draw on for their day to day work.”

While membership benefits are a clear focus for Preene, he is also looking to raise the profile of the

BGA in the wider engineering community and beyond.

“We have a role to play in representing the industry,” he says.

“We are looking to react and engage more. The BGA represents the Institution of Civil Engineers’ (ICE) Ground Board, but we need to look beyond that.”

As an example, Preene says that the ICE has called for a panel to be formed to review the Grenfell fire.

“While it has no geotechnical issues that we know of, there are risk issues and that is something we can provide perspective on,” he says.

“It is a real challenge for geotechnics to make itself attractive, and we need to make sure it is recognised. Crossrail is in the news, as are the issues around basements, and there is media focus on High Speed 2, Tideway and Hinkley – infrastructure will become more of an issue. There is a lot of attention on mainstream civil engineering and structural engineering but we need to engage more to ensure the ground engineering side is known and understood too.”

It is not just the legacy element about the 2018 conference that excites Preene, he is personally enthused by it too as it follows on from one on the same topic held in Brighton in 1989 which he now sees as a seminal point in his career.

“It was my first conference, and where I delivered my first paper too, with the event chaired by Imperial College professor John Burland,” he says. “I never thought that one day I would be chairing the next event and be chairman of the BGA. It highlights the fact that someone in the room next year could one day become a chair themselves.”

The association started out as the British Geotechnical Society in 1949, so the BGA will celebrate its 70th anniversary in 2019. Preene is unsure yet whether the celebrations will fall into his chairmanship or whether he will have handed over the reins to current senior vice chairman who is GCG senior partner Kelvin Higgins. But it is a milestone that is in the forefront of his mind with regard to the legacy work he is planning.


Preene in profile

Martin Preene started his career with a degree in civil engineering at Bristol University.

“I was initially interested in earthquake engineering but I was always interested in big holes which led me to study civils,” he says.

“When I got exposed to the science of soil mechanics, I thought, wow, that explains some of the things I’ve seen in practice.”

When he graduated, Preene joined Soil Mechanics where he says he worked with some amazing people who had really understood the fundamentals of geotechnics.

While he was there, he gained an interest in ground water and diverted his career in that direction.

“In many ways I was ahead of my time, as increasingly, people in our industry specialise and then specialise again at an early stage,” he says. “I am very happy with what I did but I am not convinced it is the right thing for everyone.”

Preene then joined what is now known as WJ Groundwater as an assistant engineer and during his time there he had the opportunity to undertake a PhD.

He says his research was not a classic PhD subject as it was not ground breaking research. Instead he took data from 30 real construction sites and back analysing the dewatering systems.

“It was bench marking of every day techniques against reality,” he says.

Groundwater fascinated Preene because he saw a gap in the industry’s knowledge on the subject.

“I saw people who had a real understanding of soil mechanics, but I was not convinced that they understood the mechanics of groundwater flow and what it meant for the rest of geotechnical engineering. In that gap, I saw a career opportunity for myself,” he explains.

“I am never on top of what I do though, and I’m always learning and that’s what keeps me motivated.

“I still have jobs where I think, wow, how do I do this?”

Preene believes that engineers need to be good communicators as well as skilled engineers. “I have to be able to communicate concepts that are new to people and get them to focus on the right thing.

With things like holes in the ground, non-specialists sometimes worry horrendously about the things we can control but sometimes they don’t worry about the things we can’t,” he says.

“We have a role to help people understand risks in an open way and quickly cross off risks that can be managed and focus on the risks where we have uncertainty.”

After becoming a director at WJ Groundwater, Preene then made the leap into consultancy by joining Arup. He helped Arup to grow its groundwater capabilities and gained insight into the world of consultancy.

From Arup, Preene joined Golder Associates and worked on mining and nuclear projects before setting up his own business in 2014. “It was uncertain setting up on my own but I am enjoying it,” he says.


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