Past GE editors have played a key role in shaping the magazine, but it has also shaped their careers too. Here some of them share their memories from site visits.
Development of GE’s concept was led by editor John Moss, supported by field editor Richard Tilden Smith who became editor in 1971. The launch team set the tone for subsequent editors who travelled the world to cover the biggest and most challenging geotechnical projects.
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Here several past editors recall their favourite memories from site visits undertaken during their time leading GE.
Paul Wheeler sums up the opportunity that being editor of GE gave when he recalled the setting up of the John Mitchell Memorial Trust following the death of Arup director John Mitchell. “The trust had the specific aim of providing an annual travel bursary to enable a young geotechnical engineer to visit and study international geotechnical projects,” he says. “Better keep my mouth shut, I thought, that is pretty much describing my day job.”
Sadly several former GE editors have passed away since working on the magazine, including Derek Patey who took over from Moss in 1970 before handing over to Tilden Smith in 1971, Mike Winney who held the post from 1988 to 1990 and Judith Cruickshank who was editor from 1990 to 1992.
GE owes a debt to all its past editors who have worked to uphold the integrity of the magazine’s content and steer it through commercial challenges without compromising the publication’s remit – to deliver project, industry and research news to geotechnical practitioners in a timely manner.
Paul Wheeler - The people perspective
I joined GE as staff writer in 1990, fitting the advertised role as “a young engineer with three or four years’ experience and a desire to write”.
Every couple of months, the magazine would be geared around a country focus and research involved spending four or five days in the country visiting job sites and interviewing eminent engineers and academics.
One trip that stands out was to Pisa during the early stages of the work to stabilise the leaning tower. I’d contacted Imperial College professor John Burland, who was on the commission charged with saving it, requesting an introduction to the commission’s head professor Michele Jamiolkowski.
It transpired that Burland was going to be in Pisa at the time of my planned trip and suggested we meet up.
The arrangements were a bit vague. The commission was meeting in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo next to the tower and the plan was for me to be loitering outside at a prescribed time.
Sure enough the two professors emerged in conversation and Burland introduced me to Jamiolkowski, generously describing me as Britain’s best construction journalist (possibly if he’d described me as the best geotechnical journalist I would have agreed, it being a pool of one!).
On discovering that Jamiolkowski had to head straight to the airport, I feared the plan was about to fall apart. But he suggested I accompany him, which gave me about half an hour for an interview in the back of his limousine, no doubt provided by the municipality. He even got the driver to drop me back into town after we had parted.
As much as the trips excited me, I think it is the people that made my decade at GE such an important chapter in my life.
Over the last two decades publishing has become a tough business, the internet has destroyed the old business model and turned pounds into pennies.
It says a lot that GE has survived, many congratulations on reaching 50.
- Paul Wheeler, Editor, 1995-2000
Max Soudain - Ground Zero recovery
My visit to Ground Zero in January 2002, a few months after 9/11, was certainly one of the highlights of my career, despite the terrible circumstances.
I travelled to New York to meet with George Tamaro of Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers. Tamaro had worked for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the 1960s, when the WTC towers were built, and was advising on the stabilisation of a section of the 1km long, six level basement slurry retaining wall or “bathtub” around the site. Without internal floors, this was in danger of collapsing as 1.5Mt of debris was removed, putting recovery efforts at risk.
After a meeting with Tamaro to understand how work was progressing, I was accompanied to Ground Zero by Peter Rinaldi, then engineering programme manager for the Port Authority.
Nearly 17 years on, I still remember vividly the atmosphere after passing through security. It was lunchtime and, aside from the noise of excavators in the bottom of the enormous basement, an eerie silence hung over the area.
Even though it took the best part of an hour to walk around the bathtub, it went by in a blur. I shot four or five rolls of film (yes, it was that long ago) to ensure I had enough photos to choose from – I ended up with more than 140 – and Rinaldi was patient enough to answer all my questions as we walked.
But before I knew it, we were through the decontamination tent and into the canteen, where we were hit by a wall of sound – it was lunchtime, after all – the silence was broken and I was brought back to reality.
I was in a bit of a daze riding back on the subway. Rinaldi had told me that almost everyone in New York knew someone who had died in the attacks and, although I had seen it for myself, the scale of destruction was still almost incomprehensible. A truly memorable day.
- Max Soudain, Editor, 2001-2007
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Damon Schünmann - Sense of scale
In 2004 I saw a project that has stayed with me ever since. Iceland’s Kárahnjúkar dam had everything. Whenever I’m enthusing about construction journalism, I invariably use this example, even though I’ve seen so many since.
My soliloquy begins thus: “No matter who you are, or what you do for a living, it would be impossible not to be impressed by travelling in a 4x4 through kilometres of tunnel boring machine-driven headrace tunnels. Added to which, and what with this being done in “the land of re and ice”, there was the possibility that the tunnels could have been lfiled with superheated steam at any time.
As Italian main contractor Impregilo’s chief engineer Richard Graham said to me at the time: “What we dread is finding a geyser full of hot steam.”
As one of the largest concrete faced rock- ll dams in the world at the time, it had an eye-crossing sense of scale that required some mind-boggling engineering to drive 53km of headrace tunnels through volcanically active geology, at depths of up to 230m. Meanwhile, the 193m high, 800m wide dam contains 8.5M.m3 of ll, to hold back 2,100M.m3 of water.
It wasn’t just that it was enormous that makes it stay with me. It was also controversial. On the one hand it was heavily criticised on an environmental level due to the reshaping of a ruggedly beautiful landscape and its impact on wildlife. On another it was condemned for its use of foreign labour. But ultimately it hit the headlines for the deaths of four construction workers – with many more reportedly seriously injured.
It is a divisive project, that much is clear. But for all these reasons, both the astoundingly impressive as well as the appalling, it’s the one I’ll never forget.
- Damon Schünmann, Editor, 2007-2008
Riby Kitching - Olympic origins
As a GE editor, you get to see fantastic stories taking shape in the ground, long before the buildings or infrastructure above steal the show. Thiis was certainly true when I visited a 230ha Olympic Park site in east London. is vast expanse of land, carved up by digger tracks and waterways would transform into the 2012 Olympic Park some four years later.
The extremely knowledgeable and affable Jan Hellings, then Olympic Delivery Authority project sponsor for enabling works, was my guide.
Comprehensive soil analysis had revealed the past exploits of every inch of this area and the extent of contamination, and Jan had a story for every mound of earth.
Construction plant dotted the landscape, resolutely crushing, sorting or cleaning the soil, while the fraying ends of the River Lea were being tended to. Around me, demolition waste and excavated material underwent all kinds of treatment to ensure it was useful and safe so that it could be used in the new-build programme.
The term “ground-breaking” is often associated with geotechnical engineering, but this clean-up job truly was. It was on another scale for the UK, driven by tough targets for sustainability and regeneration-value. This pollution-soaked land was being given a new lease of life before my eyes.
I revisited the site in 2012 during the Olympics when wild ower meadows and the most exquisite sporting venues adorned the site and again, more recently, when it had been renamed the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. I was pleased to see regeneration taking hold as everyone had hoped and reminded myself how this transformation had started in the ground.
- Ruby Kitching, Editor, 2008-2010
Alexandra Wynne - Technical, yet human
There are some work days that particularly stay with you and a day trip to Sweden in my early days at GE is one such event. I was still finding my feet, having had no engineering background before becoming a reporter on the magazine, when the opportunity to pop over to Sweden for a trip to see a road being built came along.
The job was a classic GE story.
Engineers explained in their slightly casual this-is-just-what-we-do way that they were trying to create steady ground for a major motorway upgrade in an area where the land tended to rebel and want to move.
Landslips were common and the ground conditions were unforgiving – either hard rock or so clay, with nothing in between. And so, site workers were installing thousands of lime columns to strengthen the ground. I was struck by what seemed, to an untrained eye, to be at the same time both extraordinarily clever and blindingly simple engineering.
On site, the scene was almost as picture perfect as one a Scandi Noir drama could conjure up.
My interviewee responded to questions about why it was really so necessary with a stark warning. During site works, reports of a landslip came through and late at night he got up and went out to see the damage, despite there being little chance of enough light to see anything.
Luckily the cold light of day made clear that while the spectacular landslide had damaged a major railway line and collapsed a stream bed, it had stopped just shy of the work that had already been done – the stabilisation had worked.
It was the rst example of what I came to learn many times over, that engineers are rarely o duty and how human technical engineering stories are.
- Alexandra Wynne, Managing editor, 2016-2017
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Claire Smith - Major project progress
There is one project that I feel like I have written about all the way through my career as a construction journalist and that is Crossrail. For many years it was talked about in speculative, almost wistful terms – like the Holy Grail of transport solutions – but for every supporter of the scheme, there were others who said it would never happen. But happen it has.
Imagine my delight when I took up the editor’s role on GE in August 2011 with the ground engineering elements of Crossrail just getting started in earnest. Not only was the project nally underway but my job meant that I had a chance to see it all happen up close.
There are many memorable visits for different parts of the project – being lifted into the Stepney Green cavern in a cage and nosing around the Kingsway Tram tunnel which was used for a grouting shaft, are just a few.
The visit that really sticks out in my mind, and which underlines the innovation on Crossrail, was walking through the Connaught Tunnel in east London which was being re-engineered and enlarged to put it back into operational use. I was lucky enough to be guided round the site by Crossrail project manager Linda Miller and, if you were not already inspired by the engineering expertise itself, then Miller’s enthusiasm for this part of the work really added to the experience.
Not only were Miller’s team going into the unknown with re-boring the tunnel at a wider gauge, there was the added pressure of having to complete the work in time to allow the dock above to be used by the Excel exhibition centre for a biennial defence show.
While the opening of the new rail route may be delayed, the ground engineering industry should take pride in the fact that the geotechnical elements of the project were not only delivered on schedule, but pushed the boundaries to benefit future projects.
- Claire Smith, Editor, 2011- date