Skip to main content

Peter Head OBE FREng - Planning to be sustainable

Creative thinking

It was Peter’s organising and analytical mindset that helped get him into engineering in the first place. “At school, I was a maths and physics sort of person.
I had a very good physics teacher who got me inspired about the subject. And then, during the school holidays which we spent in Cornwall, I was always creating dams and building things. I think that basically I was always very interested in how everything worked and right through my life I have always wanted to understand everything around me.”

As his schooldays finished, his father spotted an article in Corrosion-free

As Peter got better known in the bridge building business, and having moved to consulting engineers Maunsell, he could use his liking for the new, on a small project in Scotland. The Aberfeldy footbridge links two sides of a public golf course across the River Tay.

The golf club had limited funds. Peter had already invented and developed a low cost system for building structures from high quality reinforced plastic which had been used for a flooring and enclosure of the A19 Tees Viaduct bridge. For the footbridge project, “I went around the world learning about manufacturing technology for about three months and designed what is now called the Advanced Composite Construction System or Composolite.” Peter persuaded a number of technology partner companies to sponsor the bridge construction as a demonstrator.

The result is the world’s longest composite footbridge. With a span of 120 m, the bridge is still there and with considerably reduced maintenance costs for the composite structure. Peter says, “That was a big part of my life; I became quite famous in the composites world at the time. My team won the Prince Philip Award for Polymers to services to Mankind.” They hand out this award only occasionally – once for Michelin radial tyres – “which absolutely stunned me.”

Environmental considerations

When he was working on bridges as a “designer and implementer,” Head was in the business of sustainable development. “We didn’t call it that, but, in the projects that I was involved in, I was very concerned with the social and economic and environmental outcomes.”

This was certainly the case on the Second Severn Crossing, a project that Head guided from start to finish. It may have taken a few fights, Head admits, but social issues were at the centre of the project – wind protection for vehicles, safe navigation through the bridge, not closing the road for maintenance, putting maintenance gantries underneath. “We were worried about all of the environmental impacts, and how to mitigate them, measure them and monitor them.”

Head says that it is the only major bridge in the UK that you can drive across without fear of it being closed. “People don’t think about that. The whole point of the crossing was that it would be as reliable as the roads leading up to it in all conditions. It stays open when winds reach speeds of up to 85 mph. The Dartford Crossing is closed when winds exceed speeds of 50 mph, and that was built afterwards. This is important in terms of sustainability and development, it is making things that work in the long term.

Planning controls

Sustainability is no longer something that Head has to fight for or insinuate into projects. It is at the core of his work as Director of Planning and Integrated Urbanism at Arup. In his previous roles, Head often found himself joining projects after they had been through the planning process. It was too late for him to influence things. “Moving into planning is really important if you want to make this transition into the ecological age, because land use planning is the key to it really”.

Head now manages a business that has some 700 people working in planning all over the world. The disciplines involved in this work include environmental specialists, including ecologists, landscape design and archaeologists, transport planning, economics, policy, resources, social and masterplanning “in all its different guises”.
It includes urban design. “And what we are increasingly calling integrated urbanism, which is the integrated multidisciplinary master planning of cities and their connection to the rural land.” Here the works take in urban design, transport, environment, water, energy and waste.

“We have an energy team and a waste team, we have a water team, and we have cultural planning team.” The latter is involved in work on the cultural history of the locations where they’re working. The idea, said Head, is to “reflect the relationships between people and the natural world”.

Urban modelling

When describing his current role in life,
Head regularly talks of “masterplanners”.
This role is not as sinister as the name might suggest. It is the planning profession’s label for the people responsible for creating the overall plan of a development, designing a ‘scaffolding and policy framework’ that the individual components can fit in.

The masterplanning of Dongtan builds on a number of areas of expertise, especially the ability to build models of the proposed developments. Head was a key element in helping to plan and build the world’s first eco city (see Capital example

Head’s work on Dongtan, and maybe even his job at Arup, owe much to the time he has spent thinking about London’s problems, as a member of the London Sustainable Development Commission. His role there was, with his fellow commissioners, to advise the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, “on making London an exemplary sustainable world city”.

The commissioners read policies, review policies and make sure that everything the Greater London Authority (GLA) does is joined up with this sustainable development way of thinking. Head says, “Actually we’re doing quite a good job in raising their aspirations to actually have quite a big role in, for example, the London 2012 bid – making sure the bid focused on world-class sustainability and encouraging the Mayor to go for Congestion Charges and the Mayor’s Climate Change Action Plan.”

This plan led to the creation of the Clinton Climate Initiative which consists of a group of cities around the world working together. The action plan was very much influenced by the Dongtan Project. “The fact that we created an incredible plan for a city and low-carbon living gave the GLA officers insights into how London could be transformed. We helped to give them the confidence to go ahead with it. That inspired other cities to follow, so there is a definite theme in that chain.”

Head turns to transport to explain how modelling is increasingly important in modern planning. By being able to join up models, Head’s team at Arup has been able to throw light on the true costs – environmental as well as economic – of what goes on in our cities. Take goods deliveries. “We have looked at the energy of goods deliveries in cities and discovered that it is very inefficient. Goods are being delivered in a congested system where often vehicles aren’t full. By having a consolidation centre and organising deliveries on a street by street basis daily – using green vehicles running on renewable power – you have a massive reduction in emissions.”

It helps that the time is right for these ideas in the wider world. “I can’t imagine that there has ever been a period when the need to change was so strong, certainly not in our lifetimes.” More than that, says Head, “There is almost a visible sense of panic now, particularly in the financial community.”

Influential engineers

Over recent months, Head has had an opportunity to think long and hard about what these ideas mean for Arup and the wider world, in his preparation for this year’s inaugural Brunel lecture for the Institution of Civil Engineers, with its ambitious title Soft transition

Head is no starry-eyed green zealot. He isn’t for tearing up everything and starting with a clean slate. For him, the ecological age is about making a “soft transition” and what he describes as “smart responsive simplicity rather than rigid complexity”. As he says in his Brunel lecture, “This means dismantling the layered complexity of fossil fuel powered systems of the industrial age and using clean, flexible, adaptable and renewable systems to support life.”

We can see the old way in action by looking at how we have made buildings so complicated. As an example Head mentions noise from vehicles. We don’t want to hear this in our offices. So we have facades to keep the noise out. “That is a fossil-fuel fix. You need loads of energy to create it. Then, having done that, you can’t naturally ventilate the building. So you’ve got to bring in air-conditioning to make it habitable.”

“We need to find a soft transition over the longest possible period, so we can use fossil fuels and nuclear power as long as resources are available but with much less environmental pollution.”

If we can capture carbon at coal-fired power stations, then, Head asks, “what’s wrong with using coal until it runs out?” That does mean developing carbon capture. “We should get on and sort that out,” he insists. Head also explains other technologies in his lecture, such as the “Shortened Integrated Carbon Cycle” which he believes could help us to make a soft transition and might be a better approach than carbon capture.

Leading by example

What about Head’s own carbon emissions. When he joined Arup he set about offsetting his own emissions, no mean feat for someone whose business takes him all over the planet. “We are actually putting the money into a renewable energy project in China that directly offsets the amount of the emissions.” He no longer uses a car and has solar water heating at home.

Then there is Head’s other contribution to ameliorating climate change. He describes himself as “a very keen gardener” with a small garden in Kent which is full of trees. As well as soaking up carbon dioxide, gardening has other things in common with the day job; it ties in with his interest in long-term creativity and is something you are doing for future generations. “You are creating something that has lasting value.”

Head clearly hopes that his Brunel lecture, not to mention his work as a planner, will also have lasting value. It isn’t just meant to be a personal take on planning. Indeed, it looks far beyond the immediate business of planning and development. He calls for new strategies in manufacturing and talks at some length about new ways of meeting our energy needs – he likes the idea of desert solar power.

With 164 footnotes and six pages of references, this is more a manifesto for the future than the traditional engineer’s look at their subject. Casting aside modesty, Head has offered what he calls a “first glimpse of a way forward and a credible vision of the future”. He has thrown it into the fray as a contribution to next year’s Copenhagen Climate Summit. That, he says, will be “the moment the world gets together and agrees that we really know enough and are prepared about the direction that we need to take”.

Further reference

Br Biography – Michael Kenward OBE

Michael Kenward has been a freelance writer since 1990 and is a member of the Ingenia Editorial board. He is Editor-at-Large of Science| Business.

Keep up-to-date with Ingenia for free