The Higgs Boson found: a triumph for plumbing

Another historic blog.... Last month Rio+20 Conference, this month we, the international fraternity of plumbers, discovered the Higgs Boson (well probably), and maybe are getting design conditions wrong?

Two things spoilt the momentous event in plumbing history. The first was so much media material suggesting scientists had built the supercollider.  As far as I can see they just did some programming. The second was the sight and sound of some very distinguished science journalists explaining why our engineering triumph was in any way important to keeping civilisation going. Some explanations were blatantly dishonest, comparing discovering the Higgs Boson with discovering the electron. The difference of course is that no one had a clue what made up cathode rays in 1899.  In contrast, within normal engineering certainty we knew that the Higgs was there anyway.  So physicists’ Standard Model (of something) that had been taught for twenty years was now 100% OK – an increase of presumably 2% in probability. But since no one has found anything to do with the Standard Model for the last twenty years that we’ve had it, except set post graduate exam questions, the sum of human welfare has not moved much. The project involves some awesome plumbing as you’d expect for a project costing $1bn a year to run. If you need to lay your air-tight duct horizontal to within a nanometre along a 17 mile circle, but couldn’t find how in the CIBSE Guides, I can point you to a guy who now knows how.

Of course the awesome plumbing was augmented by 10,000 other scientists and engineers but in tight times it’s questionable what the point is. The trouble with supersized engineering projects is that by definition there are no follow up projects because the project is so far ahead. What teams learn they forget as they disperse to do other things. When the rest of engineering eventually catches up with the gargantuan requirement, there will probably be a better way of doing it anyway.  While we spend substantial sums of UK public money on this bold exercise, funds for more mundane but equally challenging building services science goes dry.

Also historic this month was the local version of the global weather. I recall Alan Apling who used to run the Science unit in DoE in the 1980s projecting from the primitive Hadley outputs that the climate signal would have got so strong locally ‘by about 2012’ that even sceptics would admit something was up. It seems scouring the international press websites he was spot on – mega-typhoons in Hong Kong, fry-an-egg-on-your-porch temperatures in Texas and a monsoon failure in India so severe that power taken to pump river water to agriculture induced the largest scale power failure in history.  So may be it’s time we took climate change seriously too. I do not mean the ‘low carbon agenda’ (whatever that means beyond get planning permission for a matchbox) but the advice we give to clients on the fitness for purpose of our buildings in a future increasingly likely to have a different climate. We would not be on our own if we started to worry about adaption a little more. Other engineering professions are getting nervous too. We had one gorgeous example this month on the Imperial undergraduate course.

Spring Year Three is team project time. One project, given the then exceptionally low winter rainfall in the UK over the last few years, was to take two months to design a pipeline connection from Wales to London (civil engineering students do that kind of Great Wall of China thing).  Only, by Easter, most of the intended route was under flood water anyway.  So the project had to reinvent itself in a fortnight and went into water conservation instead - so much for climate certainty.  It is not arbitrarily chosen projections of future climates that we need but an eye to a new flexibility when 30 year historic records may be just history. Over in Texas not only did they have a drought and high temperatures but the power system went out for days with the correlated summer storms. So are ASHRAE (and AIA) giving the wrong design guidance, I wonder?

Grief, something in my head said that is virtually blasphemous.  But the reports I received from Texas were pretty horrific.  Buildings with more than enough HVAC capacity (that’s ASHRAE design guidance for you), became useless because, without power for three days, they could not even start to run passively.  If passive fall back is not an answer, maybe the answer is bigger standby plant fuel tanks.  But who prompts putting that in the brief? Would the client even know a future climate different from the past was an issue? If you want to get depressed about that you need look no further than North Carolina. I quote Atlantic magazine no less:

....“Backed by real estate developers, the Republican-led General Assembly passed a law [3rd July 2012] requiring that projected rates of sea level rise be calculated on historical trends and not include accelerated rates of increase.

That would not be so extraordinary if North Carolina did not have a long stretch of low level coast. Now if that really is the theological view of one of the major industrial and technically advanced countries in the world may be we need to revisit assumptions. Just because the imperative is to limit global temperature rise to 2C, it does not follow that the local effects of 2C global is what our buildings will face. It could be worse.

Back in England, the Environment Agency, are responsible for implementing some of the abatement programme to meet Government ‘2C inspired’ targets as well as national flood defences. They seem to be using a ‘hope for the best plan for the worst’ strategy - much beloved of the military. Perhaps we should do the same.  I collared Geoff Levermore who is External Examiner on my Imperial MSc Course on the subject, and it seems the scenarios are there for us to use.  Maybe it is time to be more realistic about the worst case our buildings might need to survive and start looking for the ‘real options’ with architects, should best endeavours fail.

Talking theology, the Presidential diary this month included supper with the Bishop of London’s Environment Group. I, along with an eclectic list of environmentalists and/or the Secretary of State for Energy, Ed Davey, supped to ponder on the world post Rio+20. I had no real idea, until it was explained to me, just how extensive was the Church of England Real Estate. They had a serious footprint and were off to do something about it.  Faith Groups are always so intrinsically optimistic that I am sure that Ed Davey had some blessed relief from the gigabytes of presumably depressing mail in his Inbox that night. Incidentally CoE are looking for some engineering help on their schools advisory machinery. Anyone interested drop me an email.

Grumpy pessimist that I am, I wasn’t so sure about the innate optimism at the convivial supper. But leaving the Old Deanery at night and coming out of the dark alley that hides it, I was stunned by the sudden sight of the magnificence of the St Paul’s externally lit portico.  I think it is one of Mike Simpson’s early triumphs (with some help from Wren).  May be this stunning affirmation of what the human race can create - majesty and beauty in a single stroke - is what kept my fellow guests so optimistic? Or maybe it is just that they can’t see the Shard.

Next blog promises to keep up the record of record breaking events. I cannot say why of course because the London 2012 Brand Police might ask me to take the blog down lest I infringe Big Mac’s copyright to something. That is slightly more serious for my morning coffee shop, who can’t even tempt me with the offer an Olympics cocoa stencil for my cappuccino to make up business for everyone else who has ‘worked from home’. Only the British could organise an event which disrupts half its capital and then prohibit in favour of multinational sponsors anyone recovering some of the collateral damage in a bit of extra business. I sign off with Team GB 20 Golds still to go...


  1. I would like to thank you for the cracks you have made in writing this post. I am hoping The same best work from you in the future as well. Good luck!!!Plumber Alabaster, Al


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