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Holmes Consulting worked with the Christchurch International Airport infrastructure planning team and landscape architects to deliver the civil engineering works for the plaza between the international terminal and the new Novotel

The importance of thinking ahead – why a holistic approach to civil engineering matters – By Andrea Jarvis

In these uncertain times, trying to pinpoint what the future might look like can seem an impossible task. As many of us grapple with changes to the way we work, it’s easy to focus on the challenges, but more productive to think about the eventual opportunities. The next few months are a good time for those of us in civil engineering to look at things differently.

It’s no secret that engineers are good at planning and solving complex problems using out-of-the-box thinking. But, too often, I’ve seen civil engineers make poor planning decisions by focusing on the individual elements of a project instead of thinking about it as a whole.

At Holmes, our team make a concerted effort to look at a project in its entirety, assessing how each part works together – from cultural considerations, to the soil quality and water flows, to the concrete piping. Doing this with the right project partners involved means that the best outcomes can be determined early on.

What we’ve found from taking this approach is that, not only is the final project outcome better, but it saves time on design and creates opportunities to streamline processes (at no detriment to the quality of the outputs), which can result in financial savings for clients.

A helpful example of where this has worked well for us is the new plaza at Christchurch International Airport between the international terminal and the new Novotel. Here, we worked with the master planners, airport infrastructure planning team and landscape architects to ensure cultural aspects, future use of the site, and natural resources were all taken into account during civil design and planning.

Another example is the Lakes Edge project, where we not only worked together with other consultants, but also developed a very effective and collaborative design and construct relationship with the contractor which resulted in a great end product – under budget and ahead of time. Situated on the shore of Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown, it’s also one of the more photogenic projects I’ve worked on.

Taking stock of nature

When applying holistic thinking to civil projects, I’d like to see more civil engineers take stock of the natural materials they might be able to use. Many engineers still lean towards solutions involving man-made materials, like concrete piping, to solve problems around matters like water flow, rather than taking a wider view of the natural landscape that’s right in front of them.

To be fair, we are starting to see a shift in the right direction, but it continues to be the exception rather than the rule. We only need to look to our overseas counterparts to see how this doesn’t need to be the case.

Seattle, one of the rainiest cities in the United States, has made it mandatory to ensure any stormwater planning is based on low-impact development. In the UK, they’ve invested heavily in online and offline flood design, with the national environmental agency concluding that natural flood management reduces flood risk thanks to the fact it slows, stores and filters water.

The risks of not taking an all-inclusive approach are also worth considering. We’ve all heard of instances where someone has gone too far down one path, before realising that it’s not going to work because of factors they hadn’t predicted earlier. Ultimately, this lack of coordination upfront results in additional cost to the project, not only in terms of time, but also in terms of additional construction costs.

Joining the pieces

As civil engineers, we need to take responsibility for doing things right and doing them well. This includes embracing our role in educating clients on best practice and joining the pieces for them as we discuss the ‘why’ and ‘how’ behind all-encompassing project recommendations.

I also believe there’s a real opportunity for us to build on the support and teamwork we’ve all experienced with project partners and clients over the past few weeks – from using real-time collaboration efforts to boost project coordination, to really pushing ourselves to continue to deliver a high standard of service.

So, as we prepare to move into new territory, I encourage you to remember this: the simplest solution is often right in front of us, but only if we’re really willing to look at the full picture.

Andrea Jarvis leads the civil engineering capability at Holmes Consulting Group, applying her deep technical knowledge to projects of all shapes and sizes


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