Construction Materials and Civil Engineering Technologists help keep Canada’s infrastructure safe
Growing up in Oldham in the north of England, Alex Minett was surrounded by structures that recalled the city’s history as a boomtown of the industrial revolution. Brick-built cotton mills with towering chimneys were fascinating reminders that Oldham was once the world’s leading cotton spinning centre producing more than France and Germany combined.
And while the textile industry fell into decline in the middle of the last century and the last cotton mill in Oldham closed its doors in 1998, the majestic old buildings left their mark on Alex and pointed the way to what would become a career in materials and civil engineering technology – but by a somewhat circuitous route.
Alex initially started out to be an electrician but securing an apprenticeship in 2008 when the global recession hit was difficult, so he enrolled for a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) in construction studies (similar to a technical diploma in Canada.)
His sights were set on a job on a construction site, but a tutor he was working with saw more potential in Alex and convinced him to complete his NVQ and then continue studying for a foundation degree in construction management at a local university.
Then, encouraged by his tutor who knew about Alex’s fascination with the old mills and canals in Oldham, he enrolled for a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering at Leeds Beckett University in Leeds, England. Alex continued to enhance his construction knowledge and technical skills while studying by undertaking a variety of drafting and site-based technical positions when he could fit them in.
“My tutor said I should go into civil engineering because I would get to play with concrete and work on canals, the things he knew I was interested in.” says Alex.
He chose his study modules carefully to focus on those aspects of civil engineering that interested him most – concrete, steel and brick and block masonry, how they aged and how they could be restored when needed.
“I wasn’t that interested in the structural side of new buildings or new roads. I liked the concrete technology aspect, how materials deteriorate and their service life and their sustainability,” says Alex.
After completing his degree Alex travelled the world for seven years working in ski towns as a maintenance manager and a project manager for a hotelier – and he “did a bit of yacht building” in New Zealand.
When he ended up in Victoria, British Columbia two years ago Alex met a materials engineer through LinkedIn who worked for Thurber Engineering Ltd., a Canadian company specializing in geotechnical, environmental and construction materials engineering and testing services for a variety of industries.
“We had similar interests professionally and personally and we got on well. We had a similar sense of humor, and we were both interested in quite specific aspects of the work we wanted to do – corrosion study and concrete technology, the repair specifications for concrete structures, and the condition of old concrete structures,” he says.
Soon afterwards, Alex was offered a position at Thurber – and it suited him well.
“It was a long road, but I found my niche,” he says.
At Thurber, Alex’s role is to provide technical knowledge and services to the company’s clients, which can include undertaking a corrosion or condition survey/assessment and then preparing a report of the findings and/or repair specifications.
It requires a deep technical understanding of how reinforced concrete structures behave in their environment, how corrosion of steel occurs and what repair specifications and systems will enhance the life of structures. About 60 per cent of his time is spent on older structures that need to be assessed for repairs, maintenance, and service life determination.
“For example, if it’s a steel pier we will visit the site and measure the remaining thickness of the steel piles using ultrasonic gauges, we will look at the condition of coatings, look for the types and quantity of corrosion on the steel,” explains Alex. “We do a lot of concrete condition survey as well. So, we will go and look at a bridge, we will look for cracking and for healed cracking, we will sound the deck and listen for delamination’s of the rebar, we will check for the depth of the rebar, take some samples of the concrete to find the depth of the chloride ingress and do some crack mapping. That’s about 60 per cent of what I work on.”
He says he enjoys the full project life cycle.
“I like being involved in writing the proposal, roughing out the budget, getting it reviewed, altering it based on what somebody else thinks. And then I like being involved during the field work if I can or going out with some of the other field technicians and doing some of the field work,” says Alex. “But the real satisfaction comes from closing out the project, knowing that what we’ve delivered is what the client wants.”
While Alex doesn’t consider his job to be overly stressful, he acknowledges the high level of responsibility attached to inspecting and reporting on structures that could cause considerable damage and threaten public safety if they fail.
“Usually, other consultants are involved as well, so we will speak to a structural engineer, or a marine engineer, or an environmental professional if required,” he says. “We have to be accurate so there’s a lot of internal review with senior staff and engineers and a lot of internal conversations, especially with service life modeling where somebody’s told us that 10 years ago, they think they had 15 years left on this structure, what do we think? Can we get it to 20, can we get it to 30? One of the big challenges is every scenario is unique. If the only data we have to support us comes from our field observations and testing, and we don’t have external data for comparisons, it gets tough, but it’s interesting work.”
Alex is currently studying for his Master of Sciences (MSc) in Advanced Concrete Technology at the University of Leeds fulfilling a desire to obtain a qualification from a classic English red brick university. He also volunteers as Chair of ASTTBC’s Young Professionals Group (YPG), a strategic program that supports younger ASTTBC registrants by offering networking and professional development opportunities.