Professor John Burland, CBE, DSc(Eng), FREng, FRS is a world-leading Geotechnical Engineer and Emeritus Professor at Imperial College. His work has taken him to many parts of the world, working on hundreds of fascinating projects.

Have you ever read LIVIC before?

I am mortified to admit that I haven’t  - but now I have the link!  Has every member of staff been bombarded with it? – they should be. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

John Burland at the Leaning Tower of Pisa
John Burland at the Leaning Tower of Pisa

What is your current favourite engineering project?

Crossrail. It has almost every civil engineering challenge imaginable and the societal benefits are enormous.

How beneficial was working in industry before doing your PhD? Would you recommend a similar path for current undergraduates?

I would certainly recommend working in industry for a couple of years. It helps to bring the profession of civil engineering into perspective and to identify key topics and their practical relevance. I still draw on my couple of years with Arup in the early 1960s (then Ove Arup and Partners).

If there was an area of expertise you could commit to in civil engineering right now, what would it be and why?

I find this really difficult, as I tend to get interested in the project that comes my way. As an undergraduate I hated soil mechanics (mainly because my lecturer was a switch-off) and I wanted very much to go into hydraulics and hydrology. Then, doing a gap year before going on to do an MSc, I was given a fascinating soil mechanics problem which gave me the opportunity to go into the fundamentals and I was hooked! I would still commit to geotechnics – you get in right at the start of a project, every project is very different and the ground is never the same.

How has civil engineering changed since you did your undergraduate degree?

A little and a lot! In civil engineering much of our work has been, and always will be, working within the natural environment with all its variability and uncertainty. We must never avoid asking the big ‘what if’ questions. I am continually reminded of a statement made by Professor Sir Alec Skempton. I had the excitement and privilege as a young graduate of attending the 1961 International Conference on Soil Mechanics in Paris when he gave the Presidential address in which he warned  “Optimism and over-confidence may impress one’s clients, but they have no influence on the great forces of nature”. We have to be rigorous, creative, and completely objective when dealing with the great forces of nature and that has not changed and never will.

For me the biggest change has been in the widespread use of the computer and off-the-shelf computer packages. These have brought enormous benefits in the range of problems that can be analysed and the speed of analysis. However there is a serious downside. As I travel widely internationally I am finding that greater and greater resort is being made to the use of these packages but often without the necessary associated rigour, often with no understanding at all of the underlying theory or of the boundary conditions that are being applied. Masses of output in the form of graphs and contour plots are churned out, often to impress the client, and these are blandly believed without any attempt to assess the likely ranges of uncertainty. I like to think that we instil enough rigour in our teaching at Imperial College to give students the confidence to ask questions of any computer package and to validate it against appropriate known solutions and physical reasonableness. Oh dear – I am preaching!

How important do you think it is for engineers to be able to communicate their ideas? Do you think there should be a heavier focus on written skills in the undergraduate course?

Absolutely vital – as I say to students “If you are not expressing yourself clearly, you are not thinking clearly”.Moreover, within a few years of graduation, many engineers have to interact with the public or with officials who are not engineers. Clarity of communication is essential and technical jargon does not impress. The objectives are to gain the confidence of whomever you are communicating with, to understand where they are coming from and to explain the reasoning in simple, understandable terms. Never underestimate the intelligence of a layperson, particularly if they are a stakeholder. Regarding the focus in our undergraduate course, I am a bit out of touch but when I was last involved I felt that the focus was quite good.

The Middle East is currently a hotspot for engineering; do you think there is scope for research there?

I have not done much work out there so I hesitate to comment on specific research needs. However there is a huge amount of construction activity and where that exists there must be both scope for research and for its application in practice.

Did you always know you wanted to do research? What advice would you give to someone unsure on what to do after they graduate?

I have always wanted to understand how and why things work and to improve that understanding, so in that sense I guess I have always been interested in research. When I was working for Arups I published a couple of papers based on the work that I was doing. I am a great believer in finding people I respect to talk to. I think it would be worthwhile finding someone who has experience in both industry and research and having a chat with them.

With the Leaning Tower of Pisa, was there ever an “aha” moment where you realised the solution? If not, how did you all come about the solution? 

The key to understanding the problem lay in working out how the Tower had behaved during its construction, between 1172 and 1370, and how it was moving when I first became involved (in 1990) – this involved spending a lot of time with the architectural historians on the Commission. There were a number of rather dogmatic opinions on the behaviour of the Tower by some very well known international experts that had thoroughly conditioned current ideas for stabilising the Tower. My work showed that these opinions were incorrect and the behaviour of the Tower was totally different from what had been assumed. It was clear that the only viable solution was to try to reduce the tilt of the Tower by a small enough amount not to be visible (i.e. about 10%). The method for doing this developed from the work I was doing on the effects of subsidence due to tunnelling when I was advising on the design of the Jubilee Line Extension tube line. My initial idea was to drive a tunnel towards the high side of the Tower’s foundations causing the ground to subside by a controlled amount thereby reducing the tilt of the Tower. This initial idea was not taken seriously but a couple of us worked away at the concept and eventually refined it to extracting soil from beneath the high side using special drills. It took a huge amount of physical and numerical modelling to convince the Commission that it would work. We later discovered that the idea was not new – the Mexicans had used it to stabilise the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City. Later Professor Skempton found some historical work describing how the method was used to straighten a church steeple in Cheshire in 1832! Nothing is new under the sun!

In your opinion what are the hottest current topics in civil engineering?

I regret not having had the opportunity (or time) to get involved in energy or seismicity, as they are clearly of huge importance to society worldwide. Mankind is rapidly urbanising and this presents huge civil engineering challenges intimately linked with society and its well being. I keep mentioning society because it is true that the civil engineer plays a key role in our well being – just as much as the medical profession. We still have a lot to learn as to how best to interface with the public in the planning and construction of civil engineering projects.