Improving infrastructure through innovation and consistent project management

An interview with Paul Gibbs and Steven Kay of engineering and construction giant Bechtel on how to deliver successful infrastructure projects

Bechtel's Paul Gibbs, left, and Steven Kay. Credit: Charlotte Barnes.


"Successful recent delivery of complex infrastructure is helping overcome old perceptions of projects always being late and over budget” says Paul Gibbs, Bechtel's UK managing director. “We need to strive for constant improvement, delivering more capability more sustainably and for less cost, through innovation and the consistent application of core project management techniques”.  

“Infrastructure improvement is critical to the UK’s future economic success. But investor confidence in supporting major new infrastructure projects, whether that be from Government, the private sector or indeed UK tax-payers, will only be sustained if projects are completed successfully and are seen to represent good value for money”. It’s true to say that, since the turn of the millennium, Britain has embarked on a period of transport upgrades. Projects such as the High Speed Rail Link to the Channel Tunnel, modernization of the West Coast Main Line, Crossrail, refurbishment of Gatwick Airport, and now High-Speed 2, have sought to keep up with population growth and demand, as well as driving investment and economic growth. 

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At the heart of many of these projects is Bechtel. The company employs more than 55,000 employees worldwide and has worked in 160 countries across seven continents. As well as being an industry-leading project and programme management company, Bechtel provides fully integrated engineering, procurement and construction capability. This seamless approach to project delivery avoids many of the pitfalls that often arise from having separate companies undertake design and construction work. Notable current international projects include design and construction of vast liquified natural gas plants in Australia and the US, engineering and building two underground lines for the Riyadh Metro, design and construction of a nuclear waste treatment plant at Hanford in the US, and being delivery partner for the Sydney Metro expansion.  

Bechtel, founded in 1898, set up its UK operations 65 years ago. Its global infrastructure business is based in London, and all three of the firm’s other global businesses, which span nuclear and defence, oil and gas, and mining and metals, also operate here. The privately-owned, family-managed business employs many thousands of UK nationals on projects here and internationally, helping to export UK talent around the world. Bechtel’s current portfolio in the UK includes Crossrail, Gatwick airport refurbishment, the Wylfa Newydd nuclear plant, decommissioning a legacy waste facility at Sellafield, supporting transformation of Defence Equipment and Support for the Ministry of Defence, London City airport expansion, a delivery partner role with Network Rail including some programme management support services for rail electrification, and phase 2 development partner for High Speed 2. 

Gibbs is joined by his colleague, Steven Kay, UK infrastructure operations manager, in the company’s London office near Blackfriars Bridge. In what is a common career path for UK nationals in Bechtel, both have gained immense experience working overseas, from the United Arab Emirates to the USA, and have brought that experience back to the UK to play key roles on Crossrail, where Bechtel is the project delivery partner. So what do they see as the major challenges facing the UK in continuing to modernise its infrastructure? Gibbs says: “What we’re looking at here in the UK is how we can help deliver more for less. We need to look at the optimum delivery models on both the customer and contractor side so that the customer retains sufficient oversight and control, while the contractor has the right balance of risk ownership and execution authority to be incentivised to really drive improvements in delivery. And rather than simply recognising the scarcity of engineering skills here in the UK, we need to take the right long term decisions, Government and industry acting in partnership, to solve those problems”.  

Bechtel in the UK is looking to develop the next generation of engineers. Gibbs is fresh from a trip to Somerset, where the company along with Bath University hosted the first international finals of the FIRST LEGO league, with more than 700 children from 36 countries taking part. Alongside the tournament, the children were shown a film about life working as an engineer, the film – sponsored by Bechtel - is named ‘Dream Big’ and will be shown in the Science Museum from September.  

"Ultimately, there is nothing more rewarding than completing something that inspires the next generation to take on the infrastructure challenges to come." Steven Kay, UK infrastructure operations manager

“When kids see some of the big, iconic projects that you could be involved in as an engineer, they can see what a profound difference they can make to the world,” Gibbs says. “It’s great to get the next generations enthusiastic about the future, show how we can make a sustained difference to people’s lives through infrastructure, and make it fun”.

Kay says: “We also need to innovate. That does mean through the smart application of new technologies such as 3D, 4D and 5D modelling, 3D printing, robotics and autonomous machines, laser and radar technology, which are already helping to deliver faster and better construction. But to me an equal priority is constantly seeking to strengthen and improve existing ways of doing business, for example through new commercial mechanisms, finding new ways to connect and engage with our colleagues, or finding a new and simpler way to solve an old problem.”  

Gibbs and Kay are also keen to highlight Bechtel’s focus on sustainability, an increasingly important aspect to infrastructure development, not just focusing on sustainable construction techniques, but also looking at the impact of infrastructure development on the vitality of the surrounding communities.

Gibbs says: “The construction industry has been on a long journey on safety. From thinking accidents and injuries were an inevitable part of the job, through it being a discriminator for some more enlightened companies that saw looking after their people as a core duty, through to it becoming an established fundamental culture of the whole industry. I think we are starting on a similar journey on sustainability in the construction industry. Previously, what was seen as the domain of the scientists and the engineers, sustainability is already an opportunity for competitive differentiation in our industry. And I hope and expect that in a few years, sustainability will become a standard, rigorous element of technical qualifications for all new major contracts.”

Kay adds: “Bechtel has placed sustainability right at the heart of our infrastructure business. We have played a central role in the development of low carbon energy, through solar power, nuclear, liquefied natural gas and lower carbon coal. We have taken a lead in supporting the communities we work in through local sub-contracting and local hiring”.  

Crossrail is an impressive example of sustainable infrastructure development in action. Over 550 apprenticeships have been created and over 4,500 local people have found employment on the project, whilst 96% of the contracts awarded by Crossrail went to UK companies. And the project team has been at pains to protect the environment during the construction phase: 84 per cent of construction machinery in the central section is fitted with pollutant-reducing emission controls and 98 per cent of material excavated from the tunnels and other sites was beneficially reused.  

“We want to help create a lasting and beneficial legacy through our projects here in the UK. Ultimately, there is nothing more rewarding than completing something that’s not just a project for a customer, but actually handing over the know-how that you’ve helped to create to prepare and inspire the next generation to take on the infrastructure challenges to come.” Kay says. 

“There is no doubt that delivery of major projects here in the UK has improved in recent years,” Gibbs explains. “But we can and must continue to get better. For us the challenge is persuading our customers that we can do these things, by showing them that we have more to offer than the part they have seen of us already,” He adds: “I think that if we’re able to demonstrate to our customers that you can get more for less, we will really build confidence in our collective capability, Government and industry, to deliver the major programme of infrastructure investment that is currently planned. ”

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