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shaping a better world

Doug Balmer

Americas Highways Leader, ARUP

Q: How long have you been with Arup? Why did you open the Montreal office?

I’ve been with Arup nearly 30 years. I started out in the UK and moved to Canada 10 years ago to deliver the detailed design of the Autoroute 30, a public-private partnership project. I’ve had some really great opportunities throughout my career, and gained a wealth of knowledge delivering major infrastructure projects, either traditionally or using a variant of Public Private Partnerships or Design-Build contracts. The question of why Arup opens a new office is always an interesting one, because while there’s always a unique opportunity, there’s the same culture underlying each expansion. Arup grows organically, rather than through acquisitions. As each office grows, it gives us the ability to provide more services locally, and thus enhance the expertise that we provide globally. We operate as one organization to deliver our projects, and so even if the skills do not exist in one location, we know we can call on our colleagues around the world to share their knowledge with a local project team. The opportunity to open an office in Montreal in 2013 arose through a combination of a few of us not wanting to leave the great City of Montreal, with its rich blend of French and English cultures, as well as a few key project opportunities. We had secured a technical advisor role on the Samuel-De Champlain Bridge project, and the independent certifier role on the Design-Build project to reconstruct the Turcot Interchange. Those opportunities, coupled with our long term airport planning relationship with Aeroport de Montreal, meant the timing was right. Since then I’m really proud to say we have brought some fresh thinking to the delivery and procurement of major infrastructure projects in Quebec, drawing upon Arup’s global experience.

Q: Arup seems to be making great strides lately, all over the world - why?

I think this is because our core values are as relevant today as they were when our founder, Ove Arup and his partners, put the company into a Trust in the 1970’s. In doing so they not only protected the independence of the company, but also our freedom to be creative and innovative. At Arup employees are free to explore new ideas, new business ventures, and chose those projects where we can live our vision of ‘shaping a better world”. We also provide services across all aspects of the built environment, so there’s a lot of opportunity to have impact. Many people know Arup for some of the incredible buildings that we have designed across the world, but infrastructure and transport projects – especially challenging and complex airport, bridges, road, rail tunnels, water – form a large proportion of our work. For me, the most rewarding projects are those where we are able to provide value to those clients who don’t necessarily have deep knowledge or experience but are working to deliver a complex project. In those situations, it is our expertise and understanding of the full delivery cycle that allows us to help them challenge their own requirements and deliver a higher quality solution. Arup is committed to the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals as they are fully aligned with our vision and raison d’etre. More and more, we are seeking out clients that share our vision.

Q: When we met last week you talked about your work on the Samuel-De Champlain Bridge, and your interaction with the bridge's architect. Can you elaborate a bit - for me those stories are the stuff of infrastructure.

When Arup started to develop the procurement documentation for the Samuel-De Champlain Bridge with Infrastructure Canada there was a lot of local interest in the appearance of the new bridge. Many were calling for an architectural competition, but the situation required a solution that was both quicker and provided greater certainty to the final outcome. Arup promoted an idea that we had used on both the Oresund Bridge and the Queensferry Crossing, that of a definition design, whereby the form of the bridge was defined, without dictating the construction means and methods.

As part of this approach, Arup brought Poul Ove Jensen (Dissing & Weitling), and Claude Provencher (Provencher & Roy) into our team to develop an architectural solution for the new bridge. The form of the bridge took shape over several months, with Arup engineers working side by side with Poul & Claude’s team and Infrastructure Canada, bouncing ideas off each other, challenging concepts and ideas, and finally testing solutions with a panel of local design community representatives. It was important that the final outcome also took into consideration the transportation needs for the local communities and that the architectural vision that was ultimately agreed upon was balanced against the pressing need to replace the existing bridge while meeting other equally important objectives such as durability (125-yr design life), cost and construction feasibility within an aggressive schedule (42 month design-build period) and accounted for Montreal’s winter environment”. It was one of the most enjoyable parts of the project, as it truly embodied our ethos of total design focused upon delivering a better outcome for the end users. I often say that it is difficult to pinpoint who came up with the final design, as everyone contributed in one way or another. It is a credit to Infrastructure Canada that a commitment to the architectural vision has been maintained throughout the project, and that that vision currently being delivered is aligned within the parameters of the mandated definition design.

Q: Can you tell us where you see infrastructure going in the future - where is technology taking us? Is it forcing you to think differently about what you build, and why you build it?

Much of our current infrastructure is aging, and there is insufficient funding/ prioritization given to its replacement. That, coupled with the advent of new technologies and transit services, makes this an interesting time for the built environment – one in which traditional solutions are no longer going to be relevant in 10, 20, 30 years’ time. For one, cities are going to change, as the balance shifts from personally-owned vehicles, to one of ‘on demand’ services, autonomous vehicles, and a need for integrated public transit solutions. If we are to make healthier Cities, we need to place greater emphasis on personal mobility, whether that’s walking, cycling or transit. We need to reconsider the public spaces and corridors in our Cities, which will ultimately result in a transformation of our roads and city infrastructure. In some ways, this does not require Arup to be thinking differently as we have already been thinking about these issues and helping clients grabble with their implications for years. For example, our Foresight and Innovation team has already led and published our future vision of cities and transit, the Cities Alive reports. Automation will increasingly be used in the delivery of infrastructure, which means those institutions that rely on hard copy drawings are going to have to change as project delivery processes change. Arup has invested heavily in digital transformation to ensure that we are at the forefront of delivery solutions. Delivering within a 3D digital world is not new for us, and one that is fully aligned with Ove’s vision of ‘Total engineering’, which, as I mentioned, is still incredibly relevant today.

Q: I know that you have twin daughters, so this might be an irrelevant question, but what is the last book that you read?

Sapiens, a brief history of Humankind. It is an interesting take on how we have evolved, and how we get along (or don’t get along) with each other. It’s fairly relevant to my work, actually. Much of what we do delivering large infrastructure projects relies on teams focusing on a common goal. Sometimes the processes and contracts we put in place can hinder that, especially when a company puts individual turnover or profit ahead of collective success. I’m not saying that profit is not important to companies to ensure their success and survival, but I believe a partnering approach can deliver a better solution overall, and one that is aligned with one of Arup’s core values, that of ‘reasonable prosperity’ for all. I question those situations where too much emphasis is placed upon the ‘lowest cost solutions’ at the expense of realizing a project that truly shapes a better world.

A civil engineer by training, Doug has over twenty five years’ experience in the areas of project management and civil engineering design specializing in major highway, bridge and rail projects. He has successfully completed a variety of transportation related projects and has much extensive experience leading major civil infrastructure design teams and also of providing Technical Advice within PPP/ DBFOM/ Design & Build/ Early Contractor Involvement contracts formats. Doug has been instrumental in the delivery of a variety of highway and bridge crossing projects around the world.

He is currently managing the Owner’s Engineer contract for the New Bridge for the St. Lawrence Corridor (NBSLC) project. Prior to his work on the NBSLC, Doug was the project manager and highway Lead on the Highway A30 project leading the detailed design team for the 42km of new highway around Montreal. 

Throughout his career with the firm, Doug has been closely involved with the application of new technology on projects. This has included design and visualization software and the implementation of collaboration and data management tools.