Eminent civil engineer Robert Benaim this month receives one of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s highest accolades, the Sir Frank Whittle Medal, in recognition of his lifetime achievements, leading a step-change in prestressed concrete structures and improving the way in which consultants and contractors work together.
After graduating from Imperial College in 1961, Robert moved to France to gain experience in the new technique of using prestressed concrete for large infrastructure. After returning to the UK in 1969, he disrupted the traditional approach of consultants and contractors working separately, developing a much more collaborative style. This led to a profound shift in the procurement of civil engineering projects, recognising that consultants and contractors working together improve the efficiency of designs. This bidding process, called ‘alternative design’, meant that consultants and contractors worked together on a complete solution, not just a design, and enabled the combined teams to suggest different, quicker and more cost-effective options. This would lead to the development of the design and build contracts that are common today.
In 1980, he set up Robert Benaim & Associates (RBA), which he led until 2000, when he became an independent consultant. RBA was founded on producing alternative designs for contractors, and led the development of Value Engineering in the UK. A notable example of Robert’s Value Engineering approach is the Limehouse Link Road Tunnel in London’s Docklands, built to improve access to the Isle of Dogs. At the request of the contractor he proposed a Value Engineering-led redesign for the 1.7km, dual two-lane highway tunnel, developing a more efficient design that was faster and cheaper.
Throughout his career, Robert’s passion for effective and efficient design, and problem solving, has led to innovative technical solutions that were novel at the time but are now seen as commonplace. These included the first glued, precast concrete, segmental viaduct in the UK, the Byker Viaduct, which carries the Tyne & Wear Metro. This method of construction relies on the prestressed segments being made in a factory to high quality standards. Each 50-tonne segment is cast against the last to ensure a good fit when assembled on site. Glue is used to fit the segments together, help them slide into place and to waterproof the joints. This method of construction creates a high-quality structure that is quick to build and cost-efficient, and is now widely used for long viaducts around the world.
In another project, his firm created a 3D computer model of underground roads in Singapore City. They adapted highway design software in an innovative way to model the dual, three and four lane cut-and-cover tunnel in 3D, from which all the construction drawings were prepared.
Robert’s projects have received many awards, including a Concrete Society Award for the Byker Viaduct, Concrete Society Commendations for Runnymede Bridge, East Moors Viaduct and the Belfast Cross Harbour Links and the British Construction Industry Award for the Limehouse Link.
Robert is acknowledged as one of the UK’s leading experts on the design of prestressed concrete bridges. He has lectured widely on this subject and on the aesthetics of bridges, and has addressed the universities of Florence, Leuven, Paris, Imperial College and Cambridge. He has also acted as expert witness and written technical papers on several of his projects and a text book ‘The Design of Prestressed Concrete Bridges – Concepts & Principles’, published by Taylor & Francis in 2007. Robert was President of the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers in 2018, and has served as a Council Member of both the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Institution of Structural Engineers. In 2000, he was President of the British Section of the Conseil National des Ingenieurs et Scientifique de France.
Upon receiving the award, he said: “One of the main satisfactions of the work I have done is that it is so visible – I can point to it and say that I was involved. The other is that I can see how it helps people, a bypass for example can divert lorries from a village, improving the residents’ quality of life. I am immensely honoured to be receiving the Sir Frank Whittle Medal.”
Notes to editors
Named after Britain’s jet engine genius, the Sir Frank Whittle Medal is awarded to an engineer resident in the UK whose outstanding and sustained achievements have had a profound impact on their engineering discipline.
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