Canadian Consulting Engineer

DIARY: Lameduck Hydraulic Enterprises Limited, or Confessions of a Basement Engineer

March 1, 2002
By David H. Willis, P.Eng.

St-Malo, France, 17 December 2000Je devrais dcider -- le conditionnel de politesse. I wouldn't have used that form in English. Not, "I should decide." Rather, "I must decide what to do with what's le...

St-Malo, France, 17 December 2000

Je devrais dcider — le conditionnel de politesse. I wouldn’t have used that form in English. Not, “I should decide.” Rather, “I must decide what to do with what’s left of my life, specifically with David H Willis and Associates Limited.”

There are no associates, of course. It’s only me. My wife, Denice, and daughters, Alette and Genevieve, are in line to become associates according to the business plan, but show understandable reluctance to take up their share options until the “business” breaks even. Denice has just retired from government service, and so we are taking the better (winter) part of a year off in Europe. The question is: What will we go back to next June? What will I go back to?

“David H Willis and Associates Limited is incorporated to market the expertise of David H Willis P.Eng., specializing in —

Coastal, river and hydrotechnical engineering

Numerical modelling of hydrodynamics and sedimentation

Physical hydrodynamic and sedimentation modelling in partnership with the Canadian Hydraulics Centre (CHC) of NRC, Queen’s University, HRWallingford Limited, and others

Sediment transport, especially estuarine mud

Basic research on bedforms under waves

Development of third generation shoreline evolution models

Design of field measurement programs for the above

Short courses on the above

Writing and editing of the above.”

That’s what the business plan says in both official languages.

Who would pay for such services? The first thing a business plan requires is an assessment of the market; therein lies the central issue in my decision. There is only one entry in the market for coastal engineering: government. Some level of government owns, or is responsible for the entire coast of Canada.

The federal government also controlled international aid spending on coastal engineering; money it gave back to large Canadian engineering companies to conduct studies of coastal problems in Africa and Asia. The only reason that last sentence is in the past tense is that the government of Canada has reduced even this form of international aid, leaving us to beg for overseas work from the Asian Development Bank and others.

There is some work available from individuals, but 100 metres of cottage frontage is too small to be treated separately from its neighbours. Better to unite through the municipality to protect the entire length of shoreline. The province of Ontario has added a new wrinkle: requiring individuals who have violated provincial shoreline regulations to pay a coastal engineer to prepare a report as a kind of fine. This is now my prime source of revenue.

There are also marinas that seek to build or expand, often owned or subsidized by municipalities. In the United States a market has also developed for private harbours for floating casinos, avoiding municipal anti-gambling laws and referenda.

My first coastal engineering project was a walkway along the waterfront in West Vancouver in 1967, as a junior structural engineer with Swan, Wooster Engineering, now Sandwell. My coastal engineering training started the same year in the Netherlands, and continued, virtually as an apprenticeship, at the Hydraulics Research Station, now HRWallingford Limited in the U.K.

The move to basement coastal engineering began with the Miramichi Channel Study, in 1974. This is the project that brought me back from the U.K. to Canada and the National Research Council.

When that study was drawing to a close, the projects manager, Keith Philpott, moved back to his basement and hired some junior staff, setting the pattern for the next 20 years for the rest of us. Bill Baird also left Public Works about this time, for an attic.

Today, W.F. Baird & Associates Coastal Engineers Limited is the force to be reckoned with. It employs about 10 coastal engineers in Canada, and a similar number in the U.S. and Chile. The company dominates coastal engineering in Canada. Some of the larger civil engineering consultants have retained coastal engineering managers to prepare proposals, but few carry coastal engineering departments. They hire the rest of us on contract to do the work. When I set up shop on Halloween 1995, this was the market I intended to exploit: sub consultant to the big guys.

The group who did the coastal design and supervision for Public Works Canada has been privatized in recent years, and has offices in Carp, Ontario. My ex-colleagues at the National Research Council also compete for coastal engineering jobs, alongside a couple of private hydraulics laboratories. The rest of us form the Canadian coastal engineering diaspora: most working alone out of offices in our basements, although mine is in the former master bedroom on the second floor.

Figueira, Portugal, 12 February 2001

What is this coastal engineering that David H Willis and his associates would like to sell to the government, any government? — a branch of civil engineering. This will come as a shock to most members of the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering, but there is a lot more to civil engineering than bridges and skyscrapers. There’s a bunch of us who deal with water in water supplies, sewage, drainage, flood control, and the interaction between land and water on riverbanks and coasts. The most wet civil engineering fun is to be had when the water doesn’t just stand in ponds nor flow in streams, but comes in waves onto the shores of oceans, seas, lakes, reservoirs, estuaries and wide rivers. Coastal engineers deal with waves; waves are our forcing function.

As any fool knows, waves are undulations on the water surface produced by wind and atmospheric pressure fluctuations. They travel, or propagate, in the direction of the wind. Wave energy, and a bit of water, propagates with the waves, but most of the water just goes up and down while the waves travel over it. That’s in deep water. When the waves reach shallow water near shore, the bed restricts the vertical water motions, resulting in wave breaking. The energy that was propagating towards the shore is dissipated on the shoreline, where it is available to drive currents, transport sand or destroy structures.

At the National Research Council our bread and butter was the modelling of fishing harbours to improve wave protection or reduce sedimentation around federal election times. The Small Craft Harbours Directorate of the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans was responsible for the care and maintenance of fishing harbours, and extended their pork barrel, sorry, mandate into harbours for pleasure craft. Government politicians could promise harbour improvements at one election; and at the next election four years later, could announce the model study needed to design the improvements; a third successful election would see the improvements constructed. The Right formerly Honourable Brian Mulroney had a list of 25 harbours in Newfoundland for his second election, but the good people there threw out all but two of his candidates. Nevertheless, several of the harbours saw improvement during his second term.

Thankfully, the work was interesting, and several fishermen (but not politicians) became my good friends. Most harbours required a physical model at a scale of about 1:100 to align the breakwater and dredged channel to minimize waves within the harbour; then a 1:25 model of a section of rubblemound breakwater to design the rock size and slope. A few like Pointe Sapin in New Brunswick and Parson’s Pond in Newfoundland had sedimentation problems — sand or gravel from adjacent beaches washed into the harbour mouth during storms. These required a larger-scale harbour model in which sediment movement could be simulated with some confidence. At Pointe Sapin we created a sand trap that would intercept the sand before it landed in the harbour mouth; we channelled the naturally strong ebb tide from Parson’s Pond to blow the entrance clear of gravel.

Ottawa, 21 November 2001

The high-speed personal computer and the Internet is what made possible the diaspora of coastal engineers from the public service and its
laboratories to our basements. Modelling is our main tool. Physical models are still most reliable for predicting structural stability such as the armour on rubblemound breakwaters and for some large-sediment problems, but numerical computer models have taken over the rest of the field. I can run computer models in my office.

Never mind its speed, my bottom-of-the-line laptop has a thousand times more random access memory than did the room full of computers we used in 1975 at the National Research Council to control physical models. And I can use it for word processing, accounting, and communication, with numerical models running in the background.

Although I have been at the consulting game for only six years, I claim elder status in the coastal engineers’ diaspora because of my white hair and the fact that the rest of them are at least 15 years younger. We are dispersed throughout the country, working from basements, dining rooms, bedrooms and sometimes mini-offices.

Judy Sullivan, for example, was a member of the excellent Queen’s University coastal engineering classes of the early 1980s. Her classmates included Bruce Pinchin, Fiona Itamunoala, Rob Nairn, Mike Davies and many other members of the Canadian coastal engineering mainstream as well as the diaspora. Like Bruce Pinchin, who has worked as a coastal engineering subconsultant from his Brampton, Ontario dining room for over a decade, Judy has small children in school. She operates Aqua Solutions from her guest bedroom in another Toronto suburb, specializing in coastal policy and planning. Milo Sturm is a refugee from Keith Philpott Consulting Limited; he left in 1992 to form Shoreplan Engineering Limited in his own Toronto basement. When his teenage daughter demanded the office as a recreation room last year, Milo moved Shoreplan to a nearby condominium.

Susan Davidson incorporated Sea Science 10 years ago. “I didn’t plan to work alone,” she says, “I wanted to be self-employed. They’re not the same thing.” I found her surrounded by boxes, moving office at the end of October, not from the basement to a bedroom, but between genuine downtown Vancouver offices. Like the rest of the diaspora, most of Sea Science’s work is bolstering the coastal engineering expertise of larger civil engineering firms. As a loner, Susan believes she spends far too much time on overhead — billing, accounting, sweeping office floors.

Susan is one of my two chief advisors on lone-consulting. The other is Mark Andrews. Coastal engineers aren’t the only engineers operating from guest bedrooms. Mark, a.k.a. M.E. Andrews & Associates Limited, inspects sewers from a bedroom office in his home on the twelfth floor of an apartment building, not a stone’s throw from the fine restaurants of Rideau Street in Ottawa. We have lunch at those restaurants about once a month to impart and receive advice.

The advantages of basement engineering include “zero commute time,” allowing me to work European or Pacific Coast hours if necessary. I can spend half my time working around the house and in the Alfa Romeo annex, with cell phone on my hip. The office dress code ranges from nocturnal to blue collar or no-collar, with dress shirts, jackets and shoes required maybe once a week, tops. Office overhead is another bonus: David H Willis and Associates Limited pays office and automobile rental charges; but in doing so it pays me, and my rates are very reasonable indeed.

As for the disadvantages — besides the time spent on overhead and the fallow periods between projects, there’s the loneliness. If I have produced quality coastal engineering over my employed years, it has been the result of argument with colleagues. Now I must work out my lonely thoughts, arguing with myself at the electronic drawing board or typewriter.

And what is to be the future for David H Willis and Associates Limited? Qu’est-ce que j’aurais dcid en Europe? Well, I decided to keep it going, but only half time; to concentrate on the “core business” of coastal engineering; to add technical writing to the core; and not to waste time and money on marketing or writing proposals — W.F. Baird & Associates Coastal Engineers Limited always wins anyhow.

David H. Willis, P.Eng., is principal of David H Willis and Associates, Ottawa, Ont.

* The text is adapted from David Willis’s “memoirs,” Lameduck Hydraulic Enterprises Limited, or Mistakes Have Been Made, a work in progress, copyright 2001 David H Willis and Associates Limited


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