Conversations: Engineering on TV
Steve Burrows, PE, CBE, is executive vice-president and director of the U.S. buildings business of WSP. Over his 30 year career with WSP and other companies, he has engineered buildings around the world. But for the past six years he has also...
Steve Burrows, PE, CBE, is executive vice-president and director of the U.S. buildings business of WSP. Over his 30 year career with WSP and other companies, he has engineered buildings around the world. But for the past six years he has also been hosting television documentaries that explore famous archaeological monuments and uncover the engineering secrets that made them possible. His most recent show is “Time Scanners,” a six-part series showing on PBS in North America. http://www.pbs.org/program/time-scanners/
Burrows was in Toronto at the end of September. CCE spoke to him then.
Q. Obviously you’re a very busy man with your career as a building engineer at WSP, so how did you get involved in the TV business?
After my work leading the engineering of the Bird’s Nest Stadium for the Beijing Olympic Games, I was given a CBE by the Queen, which was a great personal honour. I had previously received the Brunel Medal from the Institution of Civil Engineers, so in engineering circles, I am reasonably well known. Atlantic Productions in London were making a show called “Engineering the Impossible” that went out on the Science Channel. They asked if I would be interested in doing a screen test for the show.
It sounded intriguing, so I went along. At the interview they sat me in front of a camera and microphone and said, Can you explain how the pyramids were built?
“I have no idea,” I said. But on the table were some mints. “Why don’t we try?” I placed the first stone using one mint, and then placed the next in another corner, and so on. I talked through the early process of building a pyramid using the mints, and the interviewer said, “You’re our guy.”
I love promoting engineering. I’m passionate about it. It’s great fun.
Q. How did you apply engineering technologies for the show?
We took mobile laser scanners, together with older technology like ground penetrating radar and photogrammetry, and combined them to make a virtual model of ancient sites. We could then play with the model and make discoveries.
Q. What kinds of things did you find out?
One example is at the Roman Coliseum. We scanned it and created a model, then we put avatars (computer generated people) in the seats and did a direct comparison fire exit analysis between the Roman Coliseum and the Birds’ Nest Stadium in Beijing. We did a timed egress analysis to see which was the better stadium for people to escape from in the event of a fire – and the Romans won.
Another episode was in Petra in Jordan where they built those incredible facades in the sandstone. The question was, How did they do that? My initial opinion was that they may have created giant steps first to make sure the rock quality was good and to create safe platforms for the masons to work from. We did a laser scan of the side walls and when we turned the colour off, we could actually see the step profile.
In Egypt, we scanned four different pyramids and when we moved the models around we could see how they learned from one project to the next, such as how to move the burial chamber from below ground to the middle of the pyramid. We did the show as a sort of evolutionary process, to show how they built bigger and better over time. Which is pretty interesting, because it’s the construction apprenticeship model on a giant scale.
They were people who learned from generation to generation and refined their art. I think we’re losing that a bit in construction. I think the loss of apprenticeships is a sad thing in our industry and we need to get that back. cce