Human Edge: Never Bored
December 1, 2008
By Canadian Consulting Engineer
Phil Seabrook, P. Eng. is the winner of the 2008 Consulting Engineers of British Columbia Meritorious Achievement Award. The award is given to an individual who has "demonstrated a significant lifetim...
Phil Seabrook, P. Eng. is the winner of the 2008 Consulting Engineers of British Columbia Meritorious Achievement Award. The award is given to an individual who has “demonstrated a significant lifetime contribution to engineering, the development of the industry and the community.” Seabrook has practised for 40 years with Levelton Consultants of Vancouver, seeing the firm grow from four people to almost 250 now. The company does specialty services in different areas of materials engineering and quality assurance, but Seabrook’s chief area of interest is concrete and construction materials.
Q. HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED IN CONSULTING ENGINEERING?
I didn’t have to worry about career choices. I always wanted to be a civil engineer. I started when I was 12 years old in my dad’s construction company and for me it was just fixed. I never thought about anything else.
After I left the master’s program at the University of Alberta, I spent a couple of years in the construction materials manufacturing business. Then I got an offer to move to Vancouver to join a consulting firm. That would be late 1964.
Bruce Levelton had set up the firm in about 1964-65 as a private consultant –a one-man show. He had a phone and a desk and that was it. I was employee No. 4 and I set up the construction materials division. In those days our function was testing and inspecting construction materials. We installed a simple little laboratory.
Now Levelton is a much bigger organization. It’s about 250 people now.
Q. IN YOUR ACCEPTANCE SPEECH AT THE CEBC AWARDS, YOU SUGGESTED THAT IT WAS EASIER FOR ENGINEERS TO BE INNOVATIVE IN PAST DECADES.
Well, for example, in the late 1970s we did some pretty innovative things with concrete. For example we developed semi-lightweight concrete for caissons that formed drilling platforms for oil rigs in the Beaufort Sea. The caissons were a unique structure designed by Swan Wooster (later Sandwell). My role was to develop the semi-lightweight concrete. We built the caissons in Vancouver and dragged them up there with a tug. They couldn’t be normal concrete because there were weight restrictions so that they could go over the shallow waters on the way up there.
We’d done a lot of work with semi-lightweight concrete but it had never reached any substantial strength levels on a production basis, only on a research basis. We convinced the owners, who were very good people to work with. It was a wonderful experience, and I’m very proud of the results. Actually those structures are still sitting up there. Unfortunately they are not used; they are beached, but they have weathered well.
I’m not sure that today people would let you produce something that has not been done previously on a commercial basis because of the liability situation. If you go outside the box, you’ll just open up the potential for liability. This is a concern of mine.
The other thing that’s change our world of course is the advent of the corporate engineering firms, which didn’t exist to any significant degree back when I started in the business but are very prominent now. And out of that corporate world, of course, engineering becomes a commodity. So now a presentation for a big project is focused significantly on education, project management and financial controls. The actual quality of the engineering per se is taken for granted and doesn’t take up a big part of the agenda.
Q. HAS YOUR EXPERIENCE IN CONSTRUCTION BEEN REWARDING?
Yes. I like my business. I like my work. The beauty of what consultants do, but I think specialty consultants even more so, is the very large number of projects we’re involved in –Levelton had 3,000 in one year –and the large number of people you meet. I have often told young engineers that you won’t get rich in the consulting business, but you’ll certainly never be bored.