Staff Spotlight: Len Threadgold, Chairman
How did you first get involved in site investigation?
When I was at school I was interested in geology but there was no option to do this as a subject. I did maths and physics instead so that I could study Civil Engineering at University. When I went to the University of Liverpool the nearest thing to geology in my course was Soil Mechanics, which is what Geotechnics as a subject used to be called. I did some geology as part of that course and I found it quite intriguing. Then I looked for what I might want to do in the future, and I applied to do research in Soil Mechanics.
That was a one year research project and they wanted me to do some more, but I felt the need to get a better feel for the ground as well as a better grasp of the industry at large. A course is one thing, but experiencing ground engineering is something else.
Just before I graduated, I was offered a role with the Air Ministry. You might think “The Air Ministry? What’s that got to do with the ground?” Well, planes have to land. There are lots of challenges with airfields. They have large expanses of tarmac or concrete runways which are very difficult to drain. The water wants to drain off, but it’s very flat ground and you can end up with big ponds which are not good for landing aircraft.
I also worked towards my Chartership in Civil Engineering, which involved working on the design of the approach spans for the North Perimeter Road bridge at Heathrow Airport. That’s still there today, and my nephews and nieces always refer to it as Uncle Len’s bridge!
As part of my Civil Engineering work, I also had to get some site work. I spent a year in the London design office and was then posted to Faslane, on the Clyde. I worked on one of the biggest building projects in the UK at the time - the Polaris naval base. I arrived on site 1st January 1964 – though of course nobody was working there on New Year’s Day!
I spent nearly two years on site there and gained experience of real-world construction problems which included some off-shore site investigation for the jetties and mooring dolphins. Then I joined the site investigation department of Cementation in Rickmansworth. That’s where I really became enthusiastic for the subject. They were really good engineers and I have fond memories of my time there. When I arrived I couldn’t have designed a site investigation to save my life and didn’t know where to start! I worked in their lab initially and went on to control investigations and write interpretative reports, eventually becoming a Senior Engineer. Whilst I was there my ICE Chartership came through.
What did you do after
After Cementation, I joined a company called Exploration Associates in Warwick as their Chief Engineer. It was a young company, and it was a totally different atmosphere. Cementation was a big company with a lot of experience and tradition, whereas this young company had been set up by a guy who was full of enthusiasm and vision and with similarly motivated staff.
One particular aspect of the work which they grew to do was instrumentation. There was only one manufacturer in the UK for instruments at the time, and one of my colleagues was convinced that we could do a much better job than them. A new company called Geotechnical Instruments was brought to life and still exists today. I had a whale of a time working on these instruments with my colleagues, developing new ideas and applications for them.
However, I felt the need to do more consultancy work. I went to see the boss, who was very supportive but eventually decided against it. Six months later, I decided to put my money on the line and set off to establish my own consultancy!
Where did your new consultancy take you?
I worked on a number of projects in the UK, but there was a lot of interest in geotechnical engineering in Hong Kong at the time in the context of major development plans and in the aftermath of a number of major landslips. There were probably more geotechnical engineers per square metre in Hong Kong at that time than anywhere else on earth.
After a few years I noticed that a lot of major companies in the UK were cutting down their site investigation departments and following closure of one of them in CoventryI set up what would become Geotechnics Limited. I was really surprised and thrilled when we able to register the name “Geotechnics Limited” – we do “what it says on the tin”. The company started in premises on Foleshill Road in Coventry and we applied for a Local Authority grant to help us to transform what was once part of the research laboratory for Courtulds into offices and laboratories.
Since then, it’s been evolution rather than revolution. We had about 8 people to start with, but we grew and grew from there, moving into the current office in Coventry in 1989. Now we have four offices around the country – in Chester, Exeter, Coventry and York – and employ over 100 people. I’m very proud of Geotechnics, and looking back on my career in the context of being invited to present the John Mitchell Award lecture has made me even prouder – it really has.
What is a typical day like for you now?
I’m trying to avoid being at the centre of specific projects now, but I regularly peer-review reports and if I’m called in to give consideration to a particular problem I will get involved. I get involved in loads of things, and also act as an ambassador for the company gettting messages out to clients , as for example with my John Mitchell Lecture. In a typical day, I’ll do a certain amount of promotion; checking and reporting; discussion to resolve problems and, alongside John Booth, consider where we go from here and what we need to do in the future.
I work on the belief that everybody I’m working with has the same objective of doing projects well and providing a service to be proud of rather than to make the company grow for its own sake. Size has never been an important objective as far as I’m concerned. Doing something well is much more important, and if we grow as a consequence of that then that’s great.
Len worked on a boulder barrier in Hong Kong to prevent rocks falling onto a major housing site.
What are some of your favourite projects you’ve worked on?
One of the privileges of working in this sector is that you can see what you’ve done. I can drive up motorways and think “Hey I designed that slope!” or resolved that problem.
I remember once walking out of Wong Tai Sin station in Hong Kong and looking up to see some barriers I’d designed to protect a major housing site from boulder falls. The thought struck me that those barriers wouldn’t have been there but for me; that’s quite a privilege and I’m sure that the same thought strikes many in the construction business.
There is an area in Hong Kong called Chuk Yuen where cut slopes some 64m high in places were proposed. To be adequately stable we found that the groundwater levels were too high and needed to be lowered. We developed a system whereby large diameter vertical wells were drilled using traditional Hong Kong techniques and submersible pumps installed at their bases to lower the water table. When excavation levels reached just beyond these levels, it was possible to drill sub-horizontally to meet the wells and allow the water to drain under gravity so that they no longer had to use pumps, it just flowed out.
Years after I left Hong Kong, a good friend of mine phoned me up. He said he’d just been to the site and visited some of his slopes and also the slopes I’d been working on. A group of ladies was bottling the water that ran out of the piped slope drains and they were selling it as “Water from the heart of the dragon”! I was thrilled by their ingenuity and that a slope stability measure had led to a cottage industry - a truly sustainable solution
What do you like to do outside work?
I love skiing. I love mountains, being out in the fresh air, and keeping as fit as I can. I go to the gym a couple of times a week, or more if I’m going to be skiing. My wife and I also love going to our cottage in Cornwall on a regular basis and engaging with the local community, as well as walking in the countryside and cliff walks in this stunning part of Britain.
I’ve done five marathons, the first of which was in Coventry. I’ve completed three London marathons, as well as the Coast of China marathon in Hong Kong. When I was in Asia, I was always trying to keep fit and ran regularly around the peak of Hong Kong on Sunday mornings with a group of other enthusiasts. On one occasion I actually jogged up and down parts of the Great Wall of China!
What is a surprising fact that other people might not know about you?
I believe that I am the reigning 1 mile champion for the Cementation/Trollope and Coles/New Ideal Homes/Trafalgar House group. After Cementation was amalgamated with these other companies, they held a sports day and I won the 1 mile race. I’m still unbeaten because they stopped the sports days after that!
I was reasonably fit and used to run at lunch times as training for orienteering and hockey. At the start of the race I thought “I have no idea how to pace this, so I’ll just keep behind the guy in front”. I realised after a couple of laps that there was a bit of a team thing going on amongst some of the other runners with positions swapping, but I kept just behind the guy in front. When somebody overtook them, I thought “Well, I’d better keep up!” Half way round the last lap, in response to shouts of “Come on Len!” I thought I’d better do something so I accelerated past the guys in front and just carried on running. That’s all I did – and I won!
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