Interview with Dec Downey, ISTT Gold Medalist
Dr Dec Downey was awarded the ISTT Gold Medal at No-Dig Beijing 2016. Here, he speaks on his background, his connection to the UKSTT, and how he has seen the Trenchless Technology industry grow and flourish.
Can you tell us a little about your background and education?
I grew up on a small and remote farm on Dartmoor and went to school in Plymouth. On leaving school a few months of milking cows, at night and in the morning seven days a week, taught me that my interests were not rooted in agriculture and I was lucky to get a place at the new University of Bath to study Engineering Metallurgy. The four-year course involved three periods of six months working for the GKN Group gaining experience of steel making, and heavy metal bashing.
I was so surprised to get a BSc degree that I decided to stay at the University and study for a PhD. Jan, my wife of just a few months, was very surprised too – she thought I was going to get a real job! Research for a PhD was far more attractive and gave me the opportunity to play rugby at least twice a week.
How did you get your start in the Trenchless Technology industry?
After I left Bath in 1973, I joined the ARC Group at their R&D Centre in Chipping Sodbury. One of my first projects involved modeling alternatives to road transportation of stone, from a quarry eleven miles away to the port at Newlyn for shipment to Europe. We devised a 48-inch pipeline, transporting the stone in capsules driven by air pressure, potentially saving fuel costs and reducing traffic congestion and disruption to the public.
Soon after that I was assigned as research manager to a program developing a glass reinforced concrete pipe, which turned out to be very suitable for microtunnelling, and we won a Queen’s Award for Technology. The thin-walled pipe was also used in trenched construction where its smooth profile meant narrower trenches, less excavation and bedding, lower soil and traffic loadings. Less dig, if not no-dig!
The technology was licensed in Japan and I made many visits studying microtunnelling. In this time I met Dr Tohyama, then Director General of the Ministry of Constructions Sewerage Division, and encouraged him to come and speak at the 1985 IPHE Conference ‘Trenchless Construction for Utilities’, which was the starting point for ISTT. I was filled with enthusiasm and signed up to join the new society immediately.
After making your start in the industry, how did you get involved with the UKSTT?
I was fortunate to be involved at the beginning of UKSTT in 1993, which was prompted by working with good friends, Ted Flaxman and John James, and promoting Trenchless Technology to the water companies and the National Joint Utilities Group. It’s good to see so many of the messages the UKSTT and ISTT seeded bear fruit in the New Roads and Street Works Act and the Traffic Management Act which followed.
I had my turn as Chairman of UKSTT in 1999 following on from Martin Kane, before Norman Howell took over the role from me. I think that was a very productive time and all our successors have done a really good job to build on the efforts of those early years. Ted Flaxman asked me to join the ISTT Guarantors in 1997 and the Executive Sub Committee around 2000. It was interesting to see the strong European perspectives of Michel Mermet, Rolf Beilecki and Gert Fischer, and the efforts of Executive Secretaries Jon Sutro and John Castle to address all the challenges of the fast growing society.
I became ISTT Vice Chair in 2005 and deputed for Chairman Menno Henneveld at many of the Affiliated Society events during his term. In 2007 it was my turn for the hot seat, I took over from Menno and made my first address to the Board members during the Chairman’s Dinner held in the roof garden of Rome’s Bernini Hotel.
After successive annual events in Moscow and Toronto I handed the reigns over to Dr Sam Ariaratnam in 2010. Sam and I worked together to develop the Masterclass Program and I continued to work on the ESC as Past Chair until 2013. I continue to serve as a Guarantor and keep up to date with UKSTT and ISTT events.
What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in the sector over the years?
In the rehabilitation industry: the transformation of cured-in-place pipe (CIPP) from a specialist process to a commodity business. I feel privileged to have worked in this sector with so many exceptional engineers and entrepreneurs. With the expiry of Insituform patents, new products and systems and many new operators flooded onto the market, prices fell.
Rehabilitation has become a real competitor to pipe replacement by open cut, which has allowed its substantial benefits to be realised. This is good news for asset owners but a real challenge in terms of the quality of installation.
What does winning the ISTT Gold Medal mean to you?
It means so much; it’s nearly 40 years since I first visited a microtunnelling site and realised what could be achieved, and time has just flown by. Every day has been interesting and fun; that is reward enough for a lot of hard work. The recognition, being placed alongside people for whom you have huge respect, is humbling.
Do you have any advice for young people in the industry?
Ask all the questions you can think of, and then some. Soak up all the advice and information and then share what you have learned with your colleagues and customers; it’s for the public’s benefit.
This article was featured in the Winter 2017 edition of Trenchless International. To view the magazine on your PC, Mac, tablet, or mobile device, click here.