Issue: 1/03

Progress requires innovation to be recognized and accepted. History is full of examples of venerable committees who refused to accept new paradigms simply because those departures conflicted with their pre-conceptions of what was or could be possible. In the U.K., a classic example was the refusal by the Ministry of Aircraft Production in the 1930s to recognize Frank Whittle's fundamental work on the jet engine, a failure compounded by the necessity to share the technology with wartime partners who naturally became peacetime competitors. While our area of interest is never likely to include such a stark example, it is necessary to be aware of the dangers of not recognizing and nurturing innovation, even if it seems to conflict with our own pre-conceived conceptions. These thought were reinforced by comments made by Julius Ballanco in the June edition of PM Engineer relating to Air Admittance Valves (AAVs).

As chairman of the Water Regulations Advisory Committee of the U.K.'s Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), I am aware of this dilemma. Similarly, as the leader of a research group constantly trying to gain funding from government, industry or the research councils for new and innovative solutions to drainage and water conservation issues, I see the problem from the other side too.

The AAV saga is truly international. There are doubts in the U.K. still as to the acceptability of these devices, the Australian Standards authority does not accept AAVs for anything except group branch venting and the U.S. resistance was clear from Julius' despair, despite a 20-year development. As I have mentioned in previous columns, I expect similar resistance before a positive pressure attenuator device is accepted by our industry.

A similar concern at present revolves around the proposition that the Water Regulations should allow the retrofit of both dual and interruptible flush devices into pre-regulation wc's with flush volumes of 9 liters (pre-1987) or 7.5 liters (1987-2001 standard). While the dual flush devices may be acceptable, the interruptible flush presents other problems. Aesthetic considerations mean that it is sometimes quite difficult to identify the instant at which the w.c. bowl empties of any solid or paper tissue waste, and hence, there is a likelihood that the next user will have to flush to clear the pan, resulting in water waste. An interruptible flush will inevitable lead to waste deposition in the branch serving the w.c. unless there are other appliance water flows to provide self cleansing. However, in taking this line and opposing interruptible flush devices, are we acting as gatekeepers and preventing new and innovative solutions?

Other design innovations will doubtless test code and regulation committees. The introduction of siphonic rainwater roof drainage has many advantages, despite the current necessity to size the system for only one storm-i.e. the storm that primes the system into full bore flow. However, there may well be alternative solutions that will spread the range of rainfall intensity and duration that can generate the required flow conditions--watch this space.

Similarly, we should not assume that just because a design option was originally introduced by our Victorian forebears it does not have a resonance in current practice, particularly when modern manufacturing techniques have removed many of the traditional barriers to what is possible.

So, what is the solution? Perhaps it is the question that is wrong. What are code and regulatory bodies for? In the U.K., the Water Regulations are set up to "prevent the contamination, waste and misuse of water." Therefore, the regulations should not be prescriptive as to the means of achieving those objectives. However, there is a need for the regulatory authority, in this case the government through DEFRA, to have a certainty that mechanisms are in place to ensure that the attainment of these objectives is properly monitored.

These concerns lead to a blueprint for a different type of regulatory committee whose remit would be to ensure that broad objectives were reached. Targets could be formulated to conserve water, to maximize the use of existing infrastructure, or to give the public the widest range of consumer information in order to assist in product selection. This form of code body would look very different from the often industry-dominated institutions we recognize. The independence of participants would be rigorously enforced, and eventually, we would generate a system that welcomed innovation, so long as the risk analysis embedded in such a change of paradigm was acceptable. In such a regulatory regime, Julius' despair at the lack of acceptance of AAVs would not be necessary, and our deliberations on the use of interruptible flush devices would be guided by a rigorous analysis of the likely costs of maintenance due to waste deposition.

Finally, readers who have enjoyed Frank Herbert's Dune series of 1960s-inspired science fiction may recall his assertion that "beginnings are a fragile time." None more so than during the past three months, when we have seen the formation of the School of the Built Environment at Heriot-Watt. Bringing together civil engineers, construction managers, urban planners and housing academics has been challenging. Our "official" launch at the end of November was an outstanding success. We attracted representatives of a wide range of organizations, and our presentations, school tours and demonstrations were well received. We took the opportunity to re-name our two buildings for two eminent Victorians--William Arrol, who constructed the Forth Bridge, to represent engineering excellence and an entrepreneurial spirit, and Edwin Chadwick, to represent our concern for the quality of the built environment. In retrospect, a fun day.