Cantifix: Where did you train and study and what made you decide to stay in the UK having completed (the majority of) your studies?
Dimitri: I first started studying engineering at Kingston University with a BEng in civil engineering, then an MSc in structural design and construction management and I’m currently completing a PhD in structural engineering, again at Kingston.
The UK has a thriving construction sector and the number opportunities here is huge. The type of projects in the UK are also different to other countries, I particularly enjoy working on big projects (for instance, the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station, which I was lucky enough to be a part of), which offer better opportunities for professional progression, and there’s no end of these here in the UK.
C: What attracted you to glass and, specifically, Cantifix?
D: The reasons are twofold. Although I had no calling in glass when I started my career, it is an amazing material, stronger than concrete in some respects, but also incredibly difficult to work with, so it interests me greatly. I also like the aesthetics of glass – those huge glass facades on modern buildings are things of beauty to me. The opportunity to work for a leading specialist in a rather special material was too good to pass up. I’m intrigued by glass as most engineers aren’t that familiar with it and how it works and there’s always something new to learn, even for a business with 36 years’ experience in the field.
Cantifix also gave me the opportunity of working on large, interesting schemes, which as I said above interests me greatly. The years of experience that Cantifix has around structural glazing give them a background of specialism that appeals to me. The fact that Cantifix work on such big, difficult projects mean that it makes more sense to have someone permanent in-house to do the engineering, as they pick up bits of knowledge over multiple projects that can be applied to future projects.
C: What’s been your favourite Cantifix project to work on?
D: In reality, every project that needs technical expertise is interesting to me, so I don’t really have a favourite. The most difficult projects that require the most imagination and have the most engineering challenges are always the most fun! Being part of the development of a whole new rooflight system for Battersea and the huge curved façade on Nottingham Castle were both very enjoyable challenges for me.
C: Have there been any that have been particularly difficult or that have presented particular engineering challenges?
D: Nottingham castle was an interesting one for me. From an engineering standpoint, it’s always challenging when you have a large area of glass (a curved glass façade around 20m by 3.5m) but the design calls for minimal support. As an engineer, the tensions between form and function can be tricky to navigate, and I’m almost always pushed beyond my comfort zone in pursuit of an architect or client’s vision. The fact that it was curved added additional difficulty, as it changes the way loads are distributed.
Any project that uses glass beams for support is always difficult, as when glass breaks, it is completely useless as a load-bearing material. Glass, in particular the laminated glass that’s used in things like glass beams has a limited lifespan, so extra precautions must be factored in at the beginning of the project, rather than when something goes wrong 20 years down the line!
C: You’re studying for a PhD - how does your work at Cantifix further your professional aims as an engineer?
D: Doing a PhD in structural engineering will always bring benefits to ones working life as an engineer. There’s no specific thing I can point to and say “this came straight out of my PhD studies”. Simply studying engineering at a more advanced level and learning new concepts has helped with problems in my working life that I might not have had solutions to before I started my PhD.
My thesis is on reinforcement or repair of buildings affected by seismic activity and using fibre reinforced polymers (glass fibre, carbon fibre, etc.) as a solution to this problem. Most of these materials have lots of different applications, which means it’s easy to apply lessons learned here to my work. For instance, we had a potential problem with a rooflight that was to be installed in Istanbul, which has far more seismic activity than the UK, so the rooflight needed to be designed to take this into account. Therefore, my studies about seismic design and solutions of strengthening buildings came handy in designing a structure which could address the aforementioned problem.
C: How do you reconcile Cantifix’s minimal aesthetic with your engineering expertise and experience?
D: As I mentioned, this is always a challenge as an engineer. Our first priority is to design things that are safe and most of the standard engineering procedures prioritise safety rather than aesthetics. The nature of the work that we do means that these conflicts come up a lot and safety always trumps any other consideration, but there is room for compromise. My (and Cantifix’s) experience means that we can push the limits to some extent. The practicalities of actually installing a structure also come into play, it may be difficult to achieve a solution or use a specific part in practice. So I also have to factor in the considerations of the guys installing the glass on site into my solutions, it’s tricky, but we always come up with a solution that looks beautiful, which is the ultimate aim of everyone involved.
C: How is your relationship with our designers? You’re in a strange position of being a part of the design team, but in a discipline that’s strictly your domain.
D: I wouldn’t say it’s quite like that, while I don’t directly produce drawings for our clients, I am heavily involved in the design process. If we need to do something new, then t
he first question to ask is how to achieve it safely. The designers, architects and myself must then work together in order to find a solution. Designers have solutions to problems that they may have collected over years of experience. My job is to understand the theory behind how these things work and provide a solution backed up with numerical proof and engineering principles so that we can be sure that our solutions work across many different applications.
C: Do you have any involvement in the R&D side of the business?
D: Cantifix often take on jobs that other companies can’t or won’t do and in these types of projects, the initial design is essentially an R&D project, we need to come up with a novel solution to a problem no one’s really thought about before. These solutions need to be backed up by calculations and data to prove that they will work and that’s where I come in.
From time to time, I have a direct hand in R&D initiatives. For instance, I undertook a project to test and classify our rooflight range based on the CWCT guidelines.