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Meet the team…Brendan Donnell

Brendan is one of our senior structural engineers, having joined our team four years ago. Prior to this he worked for a number of other consultants including an 11 year stint at SKM (now Jacobs), two of which were spent in the Solomon Islands. Here’s his professional story and advice for those of you looking to get more from your structural engineers:

What’s your role at Structure Design?

“I’m a senior structural engineer and currently Lead Engineer for the design of the new Faculty of Engineering buildings at the University of Auckland’s city campus. I also sit on Structure Design’s executive team, which gives me the opportunity to contribute to the firm’s wider business objectives.”

What did you do prior to joining us?

“I worked for a number of other consultants including 11 years at SKM (now Jacobs) – 9 in Auckland and 2 in the Solomon Islands. The Solomon Islands opportunity came about at a time when I was keen to do a working OE in a place where I could learn a lot. At the time, the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands was in place.

Mentoring contractor (Solomon Is)-135010-edited

“This was a commitment by the Pacific Forum countries to help the country recover from internal armed conflict by providing military peacekeepers and governance support. Alongside that, the Australian government aid programme was spending around AUD$15 million a year on buildings infrastructure development to support the recovery. We had a Honiara project office with expat architects, engineers and construction managers, and used local Solomon Islands drafters, quantity surveyors and construction contractors to help strengthen the capacity of the local construction industry. 

“During 2007 and 2008 I worked on a range of projects from government offices, courts and correctional facilities through to health clinics and public health laboratories. The previous period of ‘ethnic tensions’ had wiped out the construction industry so helping the locals to recover and upskill was really rewarding.

“One of the most memorable moments was getting stranded in a logging camp for several days. I was supervising construction on the Kia Area Health Clinic in the remote Isabel Province. The options for getting there were a crowded 20 hour boat trip, a 1.5 hour flight in a 6 seater-plane followed by an 8-10 hour canoe trip, or a 2.5 hour flight to a grass airstrip, which serviced a nearby logging camp. The only problem with this third option was that the plane couldn’t land if it was wet and so often didn’t turn up to bring you back to Honiara when it was meant to – which is what happened to me. I had to buy 2 minute noodles from the logging camp canteen and go door-to-door around the logging camp huts begging people for hot water so that I could eat them. Luckily I had a satellite phone so was able to tell my wife I was alive, and nag the airline to send a plane.

“From then on I resolved to opt for one of the much longer but more reliable transport options!”

Kia Health Clinic 3

What do you enjoy about being a structural engineer?

“I get to use diverse skills in my job including artistic/creative, analytical, problem solving, communication and teamwork skills. There are always new fields to explore and new ideas to wrestle with. No two days are the same and it’s great to work with a broad range of people from our internal team to the wider team of project managers, architects, other specialist advisers, contractors and clients.”

“I’ve managed teams of 10-12 people as a team leader in the past and really enjoyed coaching people through their project work and helping them with their career development.”

What’s your biggest success to date?

“When I turned up to the project office in the Solomons it had only been up and running for about 12 months. There were all sorts of Health & Safety issues such as around the removal of asbestos, working on sites with unexploded World War 2 bombs on them and so on. I put my hand up to deliver the H&S Management Plan, including safety in design aspects as required by Australian legislation at the time. A year later we were audited and the auditor was so impressed he nominated us for the SKM Chairman’s Medal for Safety Performance (2008), which we won. It was great to contribute to improved H&S culture and standards across our projects. We were a significant player in the country’s construction industry at the time, and it felt like we had made a contribution to the safety culture that could start to influence the safety of workers in the wider industry.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

“I recently read that we can draw an important life lesson from how we build a fire: the way we create spaces between the logs and kindling is just as important as the firewood itself. A stack of tightly packed logs won’t burn, because there’s not enough oxygen.

“At home, this reminds me to take time out to relax and reflect on life, creating space between the constant to-do list of activities. In business, it reminds me to create space to reflect on what our clients need, to connect with clients, and for strategic thinking - instead of being suffocated by the tightly packed chargeable work which fuels the business.”

What’s your top tip for those wanting to get the best from their structural engineers?

“Engineers like to have certainty before we get into detailed design calculations, but we know that many aspects of designs change as part of the creative process. To get the best from us please let us know which areas of design you’re confident about and which are in flux. This will allow us to move quickly in the areas you’re certain about and to look at options for those you’ve not yet pinned down.”


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