Civil and structural engineer Douglas Turnbull FIEAust closed his Melbourne consultancy at the end of 2021 after half a century in the profession. The Engineers Australia Fellow spoke with create about the unusual places his career took him, from a stint on reality TV to joining the circus.
“It doesn’t seem like 50 years ago since I started,” Turnbull said. “I think I’ll keep doing a bit here and there. I don’t think I could walk away from engineering entirely.”
While Douglas Turnbull might not be a name you’re familiar with, if you live in Victoria, chances are you’ve seen his work.
“Just recently, my daughter was trying to find a town in Victoria where I hadn’t done a job and every town she nominated I’d say, ‘Yep I did this job there, here’s the proof’,” he recalled.
“I think I’ve done a job on every street in Melbourne.”
An early introduction to computer science
Like many engineers, it was Turnbull’s affinity for maths and physics that drew him to the profession.
“We weren’t a family of doctors and lawyers and that sort of thing. My father was involved with a lot of building projects and I was around building sites a lot as a teenager,” he said.
“I think my family had a bit of a bent on buildings and I had a bit of a bent on maths and science, so civil engineering made sense.”
Turnbull began his career in the 1970s with “slide rules and basic little calculators and everything drawn with ink”.
After completing a Master of Civil Engineering at the University of Melbourne in 1976, Turnbull won a Rotary Foundation Fellowship to study at Cornell University in New York. At Cornell, Turnbull was introduced to computer science.
“When I say computer, they were boxes with punch cards and it took all night to solve one problem,” he said.
“When I returned to Australia the firm I worked for was really progressive and had an in-house computer, so it was good to have that experience.”
Despite this early introduction to the use of computers in engineering, Turnbull said the timing didn’t line up for him to really make the most of it.
“I learned how to write a programming language but people don’t need that so much these days,” he said. “You need to know how to use apps. I think I missed out on becoming an app user.”
Not that this slowed him down. When Turnbull and his brother opened their consultancy and construction firm Turnbull Design and Construction in 1980, Turnbull began working on a range of projects, from reservoir covers to modular building for schools.
“I can’t claim to have designed any major landmarks but the scope and variety of work I’ve been involved in is something I’m really proud of,” Turnbull said.
Engineering in unexpected places
Turnbull’s career took an unexpected turn in the 1980s. He was helping to design a performance space for the Flying Fruit Fly Circus when he was introduced to some of the founders of Circus Oz.
“I thought my career would be about bricks and mortar and steel, so when I started designing circus tents and spiegeltents it was definitely a surprise,” Turnbull said.
His relationship with Circus Oz, and later Cirque du Soleil, took Turnbull across the country and he soon found himself erecting tents in some unique places.
“One of the first jobs I did with the spiegeltents was setting one up at the top of Crown Casino,” he said.
“We had to carry it up the elevator piece by piece and set it up overnight. We had a few issues trying to figure out where to anchor it but we solved those issues and were ready to open the following night.”
The circus wasn’t the only unusual place Turnbull’s career took him.
When the reality TV show The Block moved its operations to Victoria, the producers engaged a local construction company to operate as the base builders behind the scenes.
The base builders handle the less glamorous work of getting the structure ready for the contestants. The company The Block engaged happened to work very closely with Turnbull, who was asked to come onboard as the show’s engineer.
“Working on the show was a lot but also really rewarding,” he said.
“Just like you see on TV, there’s very intense timeframes and requirements. But everyone from the contestants down to the people behind the scenes has a can-do attitude that really helps us get through.”
One moment Turnbull is most proud of came on season 14 of The Block when contestants had to renovate the former Gatwick Private Hotel.
“It was a very difficult undertaking. We had to turn a solid brick building with hundreds of rooms into big open apartments,” Turnbull said.
“We had contestants working on the rooms in the middle while we were trying to build a penthouse on top of the building and a carpark at the bottom.”
Thanks to the assistance of the show’s architect, Turnbull and his team were able to work around contestants and some tricky structural difficulties.
“I was just really proud of how everyone came together and it was a great outcome for an old building,” he said.
These unique moments are what Turnbull remembers most fondly about his 50-year career.
“It’s these one-offs where you’re creating something new that I’m most excited about when I think about the projects I’ve worked on,” he said.