Ageing — it’s something we can’t escape, and neither can our infrastructure.
The challenge in dealing with ageing infrastructure in Australia, according to Professor Frank Collins FIEAust CPEng, is that most of our structures are designed for a 50 or 100 year life.
“This design life has crept up on us a bit,” Collins told Create.
“We’ve got structures that are already 50 or 100 or more years old, and it’s not viable to knock them down …Imagine Sydney’s heritage-listed Central Railway Station that is heavily utilised by commuters — it’s not viable to knock it down.”
Collins, who is Director of the Australian Centre for Infrastructure Durability (ACID) at Deakin University, said one aspect of dealing with ageing infrastructure is to look at the history of these structures.
“As engineers, we need to look into the makeup of those older structures and work out what to do and how to do it,” he said.
“This could include ports, bridges, pipelines and buildings. We need to think through ways of investigating and improving the durability in a sustainable way.”
A different perspective
This is one of the themes Collins explores in his recent book, Ageing of Infrastructure: A Life Cycle Approach, co-authored by fellow Engineers Australia member Frédéric Blin MIEAust CPEng NER. In the book, Collins draws upon his experience working overseas, and the challenges engineers face in different regions of the world.
“Going to the extreme end, there is some historical infrastructure overseas that’s thousands of years old and has to be maintained,” he said.
“Engineers have developed ways of approaching these structures through understanding the chemical and physical properties of construction materials, the exposure environments and deterioration mechanisms, and vital architectural features.
“I spent a year in Vietnam on an aid project, where we were helping the Ministry of Transport become self-sufficient with investigation, maintenance and testing of their bridges.
“The types of approaches really varied from structure to structure, because in Vietnam one bridge might have been designed and built by the Russians, but another bridge nearby might have been designed and built by the French. A tricky aspect of that Bridge Management System was designing something that was general enough but able to give them the help they needed.”
While this international engineering experience has been a career highlight, Collins said the chance to work on iconic Australian infrastructure takes the cake.
“Doing maintenance and restoration work on the Sydney Opera House in the late 1980s is one highlight — it’s a very unique structure,” he said.
“I got to abseil down one of the roof shells, which was very exciting, although I’m not mad with heights. I had to have someone virtually hold my hand, to come down.”
It is his interest in ageing infrastructure that has tied his career together; something he hopes to disseminate via the book, to both an engineering and wider audience.
“This [ageing infrastructure] is something I’ve been working on through most of my career, both in industry and as an academic,” Collins said.
“When I was first employed, this was really breaking new ground, because in those days people didn’t really think about ageing of infrastructure and how you’d go about diagnosing or maintaining. It was trailblazing as a civil engineer.”