SENER and EIPSA, civil engineering sticking to reality Cover /Interview

“In construction engineering, trust is what we value most”

José Gregorio Briz, SENER’s General Manager of Infrastructures and Transport, and José Antonio Llombart, General Manager of EIPSA, a company belonging to the SENER Group.

José Gregorio Briz, SENER’s General Manager of Infrastructures and Transport, and José Antonio Llombart, General Manager of EIPSA, a company belonging to the SENER Group.

What is considered a ‘special structure’?

José Antonio Llombart: It’s the resistant structure of any building that is unorthodox because of its dimensions, because of the particular terrain where it is situated (for example, crossing a major river or a wide valley), or because it has very specific requirements in order to solve a technical challenge.

José Gregorio Briz: When you’re a Civil Engineering student, the most appealing part of the degree is the focus on bridges, possibly because of their romantic aura. This is especially true for bridges with a unique design and very big bridges, which are normally considered special structures. A bridge is both the skeleton and the casing at the same time, which is why the special structure is visible.

Another feature of special structures is that they are constantly surpassing the technical boundaries. In the world of bridges, where never-before-seen phenomena are commonplace, this is very typical since we are facing entirely new fields and situations. This is where the engineer comes into play. Engineers must imagine and foresee technical problems, calling upon their training, experience, rigor, analytical skills and so forth. In this regard, EIPSA has found itself at the cutting edge on various occasions, making leaps of faith into the unknown. And it is this obligation to face continual challenges that shrouds special structures in romanticism.

Globally, are there many companies whose main activity is in special structures?

JAL: There’s competition the world over. We’ve come up against some very competent companies, but it has given us motivation to grow and improve.

What distinguishes EIPSA from its competitors?

JAL: I’d say that as an engineering firm we’ve had a lot of close contact with constructorss, and we’ve known how to build good teams together. I believe that it is a major error to separate engineering from construction. Great success is achieved when people know how to collaborate, not just engineers and builders, but also engineers and architects. We have to work together and in a coordinated manner; this is the key to success in any project, and even more so when we work internationally.

JGB: Another way to describe it is that when EIPSA designs a bridge, that bridge is built; many other bridges designed in Spain do not materialize. This is because builders, given their in-depth knowledge of the terrain, normally modify the project designed by the engineering firm so that it adapts to the variables on site and to their particular work methods. However, EIPSA maintains a vital dialogue with the builders, and so this adaptation is accounted for as a part of the design. This is hugely rewarding, both on a personal level, as you see your project brought to life, and on a professional level as you learn from real on-the-ground problems.

JAL: Teams must be established and people need to feel involved in the project. And to manage these teams you have to fulfill the role of psychologist more than anything else; you have to know how to organize people and bring them together, coordinate them and make them integrated parts of cohesive teams. To a large extent, a project’s success depends on the sum of individual efforts. How did the Americans get to the moon? Because Kennedy pushed for it, first and foremost, but also because it was the sum of a number of people’s initiatives and efforts that made it happen. Of course, there is the technical side too. But it is the determination of the people involved that gets it across the finish line.

JAL: EIPSA accompanies projects with a presence on site, and very often the advice we give has more to do with organizational aspects than technical ones. Sometimes you spot problems caused by mistakes in guidance rather than technical errors.

Besides, construction companies call us because successfully integrate four aspects which, in my opinion, should coexist in perfect balance: design, construction feasibility, economic feasibility and aesthetics. It’s not an easy balance to reach, but it has to be sought after.

What is the most difficult part of building a breakthrough civil engineering structure, such as Alconétar Bridge?

JAL: Throughout our history we have pursued unique solutions to technical challenges. Very often, coming up with the idea itself is key, but it is of almost equal or even greater importance to convince the client that this idea can in fact be accomplished, that it is economically feasible and that it is the best fit for the project in question. In construction engineering, trust is what we value most.

Therefore, we have to explain to clients with complete honesty which proposal we believe to be best, in accordance with our professional ethics. Very often, the solution to a problem is not just technical, but also ethical.

For example, in many parts of the world today looks are valued above all else, with the only purpose of pleasing the eye. But at EIPSA we run far away from adornments that serve no real purpose. We have actually turned down some projects of this nature that were not to our liking. In any project, social responsibility is something that does not belong to the client alone. In addition to being honest with the client, we must be clear about where we are heading and what we are committed to as a company.

JGB: Indeed, in this respect EIPSA is a unique company. Construction projects aiming for the spectacular are common the world over, and it is the owner of the project who is ultimately responsible, but our co-responsibility as an engineering firm is to be intellectually and professionally honest. This integrity must be what makes you point out the strengths and weaknesses of each of the solutions under consideration, being wholly candid. Because what sells in engineering is trust, and our clients know that we’ll always give them the truth.

JAL: There are also other developing countries that have a requirement for infrastructure and put a premium on functionality, and this is logical. For us, this is where the balance mentioned before comes into play: design, construction feasibility, economic feasibility and aesthetics. With bridges, these structures are especially visible so aesthetics is an additional factor that comes into play.

Have there been any infiltrations in the special structures sector as part of SENER’s evolution across the years in Infrastructures and Transport?

JGB: Yes, we’ve created movable bridges, for example in Barcelona and at the lock in Seville. Thanks to our projects in space, we have a group that is cutting edge in terms of mechanisms, particularly at SENER’s Structures and Mechanisms Section. This ability to bring together multi-disciplinary teams is one of SENER’s key resources.

We’ve worked on the special structures for unique buildings such as the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, designed by Santiago Calatrava. In works such as these, the job of the engineers is to make the architect’s dream a reality, somehow converting the idea into a project that can actually be built and does not exceed the budget. We can also deem airports as special structures, since we are often pushing the technical boundaries in this area. The same goes for three very complex rail projects, all in Spain: the underground structures of the Central Station in Valencia; the Sol commuter rail station in Madrid (the largest cavern dug out in soil of the world); and also the new La Sagrera station in Barcelona.

When did SENER and EIPSA decide that they needed to integrate?

JGB: At SENER we didn’t have the same specialized technology that EIPSA has, and we didn’t have an internal team capable of carrying out special structures. In the post-crisis context, the business we are in has evolved to a point where our clients – be they private construction companies or the public sector – demand integrated projects and, in many cases, a guarantee too. To rest assured that the project will turn out well, there is no alternative other than SENER taking it on 100%. As such, at SENER we held a selection process that resulted in a rare unanimous decision: EIPSA, because of the excellent relationship it maintained with us.

JAL: We had known SENER as a client, and also in close quarters as site supervisors in works that we were involved in together. Therefore we knew how their people worked and could see a lot of common ground in the objectives the two companies had. As a result, we were on the same wavelength straight away, but this wasn’t by chance. Our mutual understanding went back many years, based on a shared work philosophy and common interests. From EIPSA’s perspective, we had been aiming at the internal market from the outset. Our team was also the appropriate size for this market. The changes brought on by the crisis meant that this structure had to grow, and we needed to integrate ourselves into a larger, more multi-disciplinary team to be able to work at an international level.

What are the outstanding milestones for EIPSA over the past 30 years?

JAL: Overall, I’d say the search for permanent training and the selection of people for their human qualities more than their technical qualities. I say this because throughout my life and in the exceptional people I have known, these are the qualities that have made the greatest impression on me.

JGB: Yes, I agree with José Antonio on this. Technical knowledge is clear-cut when someone has earned a recognized qualification and made the grade in a series of highly demanding technical studies. But there are also other key qualities, such as intellectual honesty, the ability to exert oneself or work on a team, tenacity, intuition, and so on. These are the characteristics that one way or another tell you how well someone will fit into a group and grow within it, while stimulating growth in the group itself.

Gallery

José Gregorio Briz (on the left) and José Antonio Llombart (on the right) during the interview. José Antonio Llombart.  José Antonio Llombart (on the left) and José Gregorio Briz (on the right) during the interview. José Gregorio Briz.

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