Engineering and design student insights

Student projects, placements, research and study experiences in the Faculty of Engineering & Design

Posts By: Beth Jones

Questions and answers on the Basil Spence project

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📥  Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering, Student projects, Undergraduate

Author: Emma Moberg

In his introduction to this project, Martin reminded us that “vision without action is a day dream”, and similarly, “action without vision is a nightmare”. Even though I thought it fairly apparent at the time, I would in hindsight say that we have experienced quite a bit of both. The real lows such as the heartbreak of a cracked concrete model or a fatal computer crash, were all eventually overcome. I think the essential trait to our team has been our persistence; continuing to question and experiment to push the scheme further. I believe that the project has not only taught us to ask the right questions, but also how to provide useful answers.

Our Method:
Physical Models
The One Sentence

A dialogue through models

Our scheme developed over eight weeks of questions and answers, and more questions, a process in which the models were key. Imagining and developing a building in a team of four can be challenging if the conversation takes place only in words. I found that arguments more often arose due to miscommunication than actual differences and disagreements. In order to lead a constructive design conversation and share ideas between us we have used a wealth of cardboard and foam models. Also a useful tool in all of the tutorials, acting as tangible objects of dialogue. The model making has been effective in terms of communication, but also to test and interrogate ideas. We detected flaws and made improvements through continuous material experimentation.

Towards the last stages, our cardboard models grew in scale and were eventually tested in plaster and concrete. We spent many days, even weeks, sawing formwork in the workshop, testing plaster pigment levels, cutting foam and pouring concrete in the lab. We learnt fantastic things from the skilful department staff; Walter, Miles and Eve, patiently guiding us through the hands-on making. Obvious as it may sound; by building our building again and again, we developed a clear and coherent material and structural strategy, tried and tested by the critical method. To me, the confidence that this rationale of physical evidence and tangible iterations provides, has been valuable.

One sentence to focus our design

Often during the project we would be asked to repeat the single sentence that defined our scheme. Our sentence was “A monument to Oxford’s literary heritage” and was decided in the second week. While a simple exercise, that sentence on the wall was helpful in decision making and reminded us of the initial motivation and foundation for our project. Our one core idea evolved and developed rather than drastically altered. Although we had many days of doubt and indecisiveness, we were always able to gather in consensus around that core sentence, and thereby drive the process forward.

The group dynamic

I am incredibly grateful to have been through this exact project with these exact people. The dynamic within the group has been exciting and invigorating; I do really believe that we have played on each other’s strengths towards an end product that is more confident, clear and thoughtful than any of us could have thought of on our own. And in turn, inherent to our building is Matt’s wonderful clarity of thought, Helen’s conviction and drive for the scheme, Zach’s patience and brilliance and my own continuous efforts to question, improve and imagine our scheme. After the blood, sweat, tears and sleep invested in this project I am glad to see our Basil Spence finally come together. And, I am proud of the work we presented, which I believe is a perfect culmination of all of our efforts and the methods we have learnt over the past three years in Bath.


Unity, confidence and persistence on the Basil Spence project

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📥  Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering, Student projects, Undergraduate

Author: Helen Needs

Unity of thought
Working together is the foundation on which the Basil Spence project is built. The integration of disciplines to create something inspiring is both an exciting and daunting prospect. Emma and Matt have been close friends since the beginning of university, and are now almost like brother and sister. My place in the team dynamic has occasionally been to balance this, trying to resolve slight tension by helping them realise they are often saying the same thing! We were incredibly lucky to have worked with Zach, our engineer, who shared our desire to create something more. He appreciated our architectural ambitions, and worked with us to enrich them with structural and environmental strategies which elevated the design to another level.

I think that throughout the project we have all endeavoured to not take the “easy way out” in any aspect. If ideas felt that their only justification was being the obvious, or easiest solution, we wouldn’t accept them. I think this unity of thought helped us create something with a truly strong concept, which stood the test of time - each of our moments of unwillingness to compromise has paid off. A new experience for me has been the sheer volume of models we have created during this project. As a bold initial move was the key to our design, considering its scale - modelling it from the outset was unavoidable. We tested any and every eventuality and suggestion given to us in tutorials, resulting in a rapid iterative process which allowed us to become comfortable with our scale and form. The process of making these models also meant that there have been very few instances where the team has not been “on the same page” with what we are trying to express.

Confidence to answer our critics

Throughout the project, my confidence has experienced true peaks and troughs, as has the confidence of the group as a whole. In week two our proposal began to be referred to by tutors and colleagues as something “bold”. A building of this scale, standing out amongst its context is not something I believe would have been any of our initial ideas had we been working alone. The reaction to this risk-taking approach was more often than not, positive and something we were commended for.

Whilst we were comfortable with the shape and form of the main building from the beginning there were a number of delays due to lack of confidence. This speck of doubt initially diluted our ideas and central concept. Throughout tutorials and discussions leading up to the interim review there was an “elephant in the room”, which surprisingly was not the large, bold main building. Each of us avoided designing these smaller modules - which were initially key to our concept. Just before the interim review these modules were removed from the proposal entirely. This move tested my confidence in the idea as a whole - however, it felt as though a weight had been lifted and allowed us to focus our efforts entirely on designing the central building. Our initial moves gained a positive reaction at the interim review, one major change to “tidy up” the diagram of our building was something we all agreed on. From here, there were more layers to add to achieve the level of detail we felt it required to reach its full potential - but it felt attainable.

As we planned our final critique, I was hit with a realisation of how deeply immersed we had become in the project. Going into the review I felt we would be able to guide the critics into elements of the design we felt best sold the proposal. Pushing and questioning each other and ourselves constantly meant when others asked questions - we had conviction in our answers.

Perseverance until the end

This was the longest project we have tackled so far in our university careers. It was an exciting prospect having the time to develop an idea so fully, but we've also needed perseverance. Once the idea of the “concrete box” was expressed, we universally agreed that some, or all of our models would ideally be concrete casts. The idea was beautiful, the reality was hours spent in the workshop, many failed attempts and ultimately - heartbreak. Creating formwork which we thought would be sturdy enough took days - only to have this be our downfall - the model could only be removed from its formwork by brute force. The concrete cracked, leaving us with only one or two intact fragments, the model was unsalvageable. Yet, we decided to pursue the goal of creating a casted model, just in a different medium. The end result perhaps was not as neat or accurate as we had envisioned, however the ceremony of opening it up during the review and revealing the spaces inside still achieved the desired effect and our time spent making it was worthwhile.

After experiencing the euphoria of winning the Basil Spence, knuckling down and ensuring all our thoughts and ideas were captured on our final report was a difficult process to begin. We had the well-known situation of “it’s all in our heads, we just need to draw it”. This week, having each focused on producing a section of the report, I have witnessed it come together into a piece of work I am immensely proud of and that I believe shows our scheme at its best - a place I would love to visit.


Bringing engineering to the Basil Spence project

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📥  Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering, Student projects, Undergraduate

Author: Zach Wynne

The 2016 Basil Spence brief

  • To evoke in visitor, user and designer the mystique and splendour of the railway station as a building type.
  • To use the station as a catalyst in the renewal (both physical and social) of the part of Oxford in which it sits.
  • To amplify the possibilities of station as a typology.
  • To foster a thoughtful and mutually respectful integration of the disciplines of engineering and architecture in order to achieve the above.

Our winning design

Our winning design for the Basil Spence project evolved naturally from our initial idea, that our station building should be a celebration of Oxford's literary heritage. We took the elements that were strong, that we believed were the core of our design and we refined and strengthened them, allowing the ideas to change naturally. At the same time we were ruthless when something felt like it didn't work, it was radically altered, no matter how long we'd spent working on it.

We agreed at the beginning of the project that this was our chance to do something bold and radical with both the architecture and engineering.

Perspective of the prosposed railway station

Perspective of the prosposed railway station

Overcoming design challenges in multidisciplinary teams

It was wonderful to see how different people with different specialties approached the same design challenges. This allowed the design to be fully integrated right from the start as people could identify issues early on, allowing them to be addressed in the design process and not worked around later in the project. It exposed me to new ideas and allowed me to work with a group of architects who were all wonderful, talented and patient people.

The project allowed me to develop my ability to work as part of a multidisciplinary team and to come up with radical solutions to challenging problems that encompassed not only innovative and honest engineering, but fitted with the architectural intent of the project and added to the overall scheme. I also had the opportunity to experience the wonders and heartbreaks involved with casting concrete and plaster architectural models.

A perfect culmination to my university education

“I could tell you my adventures—beginning from this morning,” said Alice a little timidly; “but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”― Lewis Carroll

This project has allowed me to delve into fields of research I never believed I would encounter; I have learnt the life cycle patterns of the endangered Euphydryas Aurinia butterfly, provided preliminary designs on a drainage system based on medieval agricultural earth works and been given the freedom to explore and provide feasible design work in areas outside of my comfort zone. I've been able to push the envelope of what was thought possible.

The beauty of this project is the removal of boundaries, to be encouraged to explore avenues which have thus far remained closed and which may never open again. I am proud of the work presented in this project. I believe it represents a perfect culmination to my university education, a summation of all work undertake in four and a half long years.

Section view of the railway station

A section view of our project

A civil engineer working with architects

My heartfelt gratitude to my architects; Matt McClusky, Emma Moberg and Helen Needs, for their undying patience and support. Most of all I would like to thank them for treating me as an equal in all aspects of the project; whether architectural precedent, scale modelling or design integration. I have never worked with a group of people who were as wonderful, caring and gifted. They made the long hours which this project entailed not only bearable but enjoyable.


It started with a car...

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📥  Department of Chemical Engineering, Undergraduate

Author: Claire Guest

I was asked to write a poem about the student experience at the University of Bath for our 50th anniversary celebration in the Abbey, but doing it concisely wasn’t easy. I felt like I could have written the entire piece on the blessing Google is to students who can’t cook. I wanted to express how much university has changed me, and in ways I didn’t expect. My time at Bath has taught me not just how to be a chemical engineer, but also how to be an adult!

I would like to thank Lucy English, who helped me to edit my piece and Alex Homewood for giving me this amazing opportunity.

Watch the video on Vimeo.


Vision, Management, Delivery on the Basil Spence

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📥  Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering, Student projects, Undergraduate

Author: Matt McCluskey

When Martin first e-mailed the year to encourage us to start assembling groups for Basil Spence, he suggested that a suitable team may consist of a visionary, a manager, and a deliverer. While I agree with him on principle, I would like to think that our team distributed these traits fairly evenly across the four of us, and that this enabled us to work cohesively and productively for the entire duration of the project.

Visualising our Basil Spence design

In terms of visualising the scheme, I always felt that the others within the group were seeing the scheme from the same perspective that I was. Although we sometimes had different opinions about how to develop the scheme, this was mainly resolved by making physical models. Not only did this highlight flaws in an idea through physical manifestation, but model making in itself provided much needed respite from endless debate, discussion and potential conflict. I was sometimes reluctant to spend time developing multiple solutions, but have realised that this was the only way that our scheme ever moved forward, and that without constantly modelling different ideas, we would have ended up with a very bland solution.

Delivering to our final goal

Individually, we were all self-motivated and set our own objectives, all the while bearing in mind the various milestones to work towards. Collectively, however, we sometimes struggled to commit to group goals and to decide who should complete which task, due to the unpredictability of the time taken to produce material. Once the scheme had been finalised, we realised that we faced a daunting task to produce all the necessary material for the final review. Emma and Helen had spent days in the workshop producing formwork for a concrete model which broke as soon as we prised the formwork off. This setback was extremely demoralising and frustrating in equal measure. We felt as if 5 days had been completely wasted, leaving us with less time than desired to produce the drawings for the final review. Helen took on the thankless task of building a 3D model to use for drawings and we managed to produce a cast model for the review.

Working as a team

In Zach, we not only had an incredibly gifted civil engineer, but a talented and immensely passionate designer who contributed greatly to every single aspect of the design process, while also producing an amazingly thorough engineering solution to our scheme. His positive outlook on the project and eagerness to push the boundaries of his knowledge have produced, in my opinion, a unique and innovative solution to a complex brief. I have never met an individual who works as hard or as unselfishly as Zach. Whether it was cutting tiny wooden buildings in the workshop, calculating the structural requirements of our building, or staying in studio hours after us to do his other coursework, his enthusiasm never wavered.

Thanks to Emma the main body of our scheme has stayed pure and undiluted in terms of its concept. Her amazing drawings brought to life the fantastical nature that we tried to instil in our scheme. Helen's calm demeanour and ability to think clearly and with reason has prevented several discussions from turning into arguments, as has her ability to weigh up the pros and cons of multiple solutions in order to produce the best result for the scheme. This is something that I occasionally found difficult, as I can develop tunnel-vision and struggle to imagine how another solution could work.

Without my team mates, I would not have had such a firm belief in our scheme. I can say whole-heartedly that I have enjoyed every single moment in their presence - our shared enjoyment of this process has made Basil Spence worthwhile; we have produced a scheme which I am proud to put our names on.


11 Tips for Three Minute Thesis Contenders (and anyone giving a presentation really)

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📥  Department of Chemical Engineering, Postgraduate

Author: Jemma Rowlandson, winner of the 2016 Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition.

The Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition is a fantastic idea, a great exercise in explaining your research quickly and to a non-specialist audience. It not only comes in handy when engaging the public, but also in your research career. Poster sessions, pitching for funding, and even vivas all require you to think on your feet and explain your research in a concise but informative manner. Squashing your entire PhD into three minutes however is no mean feat, and so here are some tips to get you started…

“An 80,000 word thesis would take 9 hours to present.

Their time limit... 3 minutes”


Before the day:

Have a killer story

This is probably THE most important thing you can possibly do. Everyone loves a good story, so ensure your presentation has one, include a beginning, middle and end. Ensure your last sentence focuses on the take home message. This not only makes it easy for the audience to follow, but a good story is also memorable.

Check out other people’s stories

One of the most useful things I find, is looking at what other people have done before me. For the 3MT competition especially, it’s unlikely you’ve ever done anything like this before. Looking at how other people tackled the problem can be very helpful. The 3MT website has lots of fantastic examples from previous winners and finalists, and the University of Bath too has videos of their previous entrants.

Make it relatable

A good analogy helps. Your research will likely span several complex research areas. The real key to this is explaining them in a relatable way. Now this does not mean ‘dumbing down’ your research, you do not want to trivialise what you do. Instead focus on the big picture and find inventive ways to describe your research. My analogy was using Leerdammer cheese to explain adsorption of water toxins. Tricky topic, killer analogy, everyone goes home knowing what adsorption is.

Humour can work well

Humour can go down well in a presentation, and it can help make your story more memorable. However, be prepared for all outcomes. If your joke goes well allow a few seconds before continuing to let the laughter sink in. Equally be prepared for the audience to find things funny that you didn’t expect. And if your joke unfortunately does fall flat, have a back-up plan. Either have a handy one liner to make it into a joke (i.e. ‘I won’t give up my day job then!’), or confidently brush past it onto the next part of your presentation.

Practice, practice, practice

Practice by yourself, in front of other people, and especially people who do not know what your research is about. Know someone else entering the competition? Grab them as a practice partner, you can give each other advice. Multiple people in your research group entering? Great, dedicate a group meeting to presentation feedback. For this, you can never practice enough.

On the day:

Find your happy place

Before your big moment, do something that relaxes you. Don’t go in stressed. Go for a run, eat lots of chocolate, just do something you enjoy. My thing? I listen to Taylor Swift, calms the nerves and puts me in a great mood.

You are the most important thing

The most important thing about the entire presentation is YOU. Sure, you have a slide but the audience came to listen to you, and they will mostly be watching you. Your body language and your enthusiasm are all part of the presentation. So…

Smile 🙂

If you don’t find your research interesting, then why should your audience? A smile goes a long way, the audience will immediately click with you, and it will help you yourself feel more confident. Show enthusiasm for your research topic, the audience will feed off it and enjoy the whole experience a lot more.

Don’t run over time, but don’t rush!!

The three-minute time limit is very strict. Do not go over, even by a second. However, that doesn’t mean you should talk at a million miles an hour to get every tiny possible detail of your research project in. The audience just won’t follow. Instead, have a good story and tell it in good time. Plan some buffer time into your presentation, so that if you do stumble you know there’s a few seconds of leeway.

Never give up

There can only be one winner, and if it wasn’t you this time, that doesn’t mean your presentation wasn’t awesome. Heck, just having the guts to stand up there and try it is something on its own. If it wasn’t your day then don’t worry, there will always be other opportunities. The only way to improve presentation skills is to do more presentations.

But most importantly:

Have fun!

Sure the 3MT can be both stressful and nerve-wracking, but it is also a lot of fun! It is a great way to meet other researchers across the Uni, see what they’re up to, and share your own research. Enjoy the experience as much as possible and take every opportunity it throws your way 🙂


Detecting plastic landmines in different environments

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📥  Department of Electronic & Electrical Engineering, Postgraduate

Author: Carl Tholin-Chittenden, 2nd year PhD student in the Department of Electrical & Electronic Engineering and a member of the Engineering Tomography Lab (ETL).

I am working with Electrical Capacitance Tomography (ECT) which is a sensing technique mainly used in industry to non-invasively view inside objects such as pipelines or containers. I use this technology to image landmines underground and reconstruct 3D images to aid in their detection and removal.

Reconstructing a 3D image

Landmines are increasingly constructed of plastic with very few metal components. This makes detecting them with conventional techniques, such as metal detectors, very difficult. ECT is capable of detecting most types of materials not just metals. This is because it finds differences in electromagnetic properties of materials to their surroundings. A plastic or metallic object buried in soil or sand is going to produce very different signals to the ECT sensor than when there is only soil or sand under the sensor. This signal difference can then be reconstructed to produce a 3D image of the object.

The main difficulties with ECT are that it doesn’t reconstruct the objects with much precision (mainly just location and depth) and it can be drastically affected by different environments, such as wet ground which degrades the signal quality.

In order to improve the image reconstruction of ECT I spent my first year at Bath researching sensor head designs to see if by simply changing the shape and layout of the sensor head I could improve the image reconstruction. I found that by using many different shapes of electrode and by varying the electrode layout on the sensor I could drastically improve the image reconstructions.

Carl talks through his landmine detection research with Sir Bobby Charlton and Dr Manuchehr Soleimani

Carl talks through his landmine detection research with Sir Bobby Charlton

Meeting Sir Bobby Charlton

My research is funded by a charity called Find A Better Way (FABW) which fund landmine detection technology research. The charity was founded by Sir Bobby Charlton and in June 2016 he came to visit my lab to see the work that I had been doing. He was very interested in the sensor design and I showed image live reconstruction of objects buried in sand to mimic landmines. I have been an avid supporter of Manchester United since I was young, so this visit was doubly amazing for me, and to have your work validated by someone as impressive as Sir Bobby has left a lasting impression on me.

Attending the WCIPT8

In September 2016 I was asked to present my work at the 8th World Congress for Industrial Process Tomography (WCIPT8) in Foz Do Iguazu, Brazil. I met many interesting people within my field with whom I could discuss my work. This gave me many ideas to bring back and apply to my research. I presented my work on sensor design, which was well received and many people had questions about the work and the software that I had developed to go alongside it. One PhD student was even interested in collaboration as the software I had developed was very similar to what he was working on.

Coming back from the conference I dived straight back into my research using everything that I had learnt. I am currently developing novel scanning techniques to improve the image reconstruction by viewing the object underground from different angles. Next I will start to design and build a sensor head which has configurable electrode shapes and layouts (the conclusion of my first year work).

To solve the problem of different environments I also aim to investigate using conductivity data in my simulations. This will mean that I can account for the wetness of the environment I am in, because wet ground has a higher conductivity that affects the electromagnetic properties of the ground around the object.

Saving and improving lives

Hopefully by combining all of these various additions to the ECT system I can show different ways in which an ECT system can be modified to be used for landmine detection. The dream would be that one day ECT is a viable method of landmine detection and that the technology I develop will be used to save lives and improve the lives of people living in areas affected by landmines.

The University of Bath will be hosting the next world congress WCIPT9 in 2018.