About being and becoming an engineer

An exterior view of a red brick building next to a glass building

The Science and Industry Museum in Manchester has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

As a kid I recall at least two school trips from my home city of Liverpool to Manchester to visit the museum. My parents regularly took my sister and I to the museum and to the Air and Space Hall with its massive Avro Shackleton and cut away piston- and jet-engines, but it was the active historic working machinery in the Power Hall that fascinated me. Watching the brass connecting rods and cams rotating, steam powered pistons reciprocating, and valves click-clacking really caught my attention, trying to figure out how things worked, the noises and smell of hot oil. 

A photograph of a traction engine with two small children posed against the large rear wheel

Iain at Steam Fair

The place was amazing, and I hold it entirely responsible for me taking up a career in engineering. A degree in Aeronautical Engineering oddly led me to a career in Building Services at Max Fordham as a Graduate Engineer, and minor intermission aside, I’ve been here ever since.

I always saw Manchester as the home of modern engineering, and when back in 2008 an opportunity arose to move to Manchester from Edinburgh, the first place I visited was the Power Hall at the Science Museum. Seeking out the homely smell of hot oil from the machinery and those repetitive metallic sounds took me back to the trips there with my mum and dad. As usual on important milestones of my life, I also went to the museum the day before I got married, to find a bit of calm and reflection in the Power Hall with my brother-in-law. I could watch the smaller machines and their beautiful mechanisms all day, they’re hypnotic.

Construction site photo with two people in hard hats and hi-viz.

©Science Museum Group, Jason Lock

Fast forward to 2019: Anna Hesketh, Masterplan Project Director at the Science and Industry Museum, takes me on a bit of tour of the museum to tell me about its future plans. Of course I was hooked again and determined for my role at Max Fordham to give me the opportunity to give something back to the museum, get under its skin and learn more about the place. Enrico Curto, Partner and Principal Engineer at Max Fordham, and I submitted a bid to replace the steam system at the Power Hall, which had come the end of its life and was no longer fit for purpose, won the bid and started work. We immediately got a hands-on tour of the Power Hall with Andrew Lea, Senior Project Manager at Science Museum Group - a dream come true!

We were originally appointed to design the replacement of the gas-fired steam system that provides power to drive the historic working machines, forming a dynamic museum display of Victorian factory and mill machinery in the Power Hall, the very machines that had captured my attention as a child.

The Salix Public Sector Decarbonisation Fund was announced midway through the development of the scheme. Once it became clear that the project was eligible, our team began developing an application that could not only reduce the carbon impact of the steam system but also the other systems and the site in general, giving an opportunity for a longer term plan that also met the Science Museum Group’s net zero carbon vision. After a very quick set of calculations, involving several iterations and reviews, our submission was lodged and the museum successfully received a grant for the full amount that we had applied for, £4.3M.

The strategy is largely based on electrification to enable the site to take advantage of the decarbonisation of nationwide electricity generation, but also to make use of electric based system as efficiently as possible.

A major part of the brief is to contribute to the museum’s desire to educate and tell the story of energy past and future – and perhaps inspire the next generation of engineers?

The Power Hall tells the story of the coal-fired industrial revolution and its importance to Manchester. Our goal is to tell the story of the next industrial revolution with green technologies. This also aligns with Manchester City Council’s planning policy to enhance carbon literacy within the population, and where would be a better place to do this than the Power Hall?

Colour photo showing exterior of Manchester Science Museum Power Hall.

The Power Hall from outside

©Science Museum Group

A new electric steam boiler and distribution system will replace the gas-fired system on a more limited usage policy to reflect a more considered approach to energy consumption. Instead of rejecting the heat to the atmosphere through the existing cooling towers, the heat shall be recovered into the Power Hall and the 1830 Warehouse. When the steam system isn't in use, a Ground Source Heat Pump system will draw heat from the ground to provide heating to these buildings. The open loop network will also allow the steam heat to be rejected to the ground too, replacing the noisy, unsightly cooling towers in the Grade I listed site and enhancing the restoration of the Power Hall.

Within the Power Hall, new heating, lighting, glazing and roof insulation will further reduce energy consumption and improve the visitor experience by removing and concealing clumsy modern interventions – a bit of the Beautiful Engineering that we are known for. A new control system allows the energy and carbon data to be accumulated, analysed, presented and acted on to further improve the operation to reduce carbon emissions and running costs. Overall, we expect to reduce the carbon emissions by around 500 tonnes CO2 per year, equal to approximately 30 houses.

During my time at Max Fordham I have been so fortunate to work on many career-defining projects, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall being one close to my heart, and now the Science and Industry Museum. I’m truly privileged to work on such exciting projects with a team of exceptional engineers at such a uniquely set up Practice. I was once told ‘no one ever leaves’ - I tried once and back I came!

Construction site with machinery digging borehole outside the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester.

Ongoing works at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester

©Science Museum Group, Jason Lock