Bjorn Watson is the ex-Chief Engineer for Cementation International, the UK based engineering firm that carried out the construction of Sultan Qaboos University as a turnkey project in the early 1980s. In March 2019, Watson visited SQU, the most important project of his career, after 32 years. In this interview, Watson shares some of his unforgettable experiences related to his professional personal life during the construction of SQU from 1982 to 1986.
Could you share with us some of your unforgettable experiences related to your professional and your personal andsocial life during the construction phase of SQU? Could you say a few words about your then team at Cementation International?
I was appointed as head of the engineering design team in 1981 and worked with the architects YRM International on the design of the civil and structural design of the infrastructure and buildings of the university. In 1983, I was asked to take up the post of Chief Engineer on the construction in Oman. I left the project in 1986 when the infrastructure and the buildings of the university were largely complete.
It soon became clear that this was to be an extremely challenging project and my main memory of my time on site was one of unrelenting hard work. I was allocated one of the first staff houses to be completed. Sadly because of their schooling we decided that my family would remain in England and join me for the school holidays. My two daughters have wonderful memories of spending time in the staff club with its swimming pool. On Friday we would set off on expeditions to inland, to Nizwa and into the Jebel Aktar. Sometimes we would take a few days holiday to visit the turtles camping under the stars. There was an active social life in the club but most evenings I was too tired to do anything but fall into bed.
I had a team of expatriate engineers from the UK and from the sub-continent. At its height there were as many as 40 engineers with teams on each of the areas of the project such as the infrastructure, the faculties, the student residences and the staff housing. One of the first things we had to do was to construct temporary housing for the expatriate staff and a camp for the 1100 or so workforce. I have a vivid memory of constructing a kitchen where every lunchtime 4,000 chipatis would be prepared and transported by trailer to the workers on the site. The workers were mainly Baluchi but there were a number of craftsmen from Thailand. I remember they were so concerned about their skins burning in the blazing heat that they wore balaclava helmets!
How would you correlate your experiences during the construction stage and SQU’s present status (in terms of infrastructure and activities)?
When we were designing the infrastructure I employed a young Australian engineer with experience of working in desert environments. He persuaded me that despite the evident arid conditions the site would be subjected to very occasional major flooding events and that we would have to design accordingly. My first task was then to persuade the directors of Cementation International that a site in the middle of the desert would be subject to flooding and that they would have to pay for the cost of flood prevention. So we designed an extensive system of gabioned and rivetted drainage channels to prevent flooding in the built-up areas. In addition we designed a weir at the head of the valley with huge precast concrete blocks shaped to control the flow. The Cementation Directors were extremely sceptical about the value of building such a structure in the middle of what they saw as a barren desert but with the active support of Mike Slater, the director in charge all the flood prevention measures were installed and I was very pleased to see them in place when we returned this March. I understand that there has since been extensive flooding in the Muscat area and the university was the only place which remained accessible which testifies to the importance of our flood prevention system.
Could you reminisce any major challenges that the construction company and its engineering team face during SQU project construction? How did you overcome it?
The construction of the university project was let as a turnkey contract to the UK firm Cementation International. At the time it was the largest overseas contract given to a single UK contractor. When I arrived, the site was a barren desert and the axis of the academic centre had been chosen to align along a shallow valley towards Mecca. The contractor had agreed a very tight construction programme in order to open the university by 1986. We first had to create the accommodation and offices for the engineering staff and workers on the project - next came the roads, drainage and related infrastructure. The first buildings to be constructed were the staff houses and the staff club. The central academic area was designed in a modern Islamic style. The buildings were constructed in reinforced concrete with colonnaded walkways to provide shading. The design incorporated a strict discipline to facilitate modular construction which enabled the contractor to erect them with maximum speed and efficiency.
One of the major challenges was to produce and install concrete in extreme heat conditions. The standard specification for concrete in the UK says that concrete must not be poured in temperatures in excess of 33°C. In the summer on site we had temperatures well in excess of 40°C and in some instances as high as 50°C. The challenge was to produce the concrete in the batching plant, deliver it to site and pour it into the formwork without premature hardening or loss of strength. We solved this difficulty with specially formulated mix of additives and ice in the delivery trucks. When concreting the deck was sprayed with a fine mist which reduced the temperature locally by several degrees and made the task for the concreting gang a lot more pleasant. The quality of the exposed concrete on the faculty buildings is testament to the success of our concreting operations and I was very pleased to see that 35 years later it has stood the test of time.
Another challenge that we faced turned up only when a large proportion of the staff housing and the student residences had been completed. Inexplicably we encountered cracking particularly in the walls of these buildings and when we investigated it turned out that there was a seam of montmorillonite clay crossing the site which had not been picked up in our initial site investigation. This is clay is highly expansive when wetted – so much so that it can lift walls by several centimetres. We immediately had to take measures to mitigate the effects of this expansion. We did this by carefully controlling the irrigation close to the buildings and where there were planting beds adjacent to the houses the soil was contained in a waterproof membrane.
You mentioned that SQU project is the most important project of your career. It implies that SQU has always been in your memories during the last 32 years. What was your first impression when you visited the university after more than three decades?
I am now a retired chartered civil engineer. It has always been my ambition to return to the most important project of my career and on 11th March 2019 we were able to realise that ambition. We were greeted by Prof Hadj Bourdourcen, the Dean of the College of Engineering with other members of the faculty and final year students. We were also introduced to the Deputy Vice Chancellor, Prof Amer Ali Al-Rawas and we were privileged to meet His Excellency the Vice Chancellor of the University who presented me with a magnificent gilded plate to mark my visit and which will be one of my treasured possessions.
When I first visited Oman in 1982 there was very little development. The road past Seeb airport to Nizwa was almost deserted. When we drove along it this March it was extraordinary to see how it had developed - the road I remember was completely unrecognizable. The sight that greeted us however when we arrived at the university was familiar – the broad axis of the faculty buildings with their colonnaded walkways. The only difference to what I remembered was seeing the students both male and female going about their studies.
Do you think that the later stages of expansion of SQU infrastructure are in line with the original vision? Do you have any ideas or suggestions about future expansion of the University?
When I presented the infrastructure package to the first Vice Chancellor, Sheikh Amer, he had vision of what he wanted his university to be like. He quoted a poem by the English 19th Century poet, Rudyard Kipling, called The Glory of the Garden..:
OUR England is a garden that is full of stately views,
Of borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues,
With statues on the terraces and peacocks strutting by;
But the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye.
“That is what I want my university to be like”, he said! When I returned after more than 35 years I am pleased to say that the Sheikh’s vision has been truly realised and that my project has grown by more than six times its original size to become one of the most prestigious centres of learning in the Middle East.
My visit was so short and I only saw a small part of the university so it would be invidious of me to make any suggestions for the future expansion. I can only say that the expansion that has taken place has been carried out sensitively in the spirit of the original design and so long as this principle is adhered too then Sheikh Amer’s vision will be fulfilled.
Our time in Oman was the most memorable of my career - both from point of view the scale of the challenge and the nature of the technical demands that we encountered. As a family we look back at that time with great fondness- fondness for the stark beauty of the country and memories of our expeditions to places like Nizwa and Wadi Shams but also fondness for the wonderful, friendly people we met.
We look forward to returning and seeing in more detail the remarkable transformation that the university has achieved since I first walked the barren desert of the construction site.
Interviewed by: Santhosh Muthalath Kunhiveettil
This interview was originally published in Times of Oman on 11 May 2019.