In 1994 Royal HaskoningDHV acquired a British arm. It was in that year that Royal Haskoning took over the engineering consultancy of Posford Duvivier, whose specialist expertise working on port installations represented a major expansion for the Dutch company.
Ten years previously, the engineering consultancy of Posford, Pavry & Partners had celebrated its 40th anniversary in Peterborough, England. Founded by engineer Guy Anson Maunsell (1884-1961) and John Albert Posford (1914-1996), the firm had worked in various different capacities on a wide diversity of projects in post-war Britain. These included, for example, large-scale construction projects for Ford’s car-manufacturing plant in Dagenham from 1953 onwards. That was in the era when cars and car-ownership were the height of modern-day achievement and a sure sign of prosperity. In addition to projects at home, the British consultancy won an almost constant succession of international orders.
From 1944 onwards one constant variable was the civil-engineering work carried out on ports, docks and coastal installations. In view of the origins and preferences of its co-founders, Maunsell and the much younger Posford, this was logical. Both engineers started their careers as trainees with the celebrated Scottish civil engineer Sir Alexander Gibb (1872-1958) and, almost as a matter of course, followed in his footsteps.
Left: Guy Maunsell in 1961 (source: www.gracesguide.co.uk)
Right: John Posford [no date] (source: Company archives Royal HaskoningDHV)
During the First World War, Gibb had worked for the British army before setting up a firm of engineering consultants in London in 1921. Towards the end of the war, he came up with a fairly crazy idea: the ‘Mystery Towers’ were a means of defence against submarines involving the installation of a series of floating forts in the English Channel. His solution later formed the basis for a defence project which would be implemented in full during the Second World War, which involved the construction of armed towers equipped with anti-aircraft installations off the east coast of England and in the Thames and Mersey estuaries. This reincarnation of Gibb’s original idea would go down in history as the Maunsell Forts, named after their inventor Guy Maunsell. Between 1941 and 1943 he oversaw the construction of the Maunsell Forts with the collaboration of John Posford, who was 30 years his junior, and the firm of Sir Alexander Gibb.
Britain’s little big port
After the devastating North Sea Flood of 1953, grain merchant Gordon Parker asked engineer John Posford to repair the huge damage that his port had suffered. Shortly after the war, Parker had bought the tiny port of Felixstowe on the east coast of England for 50,000 pounds, as he had considered other British ports too expensive for shipping his goods. Posford and Parker were acquaintances: both lived on the coast and they were neighbours.
15 years later, Felixstowe had been transformed from a small, insignificant harbour into one of the fastest growing ports in the United Kingdom and one of the most efficient in Europe. This was not only thanks to the visionary foresight of its inspirational owner and the good labour relations in the port, but was primarily the result of the successful introduction of mechanisation and smart technological solutions.
The civil-engineering work was carried out by Posford, Pavry & Partners. The expansion of the port underwent continual design by the engineers and they supervised the work themselves. This included an oil-tanker jetty in 1964, roll-on/roll-off platforms (the first of which appeared in 1965) for the transhipment of goods, and a series of enormous container terminals.
Expansion at Felixstowe in 1980. In the foreground the cranes and container spaces are already in place, in the background dredging work and land reclamation are in operation (source: Jesz Fleming).
Left: Prime-Minister Margaret Thatcher visiting the port of Felixstowe on 11 March 1983. Alongside her with the glasses is Geoffrey Parker, the director of the port at the time (source: Jesz Fleming)
Right: As a publicity stunt, the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher climbed one of the gantries. Elections were soon to take place (source: Jesz Fleming)
The success and the experience of Felixstowe did the firm no harm at all. In fact, their expertise had become an ideal export product. Slowly, but surely, port and coastal engineering developed into the firm’s specialism. The merger with Lewis and Duvivier, a leading engineering consultancy specialising in coastal engineering, underlined this. Managed by Alastair Stirling, from 1987 onwards the consultancy operated under the new name of Posford Duvivier, employing 360 engineers and 12 partners and focusing on port and coastal engineering projects across the globe.
As, step-by-step, the port of Felixstowe was enlarged, one expansion phase was particularly noteworthy: the creation of a 100 hectare nature reserve in 1990, including the planting of half a million trees. Suddenly, Felixstowe - the first port to do so - became surrounded by a nature conservation area. This conservation area reflected a change in thinking about technology, which had been prompted more than 20 years earlier.
As early as the 1960s, ‘unconventionalists’ – or so-called prophets of doom - were joining the ranks of influential thinkers. They acted as a counterweight to the modern-day belief in progress that had shaped thinking about technology and consumption in the Western world since the 1950s. These prophets observed the harmful effects of mass consumption and warned of the destruction of the environment and the depletion of the earth's resources.
Several years later in 1972, The Limits to Growth, a report written by the Club of Rome was published. Its predictions had a major influence and dominated the way in which public opinion was formed. The alarming message of the report prompted socio-critical groups, as well as governments and industry into action and legislation. Following on from these changes, from its early activist beginnings, ‘environmental sciences’ came of age as an academic discipline. It was no longer just concerned with analysing environmental problems but was also helping to solve them. In the wake of the growing number of environmental regulations and laws, it was a logical next step.
Among the first students of environmental sciences was Jan Brooke (b. 1962). Having gained a master’s in soil and water engineering, Brooke started her career as a researcher in 1985.[18) A number of years later she was asked by Ian Stickland, at the time director of Posford Pavry & Partners’ coastal division, to set up an environmental department within the firm. Stickland, along with Dick Thomas, was one of the earliest advocates of having scientists with environmental expertise within the company. Specialist know-how was absolutely essential for carrying out research; they felt that the engineers couldn’t just do this on top of their normal work.Alastair Stirling around 1990 - Ian Stickland around 1990 (source: Company archives Royal HaskoningDHV) -
Jan Brooke, 1989 (source: Jan Brooke archive)
1972 to 1989: the incubation period between the publication of the Club of Rome report and the start of company-based activities in the environmental field seems enormous. But this is in fact a variant of the productivity paradox: only when a new technology (in this case, environmental science) offers sufficient economic benefits will it be widely applied. So Posford Duvivier was simply following the market. In response to environmental legislation, the market had a need for environmental advice.
In order to address market developments, the firm could have taken over a specialist firm or bought in expertise. Instead, Stickland and Stirling chose to recruit qualified environmental scientists who, like their engineers, would be the best in their discipline. The 27-year-old Brooke was set the task of establishing and expanding the activities of the firm. Curiously, among the questions at her interview she was asked: “Can you type? And do you know how to use a word-processor?”
Within the traditional culture of engineering, environmental consultancy was a significant change. The day-to-day effect of this was no less revolutionary, since the environmental scientists were almost all women. It was the novelty of these circumstances that was the cause of these questions, Brooke relates, and it was immediately followed by a reassurance that she wouldn’t, of course, have to do the typing.
Posford Duvivier Environment
By the end of October 1989, the firm was employing three environmental scientists. Shortly afterwards, these brand-new activities were launched under the name of Posford Duvivier Environment (PDE). The first orders came mainly from government agencies which were now required to have Environmental Impact Assessments carried out on projects: no EIA meant no planning permission. Posford’s coastal engineers performed a lot of work for this market and operated as internal clients of PDE.
Brooke and the PDE team were pragmatic specialists who did not look upon the environment and engineering as opposites. Their aim was to ‘work together with nature’ in these port and coastal projects and so minimise the environmental impact. This is now a widely accepted model, but at the time it was transformational. For example, one innovative approach was to explore the method of ‘managed retreat’, instead of using conventional ways of repairing sea defences, and weighing up the economic benefits of environmentally friendly sandy beaches instead of installing concrete barriers.
Julia Everard on site in Guyana sourcing sustainably harvested Greenheart timber for Eastbourne's coast defence project, March 1994. Everard was instrumental in the offshore renewables work in the very early days (source: Julia Everard archive).
The environmental face of Posford Duvivier was praised by a business magazine: “Sea defences, power stations, sewage treatment works and other necessary but often unsightly services are not the easiest to be made both aesthetically and environmentally acceptable and are rapidly coming to the forefront of the international conscience in the so-called ‘Green’ fight against global pollution. It is companies like Posford Duvivier who are spearheading the drive to rectify the gross maltreatment of our planet and its assets.”
Environment the world over
Demand for environmental advice grew and the team gradually expanded. Many assignments came from colleagues in the coastal and river engineering departments and the department of maritime engineering. After Brooke’s departure at the end of 1996, Alastair Stirling gave Siân John, her successor, the job of further expanding PDE. Under her management, the balance shifted and PDE started working more and more for its own clients. Environmental projects – like the maritime work of the firm - came from all corners of the globe.
The partners at Posford Duvivier decided it was time to join forces with a larger company, as this was believed to be the best way of continuing to operate successfully at a global scale. For precisely the same reason, Royal Haskoning decided in 1994 to launch a major campaign of takeovers. The acquisition which followed fitted in perfectly “with the image of the Dutch being builders of bridges and ports,” to use the words of Haskoning.
As the firm expanded, what had been a group of 12 environmental scientists in 1996 had grown into a team of more than 100 specialists in the United Kingdom by 2018. Royal HaskoningDHV’s current worldwide activities in the field of renewable energy are the result of exceptional know-how of environmental issues involved in port development. The green roots of this can be found in Peterborough.
About this project
In October 2021 Royal HaskoningDHV will celebrate its 140thbirthday. To mark this milestone, we have commissioned a series of striking stories highlighting key moments in the firm’s history. We are proud of our heritage and this is a great opportunity to share our stories with a wider audience.