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How a lawn mower inspired my design perspective

Civil Engineering By Michael Florance, Principle Engineer – 13 April 2022

Man sitting on ride on lawn mower cutting grass

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Michael wearing jacket and tie standing in from of greenery at the newcastle office

Michael Florance

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Earlier this month, I posted a short LinkedIn update about designing safe and accessible maintenance on the roundabout outside our office. I’ve always found it annoying to see infrastructure not making sufficient allowance for maintenance activities.

As a disclaimer, I’m not an arbiter of this. I’ve been guilty of getting caught up in the excitement of a new design. But I did get taught an important lesson in my early years as a civil engineer.

Fifteen years ago, I was working as a trainee technician on the A66 Newport roundabout improvements. There was a small area at the bottom of an embankment with palisade fencing for business premises. I remember sitting in my office, completely detached from any ‘on the ground’ experience, drawing the hatching and boundaries in CAD to fill a narrowing gap as it tapered to a point. It was to be grassed/seeded. That was my mandate. I thought absolutely nothing of tapering it away to a point. It was just lines and colours on a screen. My boss quickly educated me about my impact on future maintenance activities and made me ask questions such as:

  • How would that area be accessed safely?
  • How would the grass be cut and maintained?
  • How could the nearby fence and property boundary be protected?

Essentially, it came down to the physical gap a maintenance operative could fit a lawnmower into. I hadn’t even considered that a real person would need to get into that gap. My next question, and I know you’re all thinking it, was what kind of lawnmower was being used? How much space would they need? Will those maintaining the space have access to a simple handheld lawn mower? Would it be petrol or electric, would it be a ride-on? Who knows!

Would it matter? Well, yes, potentially. But so long as you’ve thought about it, considered the activity, and come up with a workable and logical solution, then you’re in the right mindset. A ridiculously simple example. But that was it – I’d learned the importance of designing for maintenance on something so small but which would have a profound impact on the rest of my career. I remember the solution we decided on was to stop the grass when it got to a pinch point of 1.0 m wide. Therefore, we knew that the maintenance activity of grass cutting would be able to go ahead without any issues.

It's a simple lesson but one that has never left me in 15 years of working.

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