Meet the member – Nigel Baldwin

The thought of being stuck in an office job horrified the teenage Nigel Baldwin, so he gravitated towards a more practical vocation. As he was, by his own admission, good with his hands, becoming a plumbing engineer seemed a natural choice.

“Becoming a plumber ticked all the boxes – installing, fixing and repairing plumbing and heating services and fittings; being out and about; using practical maths and calculations; working in a team; different activities every day and getting paid for it – what more could a teenager want?”

In 1982, aged 17, and following an interview with Matthew Hall Mechanical Services in Borough, South East London, Nigel became an indentured plumbing apprentice, which gave him four years of job security. After attending day release college in West London he achieved his City and Guilds Craft Certificate, and Advanced Craft Certificate.

“I remember the long days of setting off for site at 6.30am at the latest, and on Wednesdays having night school at college and not getting home until 9pm earliest,” recalls Nigel. “Those lessons after a long day on site took dedication. I went on to do the usual gas safety training with CORGI as it was then. Since then, I’ve gained other qualifications, and taken part in continued professional development training and qualifications.

“I joined the IoP (Institute of Plumbing), as the CIPHE was then known, as a student member in 1986. One of our college lecturers (a man who was amazing with all the original plumbing skills – like rolled lead pipe joints and copper roofworking)

was very keen to enrol all his students. Joining did give a feeling of belonging to a body of people who undertook the same work as mine and provided an insight into other areas of plumbing and heating.”

First experiences

Once he started with Matthew Hall, Nigel found himself on one of his first major building sites – the construction of Heathrow Airport Terminal 4.

“I worked with the senior plumber on what felt like mile after mile of the, then new, timesaver cast iron drainage system, which was all above ground and suspended at high level,” explains Nigel. “I’ve been back there recently on a survey and most of it is still there in use! We had a free daily airshow watching Concorde take off just a few hundred metres away from where we were.”

From Heathrow, Nigel went on to work on numerous new builds and refurbishments, mostly office or commercial buildings in London. On these sites he was a ‘working apprentice’, gaining knowledge and experience. “We worked less directly with the plumber, but they were there to supervise and assist if needed,” explains Nigel. “As it was mainly industrial plumbing on large sites, it was a lot of cast iron drainage, installing large diameter water services (both copper and screwed galvanised mild steel), though I did a fair bit of the second fixing of sanitary fittings and some roof work too.”

Professional life

After working as an industrial site plumber for five years, Nigel decided to become self-employed. He worked predominantly on domestic plumbing and heating engineering jobs. He then worked directly for a local authority in London as a gas service engineer, servicing and repairing boilers and heating systems, as well as installing full heating systems.

“I was then a lecturer in plumbing for a short while at my old college, teaching both practical and theoretical aspects of plumbing and heating,” says Nigel. “After this I saw an advert for a plumbing design and project engineer at the BBC, which had its own Building Services department. This was my first public health engineer role (although I didn’t know what a public health engineer was before this). It turned out the BBC was having issues finding suitable public health engineers for its large portfolio of buildings and studios, so decided to look for qualified plumbers and upskill and train them. This role changed my career as I undertook further training and development in public health design and managing projects.

“I worked both in the office and out and about at BBC television centre and BBC regional sites. I recall surveying the domestic water services to produce sitewide building record drawings for all of the BBC Elstree Studios site. Suddenly I found myself walking around Albert Square, while surveying the water services in the Eastenders and Holby City sets, studios and changing rooms.”

More recently, Nigel has worked as a public health design engineer for other large consultancies, working on major airport, office and multi-use developments, as well as water infrastructure works, local authorities and even developments on the occasional RAF base.

Nigel’s current position is principal public health engineer and public health team leader at AtkinsRéalis (formerly Atkins) in Epsom, Surrey. His role entails undertaking design and survey works for a wide spread of building types, from designing plumbing and drainage services to managing legionella water risk assessment remedial works.

“We do undertake a lot more zero and low-carbon and low use water and recyclable water systems design work now, such as hot water via air source heat pumps and rainwater harvesting,” explains Nigel. “Plumbing design has probably never faced so much change so quickly since the Victorian era. I lead a team of public health engineers; at least three of the five have a plumbing background.”

Industry opinion

One of the challenges Nigel believes the industry is facing is recruiting new public health engineers. “It seems that public health and plumbing are still viewed as two separate disciplines,” he explains. “There only really appears to be two routes to public health engineering now: either from the tools or via a mechanical services college/university route. Health and safety issues have also changed for the better over the years. As a young apprentice I was given a selection of tools and equipment to use with very limited safety training or risk assessment. Recently, I also thought about the caulked lead cast iron joints we used to make and how many health and safety risks were involved, but never really considered.”

Nigel also highlights the importance of practical training. Having been taught in college and mentored on site, he believes that practical knowledge and experience plays an important role in enabling designers to appreciate what those working on site have to undertake.

“I’m a real advocate for getting juniors, trainees and graduates on site to see what they design in 2D and how 3D actually looks like when someone’s trying to install it on a rainy, damp, dim building site with limited labour and space to manoeuvre, and only standard tools and equipment.”

Nigel trained, supported and mentored younger plumbers and trainees at college and now undertakes a similar role for the junior and graduates in the consultancy field and encourages them to experience the same things he has throughout his career.

“I’ve been very fortunate in my career to cover so many different aspects of the plumbing and heating industry – from domestic plumbing and heating and visiting one of the offices in India to meet our AtkinsRéalis public health plumbing design team in action, to working on and designing sites and buildings both on and off the tools,” says Nigel. “I remember thinking after qualifying – I’ll never be unemployed and that is true to this day. A career starting in plumbing has been good to me. I’m glad I didn’t take that office job at 17.

“I feel we really must do better to get more plumbers into public health engineering. There seems a real shortage in this discipline coming through the ranks and our average age is not getting any younger.”

For more information about the role of a Public Health Engineer, visit: www.cibse.org/media/ywtmznpc/phe-leaflet.pdf



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