My engineering life Q&A: Brendan Dervan

Brendan Dervan is a Chartered Engineer with more than 40 years’ experience in M&E building services. He established Dervan Engineering Consultants (DEC) in 1999 and later merged with Cundall, a global multidisciplinary engineering consultancy firm, in 2016.

Brendan Dervan.

He has a wide range of experience in the design, installation and maintenance of M&E services in various building sectors. He retired from mainstream consultancy in 2019 and set up Best Training, which provides specialist CPD services to the M&E sector.

He is the author of a number of publications on the National Rules for Electrical Installations/IS10101. He represents Engineers Ireland on the NSAI’s TC2 Committee and is the chairperson of the Engineers Ireland Electrical Division.

1) When did you first become interested in engineering?

My career plan was to go to St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra and study to be a primary school teacher. However while I was still at secondary school, I started working part-time in a tool hire shop and took a lot of interest in electrical tools and machinery.

St Patrick’s College

I applied for an electrical apprenticeship with the Office of Public Works and was successful. I completed a four year apprenticeship in 1982. However, I wanted to learn more about electrical engineering so I went back to DIT to do further studies at night time.

2) Who were the mentors who helped you on your way?

I effectively did a second apprenticeship as a consulting engineer with Delap & Waller. I think it would be fair to say that the three partners in that company Michael O’Doherty, Arnold Torrents, and Alec O’Riordan would have encouraged and influenced me as an engineer in my early career.

3) Your engineer hero, or the nearest you have to one?

I would say it has to be Nikola Tesla and the contribution he made in the early days of electrical engineering particularly to the design of three phase alternating current (AC) electricity supply systems, induction motors etc.

Nikola Tesla

4) An engineer you wish was better known?

Dr Thomas McLaughlin for his vision and inspiration, to bring the fledging Irish government on-board for the development of the Ardnacrusha/Shannon hydroelectric scheme.

Dr. Thomas McLaughlin

5) What are your favorite engineering feats?

I was very fortunate to be put in charge of the design of the electrical services for the Blanchardstown town center project in the early 1990s. It was an amazing project to be involved with. At the time it was ranked as one of the top five shopping centers in Ireland and the UK.

Blanchardstown town centre

I learned so much from the project working alongside A&D Wejchert Architects and Arup on the civil and structural side. I was presented with many design challenges. As the person responsible for estimating the maximum demand for the center I was also given that relatively free hand by ESB in sizing and locating all the MV LV substations around the side, which was new to me at the time.

I think what I am doing now in my retirement, ie gathering up the knowledge I acquired over the past 40 years and sharing that with the next generation in the form of CPD training courses, is an engineering feat in its own right.

6) What is/are the most important trend/s in engineering right now?

I think the greatest challenge facing the world today is climate change, and engineers as we know play a major role in how we adapt to it. I think our proposed decarbonization of the electricity grid and our target to have 80% of all electricity generated by renewables by 2030 is one of the most important aspects of tackling climate change in Ireland.

A PV farm.

The development of floating offshore wind farms, PV farms, and the reinforcement of the grid are really important and exciting trends from an electrical engineering prospective

7) Is there any one measure you would introduce to help improve the gender balance within the profession?

I think early engagement at primary school level to explain to children what engineers do, the different fields of engineering and above all, the important role engineers play in society. I think there should be emphasis on some of the worlds leading female engineers to get the message across that it is not a male exclusive profession.

I think children can relate to other professions more easily. For example, after a few years in national school most children understand professions such as doctor, nurse, teacher, fire fighter, carpenter and so on.

Unfortunately the term ‘engineer’ can mean someone who drives a train, someone who repairs washing machines or someone who designs major infrastructure such as power stations, harbors, road bridges, complex structures etc.

8) What book is on your bedside table?

I’m reading a book in Irish called Tairngreacht by Prionsias Mac a’ Bhaird. It concerns two secret societies – the Céili Dé who are determined to bring down the Pope and na hUaisle Dubha, determined to defend him at all costs.

It flicks back and forth between the island of Iona in the sixth century and modern day Rome. It is a good read and has a touch of Dan Browne’s Da Vinci Code about it.

9) What is the one piece of advice you would give to somebody starting out in the profession?

I will take the liberty of offering three pieces of advice which relate to my own area of ​​building services engineering:

  • A: When I ran my own practice I regularly used a phrase ‘Tus maith leath na hoibre’, meaning a good start is half the work. I believe investing the right amount of time at the design stage of a job is really important. Issues often arise during the construction or commissioning stage due to hasty decisions made at the design stage. The time needed to resolve these will almost always outweigh the time involved in detailed design at the start and is usually considerably more stressful.
  • B: The fundamental principles of engineering, which we all learned in college, are so important and we should never lose touch with them. This can so easily happen in the modern world where software packages are used to design everything. These software packages are only as good as the information we put into them. I always recommended using at least three methods of calculation. The first could be simply rule of thumb methods. The second could be manual calculations using spreadsheet packages. And of course in the modern world, the third will almost always be a software package. With this approach, you should always have an idea or estimate of the solution before it is delivered by the software package.
  • C: Always present information for construction in a minimum of three ways. For example, (i) state the requirements in the specification, or in a schedule; (ii) show the information on a plan/general arrangement drawing; (iii) show this on another drawing, eg a section, an elevation or schematic. This also helps to identify problems at the design stage rather than discovering them on site during construction.

10) What is your favorite film?

I like watching a good movie or series on television. For me it is a great way of switching off. I particularly like going to the cinema. So what is my favorite movie? That is a difficult question as there are so many genres and I do have a favorite in each one, for example, comedy, thriller, murder mystery, action, science-fiction, and so on.

I like watching a good film adaptation of a good book that I have read. If you really wanted to twist my arm on a favorite movie, I would probably pick it up The Shawshank Redemption. It is based on Stephen King’s novella, Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption which was published in the mid-1980s as part of a collection of four novellas, Different Seasons.

11) If you weren’t an engineer, what might you have become?

I mentioned earlier that in my final Leaving Cert year, I was planning to go into primary teaching. It seemed a good career choice at the time until I discovered that many of the graduates from St Patrick’s College ended up in other careers due to an oversupply of primary teachers at the time. I did some part-time evening teaching at the Dublin Institute of Technology and while I enjoyed it, I found it very hard to fit in with a very demanding daytime job.

I am now retired and have devoted my first few years of retirement to training other engineers. It is more like a hobby to me than a job. I put a lot of time into it and I get a lot of really good feedback from people who attend my courses. I find that very rewarding. In hindsight, perhaps I was right 40 years ago and teaching was what I should have done in the first place.

Of course, if I didn’t gain 40 years’ experience as an engineer I couldn’t deliver the type of training courses that I now have on offer.

12) What is a typical day for you?

I usually get up at about 7am and go for a jog or a walk for about an hour. I read The Irish Times online most days. Most weeks I deliver training two days a week, usually Tuesdays and Thursdays. I might spend another day updating or developing new courses. I don’t deliver training in July or August and I take extended breaks around Easter and Christmas.

I have two adorable grandsons, who both arrived after I had retired. We are very fortunate that our children live within a few kilometers of us. I try to spend as much time with them as possible.

A trad music session in full swing.

I have been playing traditional Irish music since my late teens and I am always learning new tunes and songs, so I try to dedicate a bit of time to that most days. I like to end the day by watching a bit of television. I always have a book on the go, so I usually read a bit before the lights go out.

13) What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

From a career perspective, probably the best bit of advice I got was from George Murphy, then head of the electrical department at the Dublin Institute of Technology, Kevin Street. I had just completed my apprenticeship and returned to college to do a five-month full-time city and guilds course. I did well in the exams and George recommended that I should continue on studying electrical engineering.

‘George Murphy, head of the electrical department at the Dublin Institute of Technology, Kevin Street, recommended that I should continue on studying electrical engineering’.

He gave me a letter of recommendation to enter into two years of the PEET (part-time electrical engineering technician) course. It meant another three years of studying at night, which was difficult as I was often required to work overtime in my normal job as well. Anyway it was very good advice and served me well in my career as an engineer in the years to come.

14) What do you do to relax?

I have a wide range of pastimes and interests. Top of the list is playing traditional Irish and folk music with a group of friends that I have been with for nearly 25 years. I always have a new tune or song that I’m working on. We play regularly together. I also attend other music and singing sessions in Dublin and Leitrim.

I am also hugely interested in genealogy and have done extensive research on my own family history and likewise the family history of some friends and relatives.

I have a reasonably good level of Irish and Spanish, which I try to maintain. I read books in both languages, which can be challenging at times but very rewarding. Since retiring I have been to the Gaeltacht twice. I listen to Raidió na Gaeltachta most days for at least 30 minutes.

I did a lot of cycling in my late 20s and early 30s, and I have started to get back into it since I retired. I am planning to go cycling in Mallorca with a group of friends later in the year, so I need to get back in the saddle!

Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim.

My wife and I have a holiday home in Co Leitrim and we spend a lot of time there together. The county is one of Ireland’s hidden gems. It has lots to offer in terms of scenery and is ideal for walking, cycling and, of course, traditional music.

I like doing DIY work and I always have a project on the go when I’m in the country; I find it very therapeutic. The next project on the list is swings and slides for the grandchildren and a bit more protection to prevent them from wandering off.



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