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5 modern engineering feats of construction

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These ambitious built structures push the boundaries of what engineering can achieve.

Itaipu Dam

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The biggest producer of hydroelectric power in the world, the dam set a new world record in 2016 of 103,098,366MWh, surpassing China’s Three Gorges Dam.

Completed: 1984

Cost: $US18 billion

Engineers: International Engineering Company, Itaipu Binacional

Duration of project: 7 years

Reservoir capacity: 28.8 billion cubic metres: equivalent to the city of Chicago

Maximum flow: 62.2 thousand cubic metres per second

Material: Concrete

Design: Gravity

Workforce: 40,000

Issues: Required the biggest ever attempted diversion, of the Parana River via a 2km long by 80m deep channel.

Crumbling discovered in the bedrock had to be drilled out and stabilised with 4,536 tonnes of concrete.

Volume of concrete and local climactic conditions demanded large-scale refrigeration to enable setting.

Risk management
'The Itaipu Dam project prompted the re-course of one of the world’s largest river systems and the removal and excavation of 50 million tons of earth and rock. It had everlasting effects on our ecosystems and surrounding areas. Environmental risk is often not well understood and not adequately insured. Claims can be ‘long-tailed’ and costly as the full extent of damages is not immediately known. It’s always important to discuss worst case scenarios and effect appropriate cover.'

Katie Stephenson, Business Development Executive, Arthur J. Gallagher, Darwin, NT


Bailong Elevator, China

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The highest, fastest, largest load outdoor elevator in the world is controversially located in World Natural Heritage site the Wulingyuan Scenic Area in Zhangjiajie province.

Completed: 2002

Cost: US$20 million

Engineers: Weifang Rangger Elevator Company, Germany

Duration of project: 3 years

Height: 335m

Capacity: 3 glass 2-storey elevator cars carry 4,000 passengers per hour 

Speed: 5mps

Material: Steel

Design: Lift shafts and tunnels were dug into the quartz sandstone column, with 154m of the total height underground

Issues: The construction of new structures in World Heritage Sites is forbidden by the World Heritage Committee.

Wulingyuan is an earthquake zone and there are seismic detectors installed in the elevators for swift evacuation.

Operations were suspended for 10 months in 2002‒2003, reportedly due to safety concerns.

Risk management
'The Bailong Elevator project would have posed many significant construction and environmental risks, especially during the testing and commissioning period as this is where a lot of claims do ocurr. It is also imperative all parties involved in the project are consulted during the testing and commissioning period to ensure there are no unintentional gaps between the contract works insurance and the material damage insurance policy prior to completion and handover to the client.'

Martyn Luck, Team Leader, Arthur J. Gallagher, Adelaide, SA


Ontario Celebration Zone Pavilion, Canada

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The winner of a public competition, this temporary inflatable structure for the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto successfully addressed severely limiting design challenges.

Completed: 2015

Architects: Hariri Pontarini

Engineers: Thornton Tomasetti, Blackwell Structural Engineers

Fabrication: EllisDon, Tectoniks

Duration of project: 72 hours

Dimensions: Larger pavilion 15m x 60m, smaller pavilion 9m x 29m

Capacity: 1,200m2 in total

Material: Fire-retardant textiles

Design: Fused inflatable tubes secured by just 60 temporary ground screws with a combined holding capacity of over 200 tonnes

Issues: The site is a narrow, confined space including a park with tree plantings.

The temporary structures had to be erected within 2 days and satisfy the building code and local fire safety requirements.

The shore of the lake is a high wind zone and during the 38 days of the Games the pavilions had to withstand gales of up to 51mph.

Risk management
‘An often overlooked aspect of the risk profile on an assignment like this is what the correct sum insured should be for the design element of the project. Frequently the limit chosen by the insured is selected based on what the contract states or the value of the project – as opposed to what the actual risk is. With up to 1,500 people at any one time enjoying the hospitality within the pavilions, the total cost of claim in the event of a catastrophic event would run into the tens of millions of dollars in both defence and settlement costs.’

Andrew Faber, Branch Manager, Arthur J. Gallagher, Parramatta, NSW


Millau Viaduct, France

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This elegant 2.64km bridge across the river Tarn connects a major autoroute from Paris to the Mediterranean coast and supercedes the Eiffel Tower as the tallest structure in the country.

Completed: 2004                

Cost: €394 million

Architect: Sir Norman Foster

Engineer:  Dr Michel Virlogeux

Duration of project: 3 years

Height: 343m at its highest point

Weight: 290,000 tonnes

Length: 2,460m

Capacity: 10,000–25,000 vehicles daily

Material: Concrete, steel

Design: Combined harp and fan configured cable stayed from masts, steel deck

Issues: The bedrock is composed of fractured limestone, causing landslides.

7 pillar foundations for the piers, weighing 700 tons each, had to be positioned 15m deep so precisely satellite technology was used.

Spans of such length ‒ 342m ‒ involve significant risk of collapse and injury.

Risk management
‘A major risk during this construction would be the recovery if there was damage to the project. As this is a bridge of varying terrain, the recovery costs in the event of damage would be astronomical. They would need to ensure this is was included as part of an overall sum insured at the beginning of the project to ensure they had sufficient coverage for these costs in the event of a loss.’

Nick Willmott, Builders Team Leader, Arthur J. Gallagher, Clayton, VIC


Large Hadron Collider, France/Switzerland

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The largest machine ever built is located in tunnel up to 175m deep below the Franco-Swizz border at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

Completed: 2008

Cost: €7.5 billion

Engineers: CERN with more than 10,000 collaborators

Duration of project: 10 years

Accelerator circumference: 27m

Length: 27km

Speed: Up to 13TeV per proton beam

Design: Particles are guided around the ring of the accelerator by 9,593 magnets

Material: Concrete, magnet coils made of 7,600km of super-conducting electrical cable

Issues: Some magnet supports failed their initial testing.

A faulty electrical quench allowed 6 tonnes of liquid helium to escape, tearing 9 tonne magnets from their mountings and contaminating the vacuum tube.

Incidence of vacuum leaks had to be contained.

Risk management
‘Like any other large complicated machine, particularly a prototype, it has numerous parts and those parts need to work together without failure. In the world’s best interest a step-by-step program of testing and commissioning small parts, with eventual turning on of the whole machine, would be the best practice to minimise risk.’

Rick Hyde, Account Executive, Arthur J. Gallagher, Toowong, Brisbane, QLD