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‘We don't just live by codes and standards – we innovate’: 40 years of Breakwaters

22 May 2023

The ICE Coastal, Marine Structures and Breakwaters conference launched in 1983 to learn from coastal engineering failures. We’re still learning.

‘We don't just live by codes and standards – we innovate’: 40 years of Breakwaters
Since it began, the conference has grown and broadened beyond recognition. Image credit: Shutterstock

The Coasts, Marine Structures and Breakwaters conference started in 1983, following a series of breakwater failures in the late 1970s.

The objective was to learn from such failures and evolve the science – 40 years later, that’s exactly what we’re achieving.

The 12th conference in the series was held last month in Portsmouth.

Nearly 350 coastal engineers, project managers, clients, consultants and academics, drawn from 40 different countries, came together for three days of intense discussion and debate.

It’s been six years since the conference was last held, so it was great to be back together again for a reminder of why Breakwaters continues to be the premier international conference in its field.

Learning from history

During the first session we were reminded of those early failures, and especially about the robustness and resilience of single-layer concrete armour units.

What followed was about learning from history, putting things into context and advancing our knowledge.

Throughout the conference we heard talks on the analysis, design, construction, tools and techniques that are being developed to improve our knowledge and application of coastal engineering.

There were vigorous exchanges on probabilistic design methods and Eurocodes (on which not everyone agrees).

It’s very much an evolving science, but this is an essential debate.

Probabilistic design consumes a lot of data and we're going to need new and efficient processing methods to understand what the data is telling us.

We also heard that we are getting more data on waves, storms, and sequencing and bimodal wave conditions.

kevin burgess at breakwaters
Kevin Burgess speaking at Breakwaters 2023. Image credit: Ollie Rudkin

Looking to the future

The Breakwaters conference is great for sharing knowledge around physical structures.

But it’s now also about sharing knowledge around data sets, big data and a future that encompasses machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Since it began, the conference has grown and broadened beyond recognition – the conference topics and the attendees are far more diverse.

Those attending are engineers, yes, but also those with environmental, ecological, coastal, and public project management skill sets.

We’ve done many things over the past 40 years, but what we've really tried to excel at is learning from history and working on improving our techniques and our understanding of a changing environment.

Now, more than ever, there’s a wide range of stakeholders involved in coastal engineering projects, presenting a real need to achieve much more than ‘just’ coastal protection through whatever scheme we deliver.

Thinking about wildlife

In 2023, we held sessions dedicated to ecological enhancement and ensuring coastal structures are multifunctional, to ensure they are fit for purpose in terms of their engineering function and robustness, while supporting and enhancing local habitat and wildlife.

We also had shorter spotlight sessions on schemes to introduce and field-test a wide range of blocks, tiles and cast-in shapes – all to encourage or accelerate ecological colonisation. To cap it all, we even had a presentation about a big bird box.

A mission to innovate

Breakwaters also shows us that we don't just live by codes and standards – we innovate.

There were lots of examples of this, including the building of a flat-pack wharf in Antarctica, 3D printing in the Mediterranean, and the use of natural wetlands in North America.

But that's why we're engineers: to innovate, provide cost-effective solutions and mitigate the effects of a changing climate.

Finally, we heard about the closeness between the principles of this conference series and those that underpinned the founding of the ICE over 200 years ago.

This served to remind us that it’s not just the presentations that matter, but also the quality of the discussion and debate that follows.

So while the conference may have finished, the discussions and debate will continue.

Over the coming months, we’ll be highlighting a wide range of presentations – from clients working with PAS 2080 and the decarbonisation agenda, to ‘greening the grey’ and managing large-scale coastal protection schemes.

Get involved

You can join the debate around the changing face of the coastal engineering and the maritime sector on the Breakwaters LinkedIn group.

Join the discussion
  • Kevin Burgess, ICE Coast, Marine Structures and Breakwaters conference chair and coastal technical director at Jacobs