RIP Charles Bubb

C&VBubbIt is with great sadness to report the passing of founding member and president of AEES, Charles Bubb. Charles died quietly the morning of Sunday 17 May 2015 at home in Canberra after a short illness. He is survived by his wife Viki. Kevin McCue has prepared this following obituary:

Charles Thomas James Bubb was born and educated in Perth, Western Australia. He graduated with a civil engineering degree from the University of Western Australia in 1950 and was later awarded a postgraduate diploma in engineering seismology from Imperial College in 1970. He has had an outstanding professional career most of it in Melbourne with the Commonwealth Department of Works which later morphed into Housing and Construction but with stints in between at the HEC Tasmania and in Port Moresby Papua New Guinea. His career was cut short when the Government scrapped the Department by which time Charles and his wife Viki had made the successful transition to Canberra where they chose to live out the rest of their lives.

He was appointed Chief Structural engineer in 1977, and then Director of Engineering at the Commonwealth Department of Works in 1979, the position he held until his retirement in August 1987. After his retirement, Charles continued to serve on various high level committees of Standards Australia and Engineers Australia.

Charles was one of the primary drivers of Australian earthquake engineering research following the 1968 Meckering earthquake in his role as Chairman of the Australian National Committee for Earthquake Engineering from 1971 to 1976, and then inaugural president of the Australian Earthquake Engineering Society from 1990 to 1995. Charles led the development of the 1979 Australian Earthquake Code and was a significant contributor to the Australian Wind Loading Standard.

It was in the then Territory of Papua New Guinea that Charles learned about earthquakes and wrote the first Technical Notes there to guide aseismic design, little realising that soon after his return he would be shocked by the Meckering earthquake in his home state, a major earthquake that destroyed the town of Meckering and did considerable damage in Perth, more than 120 km to the west. It was the first earthquake known, at the time, to rupture the ground surface in Australia causing a 35 km long scarp up to 2m high which cut the main east-west railway and highway and the Mundaring – Kalgoorlie water pipe. This propelled him well into earthquake engineering though his other love cyclones were to absorb him after Tracy wrecked Darwin in December 1974 and Comm Works were charged with reconstruction. Charles encouraged and promoted research into wind engineering at Melbourne University and developed an interest in tornadoes and tornado risk in Australia, not a popular topic yet. He introduced computer-aided design into the Department when computers were massive and pretty basic and well ahead of its adoption by the private sector.

Charles, picking his time, initiated the formation of AEES in 1990 immediately after the Newcastle earthquake of December 1989 and handpicked David Rossiter to form a committee when we applied to become a technical society of IEAust. Charles was very much a strategic thinker, the merger into IEAust was a prelude to seeking affiliation with the world body IAEE. He prided himself on being able to pick trends and to make lasting relationships which would serve him well.

Charles may well have had some influence in the IEAust publication What Price Data because he practised the message, arranging instrumentation of the then new Parliament House and Black Mountain Tower in Canberra and the Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, some of the very few buildings monitored for their earthquake response in Australia.

At the busiest time of his life, Charles also had a very active social life with Viki, they imported a champion Afghan hound from which they bred many others. They were well known in the dog world even though Charles admitted later he preferred cats. At the same time Charles did a woodwork course and built high quality furniture for their home, even designing a hidden mitre joint, using only hand tools. He loved fancy cars and owned a Ford 500 and later a Torana XU-1. Professor Ambraseys used to laugh at the thought of his student driving to Imperial College in a Mercedes when the professors all caught the tube. In Canberra Charles took up target pistol shooting and was quite proud of his ability to shoot a tight group.

Charles was widely read and would discuss philosophy, politics, astronomy and science fiction with whoever would listen, but best to know your subject. I never saw him get angry, he was always a well-dressed gentleman, very private, loved his jazz and the occasional scotch, especially at David Rossiter’s where the inaugural committee met. In Canberra he joined the pc-users group and taught basic computing skills to readers at the Woden library, more public service for one who spent his life serving the public. He was a great engineer in the widest sense of the word, as a practitioner, teacher, mentor, chief and trend setter.

Charles is survived by his wife Viki and many friends and colleagues plus some Australian landmark buildings including Canberra’s Black Mountain Tower, the North-west Cape communications towers (at the time, the tallest structures in the Southern Hemisphere), the Modbury Hospital and Flinders Medical Centre in Adelaide amongst many others.

Here are some thoughts from colleagues after learning of his passing:

Joe Minor: Thanks for informing me of Charles’ passing. He was one of a very few who made my career. I am saddened that circumstances prevented me from visiting him.

Max Lay: Sad news. Charles and Norm Sneath were a great and innovative design team who networked widely and markedly raised the standard of structural design in Australia.

Vaughan Beck: I appreciate letting me know of the very sad passing of Charles. I have very fond memories of him. My first encounter with him and Norm Sneath was when I had recently joined the Housing Research Branch (HRB) of the then Department of Housing and Construction. The HRB may have been seen by some as a new upstart Branch that was trying to solve the problems of housing in Australia!

After Tracy I formulated a hypothesis that the failure of sheeting in Darwin may have been caused by repeated loading. To their credit (and perhaps boldness?) both Charles and Norm were very receptive to this hypothesis that was being proposed by a very recent graduate engineer that had effectively no history with the Department. They had no hesitation in supporting a very quick experimental program at the Experimental Building Station – which investigated the effects of repeated loading under uplift. Following the results obtained at EBS, Charles and Norm obviously saw the potential implications and arranged for me to travel to Darwin to undertake on- site inspections. And you know the rest of the story that unfolded.

In retrospect, it would have been very easy for either Charles or Norm to dismiss the proposals at any stage as preposterous – but they had the foresight to see the possibilities and to support an investigation to explore the validity or otherwise of the hypothesis. Courageous!?

Bob Leicester: Round about 1972, Greg Reardon and I had initiated the idea of using conventional structural engineering methods for analysing the strength of houses. This had an output in the form of a CSIRO travelling circus titled “Keep Your Roof On”, which we took to any group around Australia that was prepared to invite us. Since this involved recommendations related to changing building construction, reception to our talks was often negative and in fact sometimes even hostile (we had a reject from Darwin about 6 months before Tracy hit). The first ‘respectable’ group to invite us was the team of design engineers led by Charles Bubb … at least Charles was enthusiastic, even though some of his engineers were sceptical. So in this sense Charles was a pioneer.

In 1978 The Australian Federal government considered the introduction of a national natural hazards insurance scheme. Charles was sceptical about the data cited for the risk of wind-damage to housing. So as part of the solution he commissioned Don Beresford and myself to undertake a field study on the wind resistance of houses. The first report on this was in the form of a paper presented at an international Conference of Wind Engineering in Colorado (1979). The paper included an estimate of the annual risk to housing located in the cyclone prone cities of Australia. The paper was Leicester, R.H., Bubb, C.T.J., Dorman, C., and Beresford, F.D., 1979. An assessment of potential cyclone damage to dwellings in Australia. Proc. 5th International Conference on Wind Engineering, Colorado, USA, July.

A personal anecdote. Charles and I had to make a presentation on this topic to a committee in Canberra. We agreed to sit together on a plane to Canberra (which meant that I had to go first class !) to discuss our presentation. This we did, but when we sat down at the meeting I was forced to mention to Charles that I had left all our notes on the plane ….. mine and his …. Charles never mentioned a word of annoyance, and we proceeded with our meeting roles as though nothing had happened. About that time, at the wind up of the Darwin Reconstruction Commission Charles commissioned Don Beresford and myself to give a formal assessment of the Reconstruction.

My overall impression of Charles is that he had a great capacity to tackle major projects without stress …. something I guess you could only do if you had an immense memory plus a sympathetic attitude to people in general.

John Nutt: I had not heard of Charles Bubb’s death and thank you for letting me know.
He deserves the respect of the profession for his contribution to the knowledge base of engineering in this country. I saw the significant impact he had in the fields of earthquake engineering and wind in particular, and as a structural engineer designer of major projects throughout the region, I gained significant benefit.

Len Stevens: I had a long and enjoyable friendship with Charles and I have the highest regard for his integrity and professional skills as an engineer. He had a major influence on the character of structural engineering in Australia. One particular action on his part illustrates just one of his contributions.

He assisted me greatly when I was trying to convince the profession that it was time to introduce Limit States Design as a replacement for Allowable Stress methods. There was considerable reluctance by many senior engineers who could not be convinced that this was necessary. Charles was the responsible for the design of the Black Mountain Tower and realised that design by Allowable Stress methods could lead to possibly unsafe conditions under the combination of wind and dead load as had been graphically demonstrated by the then recent collapse of the Ferry Bridge cooling towers.

Charles, backed by Norm Sneath, successfully adopted a Limit States approach using the ultimate design wind with a minimum dead load and required all designs for the Commonwealth Department of Works to follow this approach. His appreciation of the damage from Cyclone Tracy also reinforced his decisions.This quickly convinced the profession that they needed to get behind the adoption of Limits State Design. Without this input the adoption would have been greatly delayed. He was a great Australian engineer and his contributions deserve to be appropriately recognised. Let us make sure that it is!

David Rossiter: Charles was indeed a great strategic thinker who from his diverse public works experience was familiar with the best way to get things done especially in technical matters within the government sphere. He strongly drove forward the foundation of the Australian Earthquake Engineering Society, as is became known, with great dexterity and secured a foundation grant to get it established as a technical society within the Institution of Engineers Australia.

As I recall it, we thought we might get around fifty members due to the then heightened interest in earthquakes and their damaging consequences courtesy of the Newcastle event in 1989.  Charles stepped up as inaugural president and provided his president’s column to the then nascent newsletter, ably added to, produced and edited by AEES inaugural Secretary Kevin McCue.  As inaugural treasurer it was my job to keep track of the membership, stuff and address envelopes and to post out the quarterly newsletter.

We thought the society would provide that bridge over the gap between the scientific knowledge of seismologists and the load based needs of structural design engineers.  Translating seismic data into postulated source based probabilities and then on into structural loadings for non-uniform structures was the way I had first heard of and met Kevin through his earlier work in seismic risk analysis in South Australia. Charles had entered my network as the famed Director of Engineering in Canberra through his Department’s work on the earthquake design of Black Mountain Tower done by Gerhard Horoschun with whom I used to talk about the mysteries of non-linear elasto-plastic dynamic analyses of structures.

The society grew rapidly in size way beyond our initial expectations and soon we were sending out up to 500 copies of the newsletter quarterly.  We certainly provided a bridge between seismologists and engineers and had members from a dozen or so overseas countries.  The annual conference became well established and many interesting papers were published and presented further encouraging new membership.  Charles was a strong driver of these strategic initiatives and consistently provided good leadership encouraging the networking and dissemination of information on earthquake issues more widely.  His legacy of those initiatives still continues today.

I enjoyed our regular meetings, when Charles driven by Kevin would arrive together at my house and we would discuss earthquakes, technical society issues and branch out into discussions of broader societal issues as the evenings drew onwards.  Charles was widely read and was always interested in the broader discussion of issues of society and after the meeting almost invariably my wife Cathy who would join us with some beverages and the real discussions would begin. My three children, then all ten or less, still remember the meetings going on as they went to bed and the quarterly folding and stuffing of envelopes with affection. Earthquakes still have a human connection in our household. It was a great honour to meet Charles, work with him and get to know him over the years.