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Cameron Steel, Past Chairman Built Environment Sector – Gone in 60 Seconds

The IET spent a minute with Cameron Steel, who grounded the IET Built Environment Sector and set up a three year strategy for it to grow.  In 60 seconds, his thoughts on where this discipline is taking us.

The IET asks:

Cameron Steel Portrait of Cameron Steel
Director, BK Design Associates UK Ltd
Past Chair, IET Built Environment Sector

Did your personal interest in natural resource usage efficiency drive your eventual membership of BETNET?

I think the efficient use of natural resources has always been of interest.  Through the Army at a young age I learnt the importance of clean water, for instance, and how to use it carefully. Training as an apprentice electrician and working with diesel electric generators taught me about how inefficient electricity generation can be. Being part of BETNET has simply provided a wider platform for me to explore all of these important issues and more, as has my membership of other professional engineering institutions.  

Describe the career choices you made from the military to energy efficiency.

I guess like most people my career evolved as much by chance as by choice. The Army was a great experience and I finished as a military technician. It really gave me the building blocks for a successful career. After college the recession of the early 90s dictated that I get any job and fortunately A&W Electrical in Glasgow provided solid employment and hands on practical experience for five years. I needed to make use of my time in college though and RSP in Edenbridge gave me a platform to move into engineering design consultancy. The last fifteen years, with them, then with PB and now with BKDA, have been about exploring the design side of buildings and their surroundings much more and hence the impact on the environment too.

Has engineering been a lifelong interest? Can you remember what sparked it off?

Like many children I enjoyed making things and had construction toys such as Lego and Meccano. I enjoyed woodwork and metalwork at school and loved technical drawing. My uncle was a call out technician with the old PO and then BT and very occasionally I would accompany him to see plantrooms on the top of tall buildings. I also enjoyed learning my trade with the Army. I had a posting to Gibraltar in the late 1980s and worked with HV Generators learning to synchronise by hand with light bulbs – that was fun.

BETNET highlight ….any particular moments.

Firstly being asked to step up as vice chair, because everything else I have achieved at the IET stems from there.
Secondly being part of the BETNET Working Party lobbying for Sector status to a “Dragons Den” of the IET Executive including the previous Secretary – a steep learning curve for me that afternoon!
Finally, handing over the Chairmanship, having rebuilt the BETNET team, completed the job and leaving a strong community behind.

Were you surprised that the Built Environment was selected by the Board of Trustees and a primary IET Sector?  

No, I was part of a working party from BETNET that lobbied strongly for such a sector. The Built Environment is a massive topic and affects each and every one of us. We live in it, work in it and play in it. Collectively we need to find ways of doing those things in a manner that has less impact of the natural resources of the planet and more sustainable with a growing population. As one of the largest engineering institutions, the IET should have a global role in promoting the engineering activities in this important area.

What theme would you like the IET Built Environment to concentrate on?

For me the Sector needs to help by educating and challenging the wider society to alter mind-sets and philosophies. Despite the cunning ploys of many sales engineers no single technology will be the panacea to the world’s energy problems – they are all tools in the box for me. Not all tools will work for all people – the trick is finding the right mixture and balance depending on the task at hand.

Somehow though we do need to make sustainability a way of life for all people not just those of us in the SET community.

There has been an interesting discussion recently on the IET LinkedIn page about the Jevons Paradox. In particular the discussion applied that to low energy solutions and human perceptions. You might install a low energy lamp but if you then leave it on 24/7 what have you actually achieved? If you apply controls and only have the original lamp on for the 8 hours it is actually required you may possibly achieve more.  If you do both then you may have a proper solution.

Building technologies.  A rewarding career or a struggle?

I have been fortunate over the years. I have referred to my career as a 30 year overnight success story. At times it has felt like two steps forward, one step back and three steps forward again, but most people are like that. No career is that conventional. Overall though – a rewarding career. I have been helped by some very good companies over the years and received strong support. You get out what you put in.

Aside from the drive to reduce the carbon impact of construction, what other challenges do we face as a profession?

Encouraging the next generation to take part. Take part in everyday activities at local, national and international level, take part by signing up to vocational and academic courses, take part by becoming the next generation of scientists, engineers and technicians, take part in innovation. We, the current generation, hold the baton for sustainability just now, but at some point we need to pass that baton on.


Cameron’s career began in 1982 with the Army as an electrician with the Royal Engineers. Following eight years’ service he left HM Forces and attended college in Northampton completing a HND Engineering in 1993. He then worked as an electrical contractor in Scotland, before moving to building services design consultancy, with RSP in Kent, working on large Healthcare projects in London.

This was followed by five years with Parsons Brinckerhoff where he was responsible for design and management of building services related projects for the education, healthcare, transportation and defence industries. In January 2008 he moved to BK Design Associates, an SME M&E Building Services Design Consultancy, where he is now the principal and has been working on healthcare, data centres and government related projects.

He joined the IEEIE in 1992 as a student and was elected as MIIE and IEng in 1999 by the IIE.  As a volunteer he originally joined the panel of the IIE Contract and Building Services SIG in 2003. This was followed by joining the Built Environment Technologies TPN (BETNET) executive team in 2006, after the formation of the IET from the IEE and IIE. Elected as Vice Chair (UK) of BETNET in 2007, he became chair (2010-2011). During this time he also served a three year term on the IET Council 2008-11, with two years on CCT, assisting with the agenda of Council and chairing working parties.

Following work initiated by a BETNET working party in 2007, and a change in IET strategy, the Built Environment Sector was created in late 2010. Cameron was appointed the chair of the sector panel and, having guided the initial strategic direction of the sector, led the team through a setting up period in 2011 and a very successful 2012 with engagement with government agencies, other professional engineering institutions, school educational charities and the Olympic legacy programme.