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Coming back to Cardiff to help build its future

28 September 2021

James Kelly (MEng 2017) is an engineering alumnus who went from studying within the University walls, to building brand new ones as a construction manager. He came back between 2019 and 2021 to help construct ‘Abacws’, the new computer science and informatics, and mathematics building. His return to campus was one full of pride, excitement, and challenges.

Did you always want to work in the engineering industry?

Yes, it was always my intention to do civil engineering and that was my plan during my A levels. I wanted to go down the contracting route and liked the idea of being outside and having my ‘boots on the ground’, instead of being an in-the-office engineer.

Why did you choose to study at Cardiff University?

It was the city itself that attracted me to the University. I’d had some nights out there with friends and had a good feeling about it, and I liked that the campus was quite spread out over the city. I liked the engineering facilities as well, so it was a bit of everything! Good universities can be very similar so sometimes it’s more about the kind of feeling you get when you’re there.

Do you have any fond or funny memories from your time as a student?

My fondest memory is playing for IMG Varsity for two years and captaining them to a 2-0 victory over Swansea. We played down Pontcanna and it was an amazing atmosphere with hundreds of fans watching. I also had a great time playing for the engineering football team and was the president in my final two years.

Were there any staff in engineering who had a positive impact on your time as a student?

Some lecturers stand out, such as Professor Alan Kwan. The way he taught was really good and I always remember his lectures. Professor Tony Jefferson was great too. In our fourth year of study we went to Dublin and went around the Guinness factory to look at the engineering. You really get the chance to bond with your year group and lecturers so that was a good experience as well.

How did the course prepare you for life as an engineer or for managing a team?

I did a year in industry, so it was a five-year degree in total, but that year in industry was absolutely vital. You come out with your degree at the end of it and a year of experience, knowing what to do, how to act and how to present yourself in construction and what skills you need. It really gives you a taste of what it’s like to be an engineer and you learn a lot. It helps you in your third, fourth and fifth year to really fine-tune those skills. On the flip side, you might go out as a contractor working on site and you might hate it, but then you can reassess your career choice as well. It ultimately helped me to confirm that this is what I wanted to do.

What are your thoughts on returning to the Cardiff University campus, as a professional?

I was excited. It was my first time back since leaving university and the site was a stone’s throw from where I was living as a student in Cathays. It’s nice to be back and there’s a real sense of pride. The University sort of makes you what you are, and then you go out into the world, and then you return as a construction manager ready to take on this challenge and do something for the University. And the benefit that a new computer science and maths building will bring is going to be amazing, a lot of students are going to benefit from it. I feel really proud, especially having a personal tie to the University.

What was your role in constructing the new building?

I’m the construction manager. I oversaw all the façade, the substructure and the superstructure, which is basically the whole structure as well as all the external works. It was really challenging because of how tight the site was, it has a really small footprint. It’s incredible to stand back and look at the building and think that I contributed to that.

Were there any challenges you had to face or overcome as part of this project?

It was absolutely mad at the start – you didn’t know whether you were coming or going with the pandemic rules and regulations! We were fortunate that we never had to close the site. When it struck in March last year, we only had about 25 operatives on site, we were at the groundwork stage. We managed to social distance but if it had hit a year later, when the building was enclosed and we had 100 people on site, we’d have had no choice but to shut down. But we managed to implement measures as we were going along. We completed an area early so that we could use the canteen space inside the building. At our peak, we had about 160 operatives on site. Social distancing was the hardest bit because the site was just so tight but we managed it well and kept everyone safe. We also had to maintain access to the Students’ Union and all their deliveries. So, logistically that was quite challenging.

Did you get to see any familiar faces?

This project started in September 2019 and I did engage with the engineering department and mentor a few students. I also went to a couple guest lectures but then as the pandemic progressed these things came to an end.

What was it like to mentor current students?

It was very good. When I was mentoring the students, I was taking them out and showing them what we were working on and discussing it with them.

Mentoring university students is great because they know what they want, they have a goal and know what they want to do. They’re really keen and interested and they ask good engaging questions, and I could really answer them. It’s definitely something I would do again.

If you could return to campus now as a student what’s the first place you would go to and why?

I love the gym, so I’d probably go there! The facilities at the gym were awesome. Or I would probably go down to the fields and play football again, with the engineering team. I loved that. As you can probably tell, I love sports and everything around it. I worked so hard doing my degree, but I needed the outlets of the gym and football. Those two formed a big part of my five years at university – cramming in revision, playing football, going to lectures, playing more football!