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Ramboll - Quietly Leading Thinking in Natural Water

Ramboll has been on the leading edge of thinking and best practice across themes of natural water over the last 20 years. Rather like the Grand Canyon, our specialists have been cutting an impressive path with water...


Did you know that sharks can turn their stomach inside out if they’ve eaten something they can’t digest? Or that Sudan has more than double the number of pyramids than Egypt? If you’re a marine biologist you may have known about the shark, and if you’re an Egyptologist you may have known about the pyramids, but the chances are that these interesting facts may be new to you. Something else you may not be aware of is that we have been quietly leading thinking and best practice in natural water over the last 20 years. Rather like the grand canyon, our team has been cutting an impressive path with water.

Across the world, issues surrounding water are high on the agenda – water scarcity and water resources; flood risk; water quality and pollution – these are themes which will be familiar to many. Here in the UK we have been experiencing increasing weather extremes leading to both drought and flood in parts of the country in any given year. We have also inherited an aging infrastructure, especially our drainage systems, which in many cases still embody the Victorian engineering mindset that water is a better out of sight and out of mind.

In much the same way that it is best to manage our water on the surface rather than burying it underground in manmade systems, we are bringing to the surface some examples of our leading thinking in this area over the last two decades. This article looks back over our thinking in the area of drainage, sustainable drainage and natural water, as well as looking forward with our vision of the future and celebrating some of the schemes we’ve been involved with along the way.

In the 1990s, one of the key themes that emerged was about storing water runoff to alleviate downstream flood risk and relieve creaking drainage systems. In 1993 we designed the UK’s first porous asphalt trunk road – the A3/Bentley Bypass – where water could pass through the surface into granular storage beneath, heralding a radically different approach to the pipe and gully highway drainage systems elsewhere.

Even then, our schemes included elements of water treatment as well as storage – for instance at Luton Airport a scheme of ours for BAA included measures to separate out and treat the “first flush” de-icing agents coming off the runway. Our staff were keen to research and implement early permeable paving and SuDS schemes, and these included new residential parking areas, retail centres with large permeable car parks also receiving siphonic and pumped roof runoff, and as examples of our characteristic holistic approach to our projects.

As we entered 21st Century, another theme to emerge was a broader appreciation of the wider environmental benefits that could be realised in drainage systems. Increasingly, our schemes integrated ecological, amenity and masterplanning elements – one example being the conversion of a large contaminated automotive manufacturing works into a sustainable and liveable residential development on the edge of Oxford.

Our joined-up approach enabled us to enhance and restore an existing watercourse discharging into the adjacent Site of Special Scientific Interest, providing additional water vole habitat, attenuation and water treatment. In another nearby development on a former bus depot, our input into the overall design meant that the “Home Zone” principles of the development layout were intrinsically linked to the drainage strategy and permeable surfaces provided – in one of the first Home Zones and permeable paving systems adopted by the a local authority. It is worth noting that the adoption of SuDS even ten years on in 2013 is still a rarity.

Across the board our schemes for schools, hospitals, offices, theatres, roads, bridges at this time were including sustainable drainage features as a matter of course, but our thoughts had already turned to the issue of utilising SuDS to treat runoff rather than just store runoff. Working closely with the Highways Agency, we developed a tool for them to assess the diffuse pollution potential of their new road schemes, to assist them to include appropriate design measures – this became part of their national design guidance within the DMRB.

Something we excel at is assisting our clients to take action and make responsible and sustainable decisions, and in parallel to the water runoff assessment tool, we helped the Highways Agency to rank 22,000 highway outfalls in terms of their diffuse pollution potential. This enabled them to take targeted and informed action to at the most critical locations on their network to reduce the potential polluting effects of the UK’s motorways and trunk roads.

The floods of 2007 proved a turning point in the UK in terms of awareness and focus on water issues. Gloucestershire experienced damaging floods, and shortly afterwards we designed numerous flood alleviation retro-fit SuDS schemes at primary schools in Gloucestershire. Throughout the 2000s to the present day our flood risk skills have been in demand, our strategic thinking enabling numerous developments to gain planning permission whilst sensitively taking flood risk issues into account. More recently we’ve built on the work we’ve undertaken for the Highways Agency and have been updating their national drainage design guidance to include water treatment measures, which will be published this year.

As we look forward, we see ourselves as shaping the future to create sustainable, liveable, resilient, thriving cities and places. Our vision is to develop increasingly integrated and holistic water sensitive designs, whether for places, structures or communities. We continue to explore innovative solutions to issues surrounding water, whether it’s blue roofs on buildings or floating houses, or creating green/blue links on a citywide basis to accommodate “cloudburst” scenarios.

Before reading this piece you may not have known about sharks turning their stomachs out, or the number of pyramids in Sudan, but hopefully you now know a little more about our skills and passion for water. Whatever the vision - whether it’s major new infrastructure, or development at the smaller end of the spectrum - our experience and strategic thinking can help to develop them into a sustainable reality.

Find out more about our Environment services.


Ramboll. Anthony Guay.
Anthony Guay
T+44 23 8081 7500