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DR SIDNEY FRENCH 1949 – 2022
Whether designing Sydney’s deep ocean outfalls, safeguarding historic NSW bridges, collaborating with Greenpeace to prevent deep ocean oil drilling in the Great Australian Bight, or campaigning for the Drive on Sunshine solar project, the life and work of Dr Sidney French was committed to engineering for local preservation and global change.
Sidney French with Arctic Sunrise.
French was “an engineer’s engineer”. The logic of engineering was his first love, and with great faith in humans’ analytical ability to solve problems, he recognised that things could always be different with the right plans and resources.
Unseen by most and unknown to many, the deep ocean sewage outfalls along Sydney beaches were described in 2015, by Niall Blair, then NSW minister for lands and water, as “among Sydney’s finest engineering feats at the time”.
Sidney French led plans to engineer a cleaner planet.
French was a leader in the structural design of the marine components for this project, which ran from 1982 to 1992, comprising sewage outfalls at Bondi, North Head and Malabar.
Tunnelled below the seabed, the outfalls dispersed treated sewage through an array of seabed risers and diffusers, 2 to 4 kilometres offshore where the saltwater and sunlight finished the treatment.
French initially led studies with the (former) NSW Water Board, determining the most suitable seabed location and the wave loadings to be used for design in this high-energy environment, including protective caissons shielding diffusers from dragged anchors. Groundbreaking international design work led the way for similar outfalls around the world, most notably the Boston Outfall in the United States, which adopted innovative materials and methods pioneered here.
The beneficial effect of the outfalls in cleaning up Sydney beaches was immediate and dramatic. Deloitte’s study, commissioned to mark the 25-year anniversary, included film footage showing the ocean “actually cleaned up within a couple of minutes” when the outfall was switched on.
Deloitte reported the project provided $2 billion in social value, and despite Sydney’s 30 per cent population increase over 30 years, the outfalls continue providing clean ocean beaches taken for granted as Australian heritage.
French, who had a lifelong love of the ocean, knew this heritage could slip away without commitment to preservation and change, the right plans and enough resources.
Sidney French was born in Canberra on September 7, 1949, the second child of apple orchardists George and Sylvia French. The family moved to Coalcliff and later The Oaks, near Camden, operating the local store and post office.
After attending Camden High School, French enrolled at UNSW’s School of Civil Engineering when he was only 16. He excelled, graduating as dux in 1970 and completing his PhD in structural engineering four years later.
French was supported at university by a Department of Main Roads cadetship, and worked there for another six years, gaining particular experience on the design and construction of several NSW bridges.
In 1980, French joined Wholohan Grill and Partners (WGP) and was soon leading a design team, before he moved into varied engineering roles with Worley, WGP, Worley Parsons, Burns Roe Worley and Advisian.
At Worley, French led the structural design team for Esso Australia’s $250 million Bass Strait platform strengthening project, which began in 1986.
With Worley’s NSW civil and structural team, French led complex structural design aspects of industrial infrastructure projects, including power stations, switchyards, water facilities, gas plants and offshore facilities.
French oversaw the design for the Telstra broadcasting tower on Mount Wellington overlooking Hobart – a 140 metre tower, a 70 metre slip-formed concrete base, and a 70 metre steel lattice top section supporting the transmitters, all enclosed in a fibreglass sheath for protection from the elements.
French continued responsibility for works related to outfalls, heritage engineering structures and life-extension of structures, particularly bridges for Worley.
Drawing on his expertise he provided maintenance and life-extension advice to a range of industrial and public asset owners and his experience was also well suited to failure causation investigations, leading to many expert witness reporting and court testimony appearances.
His passion for the retention and restoration of heritage structures was instrumental in ongoing preservation and upgrading of significant heritage bridges. These included Hampden Bridge in Kangaroo Valley, Pyrmont Bridge in Darling Harbour and Sydney Harbour Bridge – a particular subject of French’s expertise, where he and his team worked on the maintenance access and dust control for a major refurbishment.
French at the heritage-listed Pyrmont Bridge.
From his early Department of Main Roads bridge design work, French became the go-to expert for all structural concerns with old NSW bridges, inspecting, documenting and designing restoration works for heritage bridge preservation. Even in retirement, French continued as a Pyrmont Bridge restoration panel member.
Incredibly well regarded by colleagues and clients alike, French became an engineering heritage specialist. He led team assessments of the heritage significance of historic rail and road bridges, wharves, industrial sites, dams, weirs and significant fragile domestic-scale historic structures, and the development of conservation and management guidelines for their preservation.
French had a unique ability to dissect the complexities of problems unfathomable to most, and then devise and explain simple, elegant engineering solutions in a manner leaving everyone with a sense of confidence and understanding. If that wasn’t enough – he’d draw it for you!
French loved sailing, completing the 2015 Sydney to Hobart race on IQ Komodo and sailing his beloved Star of Antlia to Hamilton Island for race week in 2008, and Lord Howe Island in 2015.
His greatest adventure, French said, was his trip on the Greenpeace icebreaker Arctic Sunrise. He boarded in Svalbard, at the top of Norway, before sailing to 79 degrees north, above the Arctic Circle, picking up litter which was sorted on the ship and disposed of appropriately. The oddest thing he found was a single stiletto shoe.
French was a valued member of the Waverton community and was actively involved in the precinct committee as an advocate for preservation and change, including in the Save Berry’s Bay campaign and the restoration of the coal loader environs on Balls Head.
A local worker and a global thinker, French was passionate about climate change and the planet; its people, wildlife, oceans and forests. He was deeply committed to the mission of Greenpeace as a generous philanthropist, an expert adviser, a member of the governing body and an activist, participating in several missions on land and at sea.
One of his last projects with Greenpeace saw French propose the tagline “Driving on Sunshine” for their electric vehicle campaign.
One of French’s final projects with Greenpeace was the Driving on Sunshine project.
In life as in work, French knew the power of advocacy and activism to engineer preservation and change, giving generously to those he believed were doing something useful and had the power and capacity to effect both.
He supported a wide range of organisations, from environmental, climate change and humanitarian causes to human rights, refugees’ rights, Indigenous rights and the health of our democracy. These included MSF, Amnesty International, the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network, the Wangan and Jagalingou First Nations of North Central Queensland, Solar Citizens, the Wilderness Society, among others.
He became a passionate supporter of the ocean nourishment concept, first enunciated by his friend and colleague the late Professor Ian S.F. Jones. As chairman of the Ocean Nourishment Corporation he led the WhaleX project’s first infusion of simulated whale excreta nutrients into the open ocean from the Star of Antlia in December 2021. WhaleX is an entrant in the Musk Foundation’s $100 million XPrize, with the aim of drawing down huge quantities of legacy carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Aboard Star of Antlia carrying out WhaleX dispersion.
Dr Sidney French died on December 21 from a glioblastoma brain tumour. He is survived by his wife Margaret, his daughter Amber and her husband Andrew, and his beloved granddaughters Ruby and Indie. His youngest daughter Nyree died in 1997.
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