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A tale from the Southside highlights the trouble with listening to experts

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The Twentieth Century Society (C20) is an organisation painfully eager to do the right thing. Seeing itself as the guardian of a section of our built heritage that is often unappreciated, it will battle for the preservation of buildings that many would see as not worth saving. How ironic that on an occasion when it actually admits defeat, an almighty row breaks out. That is what happened over the Southside Building at Imperial College London. The society, while fully acknowledging the architectural value of this 1960s construction, decided, following a report from engineer Adams Kara Taylor, that the structural problems were such that the building could not be saved.

Then another highly respected engineer, Alan Conisbee, weighed in, saying the problems were not that bad and the building could be rescued, forcing the society to do a volte-face and call for a full reassessment.

How did it get into this situation? The argument between engineers is highly technical, with neither questioning the technical competence of the other.

Instead, it hinges on the presentation of information, on the questions that Adams Kara Taylor was given to answer and on the interpretation of those answers.

There are other issues to consider here, such as just how much the building's appearance could be restored even if it were made structurally sound, and whether the facilities could be adapted to the needs of the modern student - and conference delegate. Although Conisbee cites an earlier report by Rick Mather and Mark Whitby that suggests it would be possible to create en-suite accommodation, there would not be as much as the university wants. That, however, is a red herring. The core issue is that experts disagree.

Think of legal cases, with both sides calling expert witnesses who behave with perfect good faith. Poor old C20 has been caught between two genuinely expert witnesses. In the end, it has to weigh up the arguments and make its own decision. This requirement is made more difficult by the fact that, having come down on the side of conservation, the society now has to fight to save the building. Having a history of prevarication will not help. But that's life in the 21st century.

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