Civil engineer Professor Robert Mair, 62, divides his time between being a Cambridge academic, a fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, and a pioneering industry expert. It stands to reason, then, that the afternoon he agrees to be interviewed at his late-Victorian home in Cambridge constitutes a rare window in an incredibly full diary; it is also the hottest day of the year so far – an absolute scorcher.
“The house was built in 1898,” he says, pouring a glass of cooling apple juice. “It was built very much at the end of an era and I like that about it.” The redbrick property faces a quiet, tree-lined road about a mile south and a world away from the city centre, which bustles with tourists and streams of undergraduates. From the back of the house you can see the substantial extension that Robert and his wife Margaret have added.
“When we bought the house six years ago it was in a terrible state but – perhaps it’s the engineer in me – I could visualise what it could be like and I knew it could be lovely.” The new open-plan kitchen and living room, and the new master bedroom and bathroom above it, have increased the size of the old house by about 40 per cent.
“We employed a local architect, Tristan Rees Roberts, and we spent a lot of time making that key decision whether you either try to copy the period, or you have something completely modern and different. He elected to copy the period, and I think that was the right decision.”
The work was completed in 2008, when Mair was seven years into his 10-year term as live-in master of Jesus College, part of the University of Cambridge. The college was established in 1496 on the site of a 12th-century Benedictine nunnery and parts of the Master’s Lodge date back as far as 1138.
“It was a huge privilege to be master of such a very fine college but I was the 39th master and one is always aware that you are only there temporarily as part of the college’s long history.”
Taking me through the cream-tiled kitchen and living room, Mair says: “I think these days families tend to live where their food is, don’t they? Before, the kitchen was tucked away somewhere, but this is definitely where we spend most of our time.”
The Mairs’ children, Julia and Patrick, are now in their twenties and live in London, but the Mairs say their close-knit extended family and friends mean the house rarely feels empty. There are many photographs of the children too, especially in Robert’s study in the old part of the house. “I like it in here very much,” he says. “It would have been the maid’s room with bells for service all over the house, but I think it’s light and it has a really nice outlook and feel to it.”
Born in Manchester in 1950, Mair moved to Cambridge two years later when his father, William Austyn Mair, was elected professor of aeronautical engineering. Robert also studied at Cambridge and, after a career as a specialist in tunnelling through soft ground, he returned in 1998 to become professor of geotechnical engineering and head of civil engineering.
“Where my father and I differ is that he was an aeronautical engineer and I am a geotechnical engineer: he was right up high in the clouds, and I was deep down underground.”
In 1983 Mair founded the Geotechnical Consulting Group which advised London Underground on the Jubilee line extension.
“Probably the biggest challenge was the protection of the buildings of London from subsidence, the most famous example being the Big Ben clock tower,” he says.
I ask Mair about press coverage last year that said Big Ben was sinking into the Thames and that the Jubilee line extension was widely blamed for causing the subsidence.
“Since work on the Jubilee line was completed Big Ben has been continually monitored and there have been some very minor movements in that time. Those stories emerged when there was one very slight change in the movement pattern which was not of any consequence. Nevertheless, I and some colleagues examined it very carefully and we are sure there is nothing significant happening … We’re talking about millimetres of movement; the thickness of a fingernail.”
The decoration of the Mairs’ home is varied with mahogany Georgian sideboards flanking cream, modern sofas. Artwork ranges from old family oil portraits – no one is quite sure who they are of, or even if the sitters are English, Canadian or American (half of Margaret’s family come from Canada and the US) – to modern abstract sculpture, such as the 7ft-tall Richard Bray, made of west African hardwood and presented to Mair when he stepped down as master of Jesus.
Since then, Mair has had more time to focus on his various high-profile engineering projects, such as sitting on the expert advisory panel of London’s £15bn Crossrail construction (“the biggest civil engineering project in Europe”) that will see trains cross the capital deep underground at high speed when it is completed in 2017.
Internationally, Mair is currently involved with two major metro developments: one in Singapore, which is equivalent to two Crossrail projects at once; and one in Rome, where he advises on the protection of the city’s priceless buildings during the excavation of the train tunnels.
Mair is also heading up the engineering department’s new Innovation Knowledge Centre, a five-year £17m programme that aims to bring cutting-edge sensor technology to the construction industry. “It will mean the strength and wellbeing of bridges, buildings and tunnels can be monitored remotely by engineers, alerting them to any problems or damage that may arise,” he says.
“Manufacturing and industrial production are absolutely crucial to the UK if we are to have a thriving economy,” he says, “and this present government is leading initiatives on what infrastructure we need, like HS2 [the London to Birmingham high speed rail connection], like the questions over nuclear power and other forms of energy generation.” He adds, “At the core of all those things is engineering.”
One of Professor Mair’s most striking paintings is the 2002 seascape by Dutch artist Ken Zier, which he has owned since 2004. “For 10 years we had a house on the Isle of Wight, in a place called Yarmouth,” he says. The Mairs sold the house in 2006, but the memory of the seaside retreat still lingers. “This painting isn’t actually of the Solent [the strait separating the Isle of Wight from the British mainland], I think it’s an abstract sailing scene, but I think it captures it beautifully – those evening or early morning lights when there is a race of yachts going across the shimmering water.”
It reminds him also of a hobby he gets to practise regrettably rarely now: “I wouldn’t claim to have been a very great yachtsman, but we spent a lot of time messing around in boats and we loved it, it’s the greatest way to relax and so this is a fantastic reminder.”