Brink’s alternative path to Pr.Eng.

Brink’s alternative path to Pr.Eng.


Edited by Eamonn Ryan

Vollie Brink celebrated his 67th year in the engineering profession earlier this year – a rarity in any profession. In his own words he describes a career which is still ongoing. 

My father was transferred to Oudtshoorn Technical High School as administrative officer, a school where I began my technical career. I dearly wanted to go to university to study engineering, but my dad just could not afford it: the end of the 1940s was still the post-WW2 period and people were poor. In those days people who owned a car were regarded as affluent. So I had to find my own ‘alternative route’ to get to where I wanted to be.

We did not own a car and my mother always said if you are poor you don’t have to ‘look poor’ so she made shirts from mieliemeel bags and clothed us as decently as possible and we always had food even if it was only yellow mieliemeel pap (a kind of porridge).

From Oudtshoorn Technical High School I went to Western Reefs Mine in Orkney to begin an apprenticeship of five years, minus 18 months for my technical school qualifications. Work was scarce in those day and after your apprenticeship you could not stay on the mine, but I then got work with a contractor who worked on the construction of a new mine in the Stilfontein area. After a year of construction work on the mine I got a permanent appointment at the government hospital in Klerksdorp and from there my career completely changed direction.

At the hospital I was responsible for the maintenance of medical equipment, but I also got involved with the steam generation plant, steam reticulation system and steam hot water generation (calorifiers), steam sterilisation system and basically everything electrically and mechanically related – even the mortuary.

After four years as a senior member of the technical maintenance staff, and with a wide range of experience, I was ready to move on and take responsibility for the technical department of another hospital, as I simultaneously sought to better my academic qualifications with the view to obtain a ‘government ticket’ – an engineer with a BEng who wanted to manage a factory. Though I never completed the course I kept the study material and studied it intensely for years to come and found it to be the ideal study material for the plumbing industry.

I then moved to a Mission Hospital deep in the bushveld of the old Northern Transvaal where Giyani is today. We were isolated, far from the nearest towns with very bad roads, and the life and work was challenging in many ways, not least of all because the non-technical management of the hospital from the board downwards did not appreciate the technical challenges, while all the technical work had to be done by local people who had to be trained on site to become builders, carpenters, plumbers, painters and even mechanics and electricians.

My work challenges included the design of buildings, with all its services, with calculation of materials and all of that had to be procured, transported and constructed. This later changed, when architects and engineers were appointed, and when the government took over, to funding.

“My motto was to always be the best and do the best and to search for the best available technology all over the world.”

All construction was still done by locals and I was still responsible for the project management which included being QS and for procurement and construction management and everything that is required to build a building and a building as complicated as a hospital. I was also responsible for financial planning and management and financial liaison with the government department and claiming funds and using the finances for further work.

My challenges and responsibilities were:

Over and above the technical work, I had to learn a new language (Shangaan), do mission work, as well as the planning of, and start of construction of several projects: a new general hospital; new laundry; new kitchen; new steam boilers; and new reticulation of services. I also built churches in the area and houses for the missionaries.

Water and sanitation

After building a second mission, it was time to leave the platteland for Pretoria, where I joined a large consulting firm, VWL, in the Water and Sanitation Department, and remained there for 20 years. I designed township water and sewer reticulation systems and supervised the construction of these services. During this period, I was responsible for re-establishing the Water section. I became an Associate and HOD of the Building Water Services, which included Water and Sanitation and Fire Engineering and projects with steam and compressed air and gas.

I had to build the division from the bottom up and even develop design manuals for the office which were later incorporated in SABS documents which became known as SANS 10252-1 for water and SANS 10252-2 for sanitary drainage. I had technicians and engineers in my team eventually totalling 20 people, including the first lady and the first black technicians in my team.

My motto was to always be the best and do the best and to search for the best available technology all over the world. I established a large library which was used by all the other engineers in the company. To this end I travelled widely abroad, attending an international conference in Berlin and visiting a number of countries to collect the latest technology in terms of water and sanitation for buildings. This information was built into the SANS documents, SANS10252-1 and -2 for instance. We were responsible for a large portion of the Sasol 2 and 3 projects.

During this period of my career I was responsible for many hospitals including being co-responsible for the design of the 2 000 bed general hospital in Pretoria, and many other buildings including hotels, large shopping centres, corporate headquarters and industrial buildings, educational facilities and airports.

At this time, I had an important mentor in my life: a female engineer and senior lecturer at University of Pretoria joined our company: Anna Mouton. She always consulted me on practical problems and so eventually she prompted me to apply for registration as an engineer with ECSA. She recommended a list of books to study and prepare for registration as engineer under the so-called ‘grandfather clause’ of the Engineering Act.

To qualify for registration, you had to be 50 years old with appropriate experience and certain minimum technical qualifications. At the same time, I compiled, at the request of a Tuks professor, a course for his students on the design of water and sanitation and fire engineering, and I presented these lectures to students.

In 1977 the new National Building Regulations were promulgated, for which I made a set of drawings of all the regulations on drainage and fire water and made it available for building control officers all over the country, and as far as Namibia. These documents became part of my application.

I was simultaneously involved with various SABS committees and working groups and with a research committee at the CSIR and lecturing to architectural students of Tuks and to many others such as the inspectorate of building control officers, architects, business groups and the technical staff of factories and at conferences.

A Pr.Eng at last

Almost a year later I was notified that I had passed the examinations, was now registered as a Professional Engineer and entitled to write Pr. Eng. behind my name.

Perhaps I should elaborate on the technical preparation that assisted me to be able to eventually register. Wits University gave excellent regular evening lectures on various subjects which were of high technical value and a number of engineers from our company attended these courses with me.

Some of these courses were on pumps and pump systems and another comprehensive course was on compressors and many other subjects and it was all very applicable at the office on a daily basis. Bestobell was another company that presented excellent courses on steam generation and distribution and steam equipment, as well as courses on compressed air generation and distribution and equipment.

These courses offered a good balance of theoretical and practical knowledge and were highly applicable and valuable. The course material of Veaseys Engineering College was extremely valuable to prepare myself for the registration examination in terms of the electrical and mechanical elements of the design of water and hot water. And finally, the multiple catalogues in my office library gave me free engineering design technology and I still use it today after a career of 66 years.

When I prepared for my examination to register, an engineer friend told me, “Vollie, an engineer must be able to manage people and projects and know where to find information and then how to apply it.” He also said, “Remember that an engineer is also a manager and must be able to manage people with knowledge, expertise, competence, experience, skills, and projects.”

Knowledge comes from studying and learning, which if applied, leads to experience, which leads to competence. I have written this ‘saga’ of mine not to brag, as I don’t think it is something to brag about, but rather in the hope that it will be an inspiration to somebody somewhere.

Memberships of D.S.Brink Pr.Eng.

  • Saice
  • Saice Water division
  • Saice Fire Engineering division
  • Project Management Institute SA
  • Fire Protection Association of SA
  • Green Building Council of SA
  • EASA
  • Past member of the Housing Institute of SA
  • Past member of Ingenieurs Genootskap van SA
  • Past member of SA Institute Building Services
  • Past member of Project Management Institute USA

Vollie Brink – My passions: