Time for recognition

John M Staves asks: What is a structural engineer, why is the profession undervalued, why is it important and why the role is not clear?

John M Staves asks: What is a structural engineer, why is the profession undervalued, why is it important and why the role is not clear?

First and foremost, structural engineers provide an essential service to the construction industry, helping to create record-breaking structures, beautiful structures, useful structures and sometimes just cool structures. This can be anything from bridges, rollercoasters and skyscrapers to hospitals, schools, homes and public artworks.

Fundamentally a structural engineer’s role can be defined as designing buildings, bridges and other types of structure to resist the forces applied to them. These forces range from gravity, or the weight of people and equipment within a building to the dynamic effects of people using a building or impact from natural events such as earthquakes.

We make sure the building or the structure works well in practice, depending on what it is used for. For example, a dance floor shouldn’t vibrate too much when people jump up and down on it.

As a profession of problem solvers, structural engineers use a myriad of methods and skills to develop solutions. Every structure is different, so we have to be creative to overcome the unique challenges presented by each project. Balanced with a degree of practicality, we don’t just think about the final permanent structure, importantly we also think about ‘how’ it will be built.

Safety is a central part of our approach, and we are the experts, understanding the critical importance of managing the risk to society through the lifecycle of a structure. From design and construction, through to operation and demolition, we take account for the whole structure’s lifespan, in accordance with local legislation and best practice. As the guardians of public safety, we are key to ensuring the built environment is robust and that lessons are learned, and implemented when things go wrong.

Working sustainably is another foremost concern as we look to minimise the amount of materials used in the construction process, innovating approaches to make use of different, more environmentally-friendly materials. This has the benefit of reducing demands on natural resources and recycling where possible.

For all our skills, we don’t work alone but as part of a team alongside architects, builders and other engineers. Construction is a collaborative game. Sometimes the structural engineer will lead the team, which calls for both project management and general management skills.

I am proud to be a Chartered structural engineer and of the contribution I make to the construction industry, and more generally to society. However, I sometimes get frustrated with the general misconception about what I do, the service I offer, and the benefit I deliver. This applies across the public as a whole, within the political classes and, even worse, in other allied professions!

Let’s get it straight; I do more than design beams! As outlined above, my skill set is broad, and my contribution to projects is undoubtedly more impactful than just safely transmitting vertical loads to the ground.

As a Chartered structural engineer, my education and training took longer than a medical doctor (GP) takes to qualify. Like a doctor, I have had to gain substantial experience and submit to both a gruelling examination and peer review to prove my competence. Just like a Doctor, I also have a professional obligation to keep up-to-date and improve my ability with Continuing Professional Development (ongoing training).

To put it into perspective, many lives depend on a single decision I make as a structural engineer, if an occupied building collapses because of an error I make, many could be injured. A doctor deals with decisions that typically affect one person at a time.

The value a doctor adds is clear, and he is rightly recognised for that. This is because most people have had some form of interaction with a doctor, either directly or via a close relative.

The value we add is subtler. You are likely sat in a building, reading this. A structural engineer has probably made sure that the building is safe and resists the forces applied to it. The structural engineer provides robust and durable shelters that people need to protect them from their environment. Did you cross a bridge on your journey to work or home? A structural engineer was undoubtedly involved in its design and currently helps with 17its maintenance, making sure you arrive safely. You may not have engaged the structural engineer directly in either case, but you benefit from his work.

It is not a common trait of a structural engineer to shout about what he achieves and what value he adds, but it can be considerable. A little extra investment on the structural design of a building (spend on structural design is an investment because it will save absolute project cost) can pay back multiple times over during construction. Works can be kept simple and efficient, by an early input from the structural engineer. If investing £1k on engineering fees could save £2k of build costs, how often would you want to invest £1k? With the extra time that buys to refine and improve the design, and impact the buildability, this is easily possible and doubles your money!

And finally, the next time you visit your doctor, just think, the surgery or hospital wouldn’t be there without the work of a competent structural engineer.

John M Staves CEng FIStructE is Fellow and Vice President of the Institution of Structural Engineers and Managing Director of Michael Aubrey Partnership. The Institution of Structural Engineers is the world’s largest membership organisation dedicated to structural engineering. It upholds standards, share knowledge, promote structural engineering and provide a voice for the profession and has 28,000 members operating in 105 countries.
For more information, please see www.istructe.org

Michael Aubrey Partnership is dedicated to a single purpose: ‘excellent design’. Because structural engineering lies at the heart of the business, you can feel confident that your design is structurally sound and ‘buildable’.
For more information, please see www.mapl.co.uk