The role of the structural engineer in the NOT ideal society.

This chapter from my book “Architect – Structural Engineer” describes the role of the structural engineer in nowadays practice. So NOT ideal.

In the old days when the cathedrals were built the leader of the complicated design and building process of the cathedral was the “Baumeister”. A beautiful name representing being  an architect; a structural engineer; a sculptor; a contractor; a scientist and so on: all relevant capacities, united in one person, to do a proper job while building a cathedral. In nowadays practice this is unfortunately not feasible anymore, too much expertise knowledge required for all the mentioned aspects; impossible to be incorporated in one person. So parts of the “Baumeister” were cut off and became new individuals; the structural engineer is one of them. The “Baumeister” remained, however, as architect and this person still has to “master” all these cut off disciplines. But not to the last detail, the architect must be able to rely on and, important, trust his advisors: in our case the structural engineer.

We, structural engineers sometimes see and feel disrespect of architects. And sometimes, I am afraid to say, we deserve this disrespect: architects think we make heavy, over dimensioned structures. But we have to make strong structures. We have to use safety factors of 1.5 on loadings, sometimes even more. The fact that we have to calculate with forces resulting from the storm or flood that  threatens our country once in a millennium also do not help to make the slender, elegant structures. An architect once told me: “There are two types of structural engineers: the ones that sleep bad at night and keep pondering on what they forgot to check or calculate and the ones that sleep like a rose for they designed an over dimensioned structure with lots of thick columns and many bracings.”

Then there is the money issue: a structural engineer has to earn a living, preferably in pleasant conditions. In our liberal capitalistic society this has to be done in competition with other structural engineers. For jobs are scarce and clients want to pay as little as “possible”. This has led in our very modern, civilized society to a race to the bottom. Result of this race: if you have a limited amount of money available to spend on the job, you can only spend a limited amount of hours on the job. Hence unsatisfied architects who get not the assistance they require to produce quality architecture. And, even more, also the interest of the client is not respected by this race to the lowest price/ fee. If a structural engineer has no money available he or she will not do his or her utmost best to find the best solution for the structure of the client. It may even turn out that the building or bridge is tens of thousands euro’s more costly then it could have been if the structural engineer had more hours to spend on the job. A classical proof of the saying: “Pound foolish but penny wise.” Another way to reduce your hours is to let other parties do part of your work. A well-known example is the prefabricated concrete industry that offers their structures including the required calculations. This system has a big downside: again there is race to the bottom going on between prefabricated industry parties. Resulting in not only low prices but also in bad quality and insufficient control of calculations. On 27 May 2017 a parking garage in Eindhoven (NL) collapsed suddenly during construction. Main cause: the bad quality of prefabricated concrete floors. In the broadest sense of the word quality: quality of concrete surface, detailing of assembling, calculations not checked by test loads in laboratories and, very important, too little quality control on site. So the Netherlands now has a large number of “suspected/ dangerous” buildings where the same type of floor is used. Is the structural engineer part of the people responsible for all this? I am convinced that this is the case. After all it is the structure of a building / bridge that he or she is responsible for. I have known, and do know now, structural engineers who fear this responsibility even so intense that they get a burn out. Welcome to the world of structural engineers! No money to do a proper job and if things go wrong you are to blame. One more story about money, to illustrate that money rules the world. Several times during my career I have been approached by clients in a tender situation for the structural engineering job of big projects with the following question, or should I say, request. They told me that my fee offer was “far more” than my competitors but they were willing to pay my “unreasonable” higher fee if I promised them to keep the ambitious architect within the assigned budgets. I always answered that I, at every job, respect the budgets but my main concern as a structural engineer was the quality of the project.

I never got a commission after these remarks.

How did I cope with this sincere situation, described above, during my career?

  1.  I promised myself  at the beginning of my career to only make elegant, good structures. Structures that, if you look at them, surprise you in a pleasant way.
  2.  Money earning is okay, but you have to be aware that you do not need loads of it. There are other important things in life.
  3.  I am willing, and able thanks to my family, to work in my own time on interesting structures.
  4.  Structural engineers are caught in between two fires. One fire is the architect who is ambitious and wants to create something special and therefore costly. The other fire is that you have to respect the building budgets of the client, budgets which are, most of the times, not too generous. Almost always the ambitious proposals of the architects clash with the budgets. And, as usual, the structural engineer is blamed for making a “fat” and therefore costly structure with an over-presence blocking functional aspects. I developed (after some years) the strategy to first tell the architects that I will always try to make elegant structures. I tell them, after this statement, that budgets form a considerable blockade to realise this. I will try to remain within budgets but I already tell them: it will most probably fail. And then I ask them how shall we should solve this when it happens. Sometimes architects are not impressed and say they “challenge” me. Other, more clever, architects tell that they will find a way to find more budgets for the structural items they find worth the effort. A project in this book: The build Educatorium, is a good illustration of this last approach.
  5.  The computer enabled me to understand better and study in more detail the real behaviour of structures. Most important aspect: Do not blindly believe in Standards. They represent always just “simplified models” of reality. Trust in your knowledge, supported by the computer, and after some time spend in the building industry your experience/ feeling/ instinct.
  6.  Find people: fellow colleague engineers, architects, contractors and clients that radiate this same believe how the ideal world should work. They are scarce but I managed to find enough support.
  7. Do never blindly trust  management, economic or juridical people. They cannot think “structurally” but always have “money- issues” as their main focus.
  8.  Think constantly of possible improvements and innovate always. Your work (and society) needs that badly. A wise man told me that only fools and dreamers can be innovative people. I am a dreamer (and partly a fool, but I know it!).

In the following chapters of the, to be published in September 2020, book “Architect – Structural Engineer” you, the reader, will understand how I came to this list of points.