Structural form is becoming increasingly apparent in structures around the world, and comprises an art form that should be celebrated. That’s the opinion at least of Nick Russell, the new president of the Institution of Structural Engineers.
Russell is a director of Thomasons UK with 34 years’ experience as a structural engineer. Last month he was appointed the Institution’s 94th president, and he now presides over the world’s largest membership organisation dedicated to the art and science of structural engineering with over 27,000 members in 105 countries.
“We are moving away from an era where structures are identified by their cladding,” he said. “This is evident in many of the bridges that we use in our daily lives and the cost-effective roofs over many of our buildings such as the Olympic Velodrome and the British Library. Expressing the exterior of the structure of the building, for example, by using fabric formwork for concrete as opposed to conventional formwork will become more commonplace.”
Russell is confident that structural engineers will start receiving more of the recognition that they deserve and is passionate about promoting the role the profession plays in construction, conservation and disaster relief around the world.
“Structural engineering is extremely important and underpins most of what we take for granted in the built environment,” he said. “Yet there is a general lack of appreciation among the public at large who is responsible for the structures that we see.”
“People recognise the contractors who construct what we can see but few outside the construction industry really have any concept of who designs structures and what makes them stand up as they do. We need to be more outward facing and tell the world what it is that we do and how society benefits from our work."
As the global economy becomes increasingly focused on reducing carbon, Russell believes structural engineers will be amongst those at the forefront of delivering low-carbon structures. He said there is already a push to deliver buildings with not only low running costs (operational carbon) but also low-carbon materials (embodied carbon).
For this to be achieved successfully, Russell says now more than ever, construction professionals will need to collaborate to help deliver buildings with truly integrated design, which are cost and energy efficient as well as economical to construct in terms of both time and money. Central to this concept of collaboration is Building Information Modelling (BIM).
“There is a shift away from conventional two-dimensional drawings to a computerised model of the building of the entire structure that is contributed to by all of the design professionals as opposed to by each preparing separate two-dimensional drawings. This is helping to push the boundaries of design and to integrate materials into buildings in ways that were impractical just a few years ago,” he said.
This is just one way the profession is innovating but looking to the future there are other needs requiring structural engineers to push the boundaries even further.
“The pressures of time and cost, space and resources will question currently held techniques and structural engineers will have to become even more innovative. Common beliefs holding, for example, that buildings need to be designed to last for 60 years, may change as we accept that they only need to serve a much less useful life and be re-cycled.
Russell is pleased with how the Institution is better embracing diversity than it has in the past.
“Structural engineering is a global profession. We have wide representation on our committees, working panels and the board of trustees of young people and those from different cultural backgrounds,” he said.
He admits, however, that there are still significant challenges, from skills shortages to doing more to help engineers in small practices
“Structural engineers are in short supply and there is an increasing demand for them as the economy improves," he said. "More engineers need to be trained at a time when many have left the profession as a result of the global recession. Raising standards globally is a prime concern as is providing a solid education not only in our universities but in the workplace.”