An Insight into Ownership of Structures

At Subteno Consulting Engineers, we have a cumulative experience in the civil / structural engineering field of over 75 years - with a large proportion of those predominantly involved in steel industrial structures (at both onshore and offshore locations).

During this time, it’s fair to say we’ve seen some strange looking (and honestly some outright shocking) structures in use at various Client asset locations. What I mean by this typically falls under one of the following:

· Structures being over-loaded or deflecting past acceptable levels.

· Structures being modified without proper engineering assessments – initiated from a poor or unclear understanding of its behaviour.

· Structures being improperly maintained (or having no regular maintenance schedule at all!).

There are a multitude of reasons why assets can fall into any of these categories but ultimately, I believe that lack of proper communication and documentation has a big part to play in this - let me explain.

Lack of Proper Documentation

When we’ve previously asked Clients about a particular asset, some are the first to admit that they have no up to date or accurate information available to share. Whether this means:

· There are no as-built drawings (but they do have a scanned copy of a red pen mark-up from 20 years ago),

· They have the original design report (but it has been scanned so many times that the handwritten report is now partially unreadable) or;

· They have the original project specifications (but they are for another ‘similar’ asset that was commissioned 5 years later… at a different location).

Joking aside, this is not as uncommon as you would like to think, and we are used to dealing with this being the case. In fact we normally assume that starting with ‘something’ is better than nothing.

However, as many of these assets enter their next lifecycle phase e.g. a change of use or decommissioning, we must ask ourselves - how can we be sure that these structures are still fit for purpose?

Change of Use’ and ‘Fitness for Purpose’

‘Fit for Purpose’ is one of those phrases with is often overused with little thought to its true meaning. Declaring something as ‘fit for purpose’ typically means the structure meets the minimum requirements for which it was originally designed for.

However, during the lifecycle of an asset, it is not uncommon for its intended use to change and evolve over time. Some examples could be:

· The addition, replacement or removal of equipment located within the structure.

· An extension or modification to an existing structure.

· A fundamental change of use (e.g. a factory / mill converted into luxury flats).

Often these changes are for the better, after all re-use of an asset is better than demolition and construction of a new one. But here we must ask ourselves - is the structure still ‘fit for purpose’? All too often little thought is given to the original design conditions of a structure under the assumption that any changes will not have a detrimental impact, but there are many sides to this coin rather than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Part 2 of this blog will follow next month however, if you have a project that you want to discuss with our team please get in touch for a no obligation discussion.

The Race to the Bottom

When putting together a budget proposal for a prospective Client, consultants typically work from a schedule of rates e.g. a cost per hour for the people involved in delivering the project. Naturally the Client aims to get the best ‘value for money’ from their selected consultant – that’s fair enough, but how to understand what the perceived best value is, can often be poorly understood.

The market for engineering services has been dominated in the past 20 years by a simple comparison of rates with (often) little to no consideration given to the value or experience of each consultant.

Instead, the cost for one hour of time becomes the quantifiable variable in the decision to hire one consultant over their competitor. Too expensive (or too cheap) and your chances of securing the project will be dampened.

However, in an effort to keep a steady flow of projects in the pipeline, some consultants are willing to lower their rates to secure the work and, to avoid missing out - other consultants adopt the same approach and the ‘race to the bottom’ ensues.

Perceived ‘Value for Money’

The deliverables generated by engineering consultants are a product (reports, drawings etc.) and like any tangible product, the old adage governs ‘you get what you pay for’ As an example:

Engineer A - £70/hr

Is able to produce a safe design quickly, but in order to do so takes a conservative and generalist approach. 40 hours (or one week later) and you have a structure that comprises (say) 50 tonnes of steel and 10m3 of Concrete. An estimated cost to the project could be:

(40 Hours x £70/hr) + (50 tonnes x £5,000/mT) + (10m3 x £1,500/m3) = £268K

Engineer B - £95/hr

The same design brief is applied, but Engineer B takes a holistic approach to the project and spends time to fully understand all of the Clients requirements and provide value engineering and a safe design. Engineer B takes 60 hours (20 more than Engineer A!) However with this additional time, can optimise the design for the structure down to (say) 45 tonnes of steel and 8m3 of Concrete. The estimated cost to the project would now be:

(60 Hours x £95) + (45 tonnes x £5,000/mT) + (8m3 x £1,500/m3) = £243K

Engineer B has achieved a saving of £25,000 for the project (and reduced the embodied C02 by 13 mTC02e).

The end result is great for the Client but they knew from the start of the project that Engineer B had an hourly rate 36% higher than Engineer A, and by the end of the project, spent 50% more time designing the best solution…

Of course, this is a simplistic argument and I wholly acknowledge that in some instances, the argument to commission services from Engineer A or B is so close that either would be equally valuable.

The difficulty is that often those making these decisions, may not identify the opportunities where this added value can be leveraged and instead focus purely on the hourly rates provided.

My final thought – instead of a race to the bottom, how about a race to the top? In some upcoming projects, why not take a few moments to recognise that good design, communication, innovation, and sustainability can be used to focus on the ‘value for money’ instead of just ‘fee cost’.

Get in Touch!

Do you have a Project that You Want to Discuss? Please get in touch for a no obligation discussion:

As climate change and carbon counting becomes more prominent in the construction industry, I wanted to share my thoughts about the challenges faced in our profession.

While institutions such as the IStructE are doing good work to promote the high-level key issues around tackling climate change, I believe engineers have the ability to influence matters at a grass roots level stemming from our technical knowledge - the essence of engineering. Every decision made in the life of a project, from the design of basic members to guiding a client in terms of overall structure can be partially attributed to this technical knowledge that we have together with a duty to maintain and continually develop.

Our understanding of construction methods and materials will need to improve in the coming years if we are to stand any chance of making significant reductions in structural carbon usage.

Traditional methods of construction and good practice will remain vital, but our technical expertise in developing innovative and more efficient solutions will play a key role. Simply copying past designs and material specifications will not lead to any meaningful change. Every aspect of a project upon which we, as engineers, have influence must be challenged and further developed. A thorough understanding of relevant and current design standards and methodologies is a must, but this needs to be supported by research into modern solutions - taking an inquisitive approach rather than a complacent one.

No engineer wants an unsafe design that may cause harm or damage property, but all of our past actions have contributed to just that on a large scale. With the knowledge we hold do we not have an obligation to avoid the same mistakes?