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Norwich has more surviving undercrofts than any other city in the UK.

But what is an undercroft?

An undercroft, in the context of a building, typically refers to a often brick-lined and vaulted cellar or storage room beneath a building that is partially or completely below ground level. Typically these have been in place since the Medieval times!

Whilst historical landmarks throughout Norwich like the Bridewell, St Andrew’s Hall and the Castle all have undercrofts. The fascinating thing about Norwich undercrofts is that they weren’t just used for storage. The undercroft at The Guildhall, for example, was used as a prison, and later as a hiding place for Norwich’s valuable civic regalia during WW2.

There are several undercrofts across the city, but due to structural issues, many are being bricked up or filled in for safety reasons.

The structural design of an undercroft involves many considerations to ensure structural integrity, stability, and functionality. Here are some key aspects a structural engineer might consider when working on the undercroft of a building:

Foundation Design:

  • The undercrofts foundation must be designed to support the additional load imposed by the building above, as well as any dynamic loads from vehicles, equipment, or stored items.

  • The engineer needs to consider the soil conditions to determine the capacity of the existing foundation, if any is present at all!

Load-Bearing Elements:

  • Columns and walls in the undercroft must be designed to withstand the loads they will bear. This includes both the dead loads (permanent static loads) and live loads (temporary dynamic loads) associated with the intended use of the space.

  • Traditionally these are constructed from load bearing masonry, often vaulted or arched to be self stable. If modifications are required, often reinforced concrete or steel elements may be used to provide the necessary strength and durability.

Earth Retaining Structures:

  • If the undercroft is below ground level on one or more sides, retaining walls may be required to support the surrounding soil and prevent it from collapsing into the space.

  • The design of these retaining structures involves considerations of soil pressure, drainage, and stability.

Waterproofing and Drainage:

  • Since undercrofts are partially or fully below ground, preventing water ingress is crucial. Waterproofing measures, such as membrane systems and proper drainage, are essential to protect the structure from moisture-related issues. These are often one of the main deterioration mechanisms for existing structures.

In summary, the structural engineer plays a critical role in ensuring the undercrofts stability, safety, and functionality, taking into account a range of factors related to foundation design, load-bearing elements, earth retention and waterproofing. Being a local engineering consultancy in a city with numerous undercrofts, we are well versed with the intricacies of working with these existing historic structures.

In the field of structural engineering, staying ahead of the curve is crucial. The right tools not only streamline the design process but also enhance efficiency.

As a structural engineering consultant, our success depends on the suite of tools we have at our disposal. Here, we discuss Subteno's top five things that every structural engineer should consider incorporating into their workflow.

1. Hand Sketching

In the initial stages of design, nothing beats the simplicity and immediacy of hand sketching. Sketching allows engineers to quickly visualise ideas, explore different concepts, and communicate effectively with team members and clients. While digital tools have their place, the tactile nature of hand sketching fosters creativity and serves as a valuable tool for brainstorming and conceptualisation.

2. Building Information Modeling (BIM) Software

BIM has revolutionised the way structural engineers approach projects. This collaborative 3D modeling process allows engineers to create and manage building designs in a digital environment. Tools like Autodesk Revit and Tekla Structures empower users to visualise the entire project, detect clashes early on, and ensure seamless collaboration with architects and other stakeholders.

3. Practical Experience

While technology plays a pivotal role, the significance of experience cannot be overstated. A seasoned engineer brings diverse knowledge gained from years of hands-on practice. Practical insights into design challenges, construction nuances, and an intuitive understanding of structural behavior are invaluable. Experience complements technological and 3D modelling tools, providing a holistic approach to problem-solving and ensuring that designs reflect a practical understanding of real-world applications.

4. Understanding Client Requirements

As consultants, understanding client requirements is vital for engineers, without Client projects to apply our knowledge and experience to, we would be out of work!

At it's core we need to be aware of the Client's project goals, compliance with safety standards, and effective resource management within budget constraints. Clear communication fosters collaboration, adaptability to changing needs, and ultimately leads to client satisfaction, building a positive professional relationship.

5. Hand Calculations

Amidst the technological advancements, the art of hand calculations remains a fundamental skill for engineers. These calculations serve as a quick and reliable method to validate results obtained from software. The ability to perform hand calculations ensures a thorough understanding of the underlying principles and helps catch discrepancies that may be overlooked in the digital realm.

In conclusion, the role of a structural engineering consultant is ever-changing, and so should the tools in their toolkit. Incorporating these tools along with experience and leveraging hand calculations and sketching not only boosts efficiency but also ensures that our designs meet the highest standards of safety and functionality. As technology continues to advance, the combination of cutting-edge tools, traditional methods, and a rich experiential foundation will be key to success.

In recent years, we have witnessed an alarming increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events around the world. Hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and heatwaves have become more common, posing significant challenges to communities and infrastructure.

Climate change, driven largely by pollution from the use of fossil fuels, is a primary driver of these extreme events. As a result, the field of structural engineering is facing a pressing need to adapt to this by designing resilient structures capable of withstanding the forces unleashed by these natural disasters. In this blog post, we will explore the impact of climate change on structural engineering practices and the call for resilient, considered designs.

The Growing Impact of Climate Change

Climate change is no longer a distant threat - it is happening right now. Rising global temperatures have led to the melting of polar ice caps, causing sea levels to rise. This in turn, has made coastal areas more susceptible to storm surges and flooding. Additionally, changes in weather patterns have brought about more intense and frequent weather events, including hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires.

Structural engineers have long been responsible for designing buildings, bridges, dams, and other infrastructure to withstand the forces of nature. However, the increasing severity of extreme weather events has exposed vulnerabilities in many existing structures. Inadequate planning and outdated building codes have left communities susceptible to damage and loss of life.

The Need for Resilient Design

Resilient design is a fundamental concept in the field of structural engineering. It involves creating structures that not only meet safety standards but also have the ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions.


Climate change is an undeniable reality that is reshaping the world as we know it. Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and severe especially if we continue down our abuse of Plant Earths natural resources. This challenge poses a significant challenge to structural engineers. To mitigate the impact of these events, structural engineering practices must evolve to embrace resilient design principles that prioritise safety, durability, and adaptability. By incorporating these principles into their work, structural engineers can help communities not only survive but thrive in the face of a changing climate. It is imperative that we act swiftly to ensure the longevity and sustainability of our infrastructure in a world where extreme weather events are the new normal.

Here at Subteno we have signed up to the ‘UK Structural Engineers Declare Climate & Biodiversity Emergency’ to show our commitment to tackling these problems.

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