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Structural Engineers: tailored advice, economic and buildable design

Original article by James Thomson

Institution of Structural Engineers members regularly participate in Grand Designs Live, one of the UK’s leading home improvement events, as part of the ‘Ask an Expert’ feature – where built environment professionals provide free thirty-minute consultations to homeowners.

At the Grand Designs Birmingham event James Thomson MIStructE of GCA Consulting was on hand to provide much-needed structural engineering advice. Here he discusses the problems he encountered at the show and how he provides solutions for projects in his regular practice.

I have been a qualified Structural Engineer for over ten years, undertaking everything from landmark projects to domestic properties. Domestic properties account for about a third of my workload.
The most frequent question for domestic projects is ’can I knock this wall out?’, but homeowners often approach us with concerns about cracking and defects in their property. These are rarely serious, if caught early enough, and a structural engineer can always advise on whether remedial action is necessary. With programs like Grand Designs, we are increasingly requested to bring ‘showpiece’ engineering into a domestic setting: cantilever balconies, corner windows without posts, long spans – all of which need early discussion with the whole design team to be a success.

The most common misconception about structural engineers is that we add cost with expensive and overdesigned work, but this couldn’t be further from the truth: a good structural engineer will be focussed on minimising our client’s costs through efficient design.

That’s why it’s so worthwhile to have structural engineers feature at Grand Designs: involving a structural engineer at the start of a project ensures a safe, stable building without impeding the architectural design. It is essential to bring an engineer in early to ensure that designs are economic and buildable. Grand Designs is a great place to provide this early input – clients are often in the planning stages when we can still add significant value.

Almost any form of building, however extravagant, can be engineered and built, but the cost can often be disproportionate to the value. A structural engineer can confirm when a proposed design may incur unnecessary costs early enough to avoid wasted design fees from other consultants.

Sometimes the right structural advice is actually ‘don’t build’. A project can grow like a snowball rolling downhill. What started as a need for an extra bedroom for a growing family can easily become an unaffordable two-storey extension with a new kitchen, supersized open plan area and large glass windows that increase heating costs.

Just before planning, I would always recommend that clients go back to the original brief, and consider ‘is this the most efficient use of my money, given my actual needs?’ Sometimes a design can be significantly reduced in size/cost and still achieve everything a client wants. This might decrease our scope, but ultimately our role is to provide tailored advice to each client and occasionally that might be the question: ‘do you really need to build this’.

At Grand Designs the most interesting problem was a homeowner who approached me with a corner window which she has previously been advised was impossible to build. With a bit of thought I proposed a hidden frame that allowed the corner to cantilever without a post, achieving the open indoor/outdoor space she was looking for. The final solution would have been costly, but for this client the cost was still good value to achieve her architectural ambitions.

I would advise anyone looking for a structural engineer to hire a professionally qualified member of The Institution of Structural Engineers. Becoming a member is a significant challenge, requiring a wide range of experience and the ability and drive to pass the Institution’s tough exam – so employing a member of the Institution means choosing an engineer who is technically proficient, determined and diligent.

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