Juliet Handy has been a practising structural engineer for ten years, since graduating from the University of Sheffield. She has been a member of the Institution since September 2011 and is currently an Associate Structural Engineer with Atkins Global.  Here she discusses her reasons for becoming an engineer, her career so far, and her work on the project to rejuvenate Birmingham New Street Station, shortlisted in our “Infrastructure or Transportation Structures” category.

I grew up in Northumberland and was inspired by the bridges across the River Tyne - the historic 17th and 18th century stone arched bridges at Hexham and Corbridge, the cast iron railway viaducts designed by Robert Stephenson, and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge. I have a passion for art and creative design and an aptitude for maths, so structural engineering was an obvious and exciting choice of career.

My work at Atkins is very varied - one month I am designing luxury villas for a polo club in the Middle East, the next an office development in the UK. No two projects are the same and each bring their own challenges. 

I am immensely proud of my involvement in the Birmingham New Street redevelopment project, where I took a leading role in the structural design of the new John Lewis store - at 250,000 sq ft, the largest outside London. It’s an exciting time for Birmingham, with many interesting structures appearing since 2003, including the Bullring, the new Library of Birmingham, Marks Barfield’s Spiral Café and 10 Holloway Circus to name a few.

The project presented numerous unique challenges. We were required to work around an operational station with a passenger flow of 170,000 a day, while making significant changes to the structural load paths and loading regime of the existing 1960s concrete frame. We decided to retain the existing structure early in the programme – it was a bigger engineering challenge than full demolition and reconstruction would have been, but it was the only way to keep the station operating safely.

We analysed and assessed the old structure with a forensic, methodical and innovative approach. The strengths and weaknesses of the existing concrete frame (and its supporting foundations) was a key consideration in our decisions. For example, within the new John Lewis development there are a number of deep transfer structures, tension columns, column-free spaces, rotational and sliding bridge bearings, all of which were required to respect the limitations of the existing structure. 

Above: GSA model

The old structure was also subject to new load effects from the atrium roof.  Combined with all the other modifications, this required a Global Stability Analysis (GSA) to determine how the building would respond through each construction stage, as well as in its final condition.

Detailed records were scarce and we could not make intrusive investigations, so a joint Atkins/ Network Rail engineering panel met to agree how to model the structure while increasing knowledge of existing site conditions. This evolved the GSA from an analysis model to a whole philosophy. We backed up our analysis with a live movement monitoring system, which would warn us if the building was not behaving in the way we predicted.  In the event the building response remained within predicted bounds, which is a testament to how effective the GSA was.

Reusing existing building structures and components is really important for the environment: the UK construction industry produces 109m tonnes of waste each year, and to make a significant impact on this statistic we need to make better use of existing structures: which this project did tremendously well. As structural engineers, we hold a great responsibility in driving this agenda forward, and the example of Birmingham New Street will hopefully help other 1960s buildings in the UK get a new lease of life.

Consulting the public was really important throughout the project. We met with groups like cyclists, those with impaired sight and mobility, the fire service, Birmingham City Council and many others, showing them drawings, photographs, films and computer models. This was vital as we received great feedback that helped us refine aspects of the design and minimise disruption to passengers.

It was great to see the public’s messages of good wishes written on the hoarding immediately before opening - it showed how much people were looking forward to the station opening, and how well the project had managed to continue a conversation with the public.

Throughout the opening weekend I was beaming from ear to ear! It brought a tear to my eye to see the concourse open to excited crowds, and to hear all the positive comments from staff and members of the public. 

The Structural Awards recognise talented structural design and showcase projects which demonstrate excellence, creativity and innovation, sustainability and value. I think the Birmingham New Street redevelopment project amply demonstrates all of these qualities, creating a truly iconic, world-class development.

Discover more about The Structural Awards.

(All images credit Atkins)

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