Above: The Solar Gate is a 10m tall stainless steel sculpture Will has been working on with Tonkin Liu Architects for Hull: UK City of Culture 2017. The project links parametric design code with structural finite element solvers and a genetic algorithm to optimise the geometry, making it possible to fabricate the whole shell from 4mm stainless steel plate, without the need for internal structure or stiffeners. The image shows one half of the sculpture, lying on its side.

Will Arnold, our Young Structural Engineering Professional of the Year, imagines what structural engineering will look like in the year 2027 (and 2057). 

In ten years, I don’t imagine that the essential definition of a structural engineer will have changed. We will still be responsible for the design of the physical structure that holds up the building, bridge, tunnel, dam etc. However, as repetitive tasks become more and more automated, the role of the engineer is shifting towards a focus more on creative design; adding value through careful integration with other disciplines, and creating a structure that responds to the needs of others. 

I don’t think that we’ve seen the end of ‘curvy’ architecture, and this is something that we as engineers will need to keep responding to and supporting in a way that minimises the impact of our buildings on the planet. As designs become more and more fluid and organic, engineers might be asked to perform more and more miracles; and with commonplace member design automation, we will have to be careful to watch what we’re doing as summer placement engineers (or even enthusiastic architects) would be able to issue full packs of design information without any apparent need for an in-depth understanding of their structure. 

To do our job well, we will need to continue to look past the analysis model that claims to have selected the most efficient beam size, and dig deeper - understanding and critiquing how the structure will respond in reality.  It will be interesting to see what happens with global warming and climate change over the next decades. If it continues to progress as we see at the minute, then by 2057 we will likely be experiencing higher wind loads. As such we will again be in the situation that existing buildings no longer 'pass' when designed to modern building codes. The effect of this will be even more pronounced in regions where wind and seismic loads interact.

In the building industry, disciplines continue to follow the trend that we’ve seen for the last couple of centuries, and become more and more specialist. As such, we will all have to become better at talking to each other to ensure that we understand the points of view of our collaborators. Structural engineers will need to be able to speak the language of more and more disciplines, interacting with chilled water engineers, façade connection specialists, reactive floor network programmers, manhole designers, renewable energy consultants, and smart power system engineers. Architects and clients will want to work with the structural engineer who can understand and influence all of the above and more.

Engineered timber is currently experiencing more and more interest from clients and architects who want to benefit from its quick construction times, good visual finish and tight on-site tolerances. It’s these sorts of benefits that drive cost, and so could determine what materials we build with in years to come. I don’t imagine there being a fundamental difference in 10 years’ time to what we have now, rather more small step changes towards a more widespread use of timber (probably reinforced), and incremental progression to steel and concrete technologies.
In 40 years though, perhaps man-made materials created from renewable sources could dominate construction. At the moment there appears to be no reason why we won’t continue to erode away the supply of resources of this planet, whilst simultaneously the population only continues to explode. As demand increases for new buildings and infrastructure, material costs will likely increase and so renewable materials will definitely find their place in the market.

It can’t be too long before we have overcome the hiccups that the industry currently has when trying to link analysis programmes with BIM software. Perhaps by 2027 Autodesk will have taken over Trimble and CSi; and so we will be used to working with the Tekla and eTabs plug-ins within Revit. Oasys GSA will probably remain firmly independent, but hopefully will be seamlessly interoperable with the aforementioned software packages.

As more and more graduates join the workforce with the ability to read and write code, self-written plug-ins could start to replace the traditional excel spreadsheets that much of the workforce currently relies on. Perhaps more open-source software would be of benefit to the market, allowing us to tweak programmes to suit our project-specific needs.

I don’t think that robots and drones will take over Construction sites in ten years’ time (but maybe by 2057?) but I think that they will start to become commonplace, alongside other forms of technology that we can’t even imagine at the moment. 

Checking, monitoring and inspection is already moving towards automation, and so perhaps by 2027 building sites will broadcast real-time updates to the designers and client team. More immediate feedback like this will enable contractors to build quicker, as there will be less time spent fixing mistakes. Truckloads of timber beams and columns might be scanned on the way into the construction compound, immediately flagging up to the site team what they have stored where, and which piece to erect next. Advances such as these mean that construction time will continue to decrease, despite designs become more and more complex. 

As design information is delivered in 3D, it also means that the production time for construction information will be greatly reduced, allowing the designer to respond to site queries or client changes in far less time. To keep up with the pace of information production, sites will either become busier or more efficient… or both!

I can’t imagine a world where cost, efficiency and buildability don’t form the cornerstone of solid structural design, however structural ‘aesthetic’ will no doubt still be driven by the architectural modes of 2027. Perhaps we’ll see more connections made through additive manufacture, or perhaps we’ll just see connections with fewer (stronger) bolts in. Structural elegance will always have its place though – as elegant structural designs are sought out as a means to minimising material usage in construction. What ‘elegance’ means is objective, but most will agree that it incorporates elements of efficiency and neatness within it.

Overall, I'm excited about the future of the profession. I see automation and clever computer programming as a way of freeing us up to spend more time doing the things where we add real value - designing and understanding great structures. 


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