Structural Awards judge and Institution Past President, Ian Firth, discusses the importance of celebrating sustainable engineering solutions.

During the eleven years I’ve been judging the Structural Awards, the Award for Sustainability has taken on greater and greater significance, reflecting the growing importance of this subject to society. It is arguably the most coveted of the Structural Awards, second only to the Supreme Award itself. 

Sustainability takes many forms 

The award has been presented to a variety of projects over the years. The Housing for Low-Income Communities in El Salvador project won the award in 2015, for its innovative and imaginative use of locally sourced building materials and local labour. 

Last year, The Enterprise Centre was commended for the excellent use of local timber, among other things, in producing a very high-quality building at the University of East Anglia. 

The Muregeya Bridge project, our 2014 winner, was very different: it won not so much for its use of materials or construction technology as the fact that it transformed the lives of local people, helping to lift them out of poverty.

Great at doing it, poor at shouting about it

Structural engineers are becoming much more innovative and imaginative in delivering excellence against a set of sustainability criteria. 

A good engineer will always seek a solution which uses the minimum amount of material, probably aiming at a suitably light weight solution, and one which can be constructed simply with minimum energy, waste, damage and disruption. 

The problem is sometimes this is come so naturally to engineers that they don’t draw sufficient attention to their accomplishments in sustainability terms. It would good to remember to describe how sustainable solutions are achieved when writing about the project, so that others can follow suit.

Be sure to give us the details

Unfortunately, this habit is sometimes reflected in Structural Awards submissions, where entries can fail to give the judges the information we need to assess a project’s sustainable credentials. 

We can only go on what is submitted, and we are sometimes frustrated by a lack of meaningful information. This is regrettable, because sometimes potential winners never even make it onto the sustainability shortlist, simply for lack of information. 

Put sustainability at the heart of your submission

In the modern era, sustainability should no longer be seen as some kind of optional, “nice-to-have” feature. All projects should have sustainability as a primary goal – that’s why our rules encourage a strong focus on a project’s sustainability characteristics across all categories.

When the judges get together to discuss the entries, the discussions round the table are always lively, as you might expect, and we don't always agree in the initial debate over each category. But the room is filled with experts of all sorts, and we carefully evaluate and weigh the various arguments, allowing honest opinions and deliberations to take place until a decision can be made that all the judges can support. 

It’s natural that those that give us the most detail reference sustainability merit the most debate when it comes to deciding a sustainability winner. This year there was once again an excellent discussion about exactly what we mean by sustainability, and the many factors that contribute to creating a truly sustainable engineering solution.

The good news is that we had a number of projects with excellent sustainability credentials to debate and I believe we have another great winner – to be announced at the event on 16 November in London.

As a Structural Awards judge I am always struck by the extraordinarily high calibre of engineering skill and creativity on display. Our members really are doing extraordinary stuff!

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