Why engineers must lead the debate on the future of construction

Published: 24/06/2014

AAMI Park Stadium, Melbourne: image by John Gollings

The Institution awarded Tristram Carfrae with its prestigious Gold Medal this year. 

Tristram has been a structural engineer since graduating in 1981. During his career he has worked all over the world on a variety of remarkable projects. From the Schlumberger Research Centre in Cambridge to the Beijing National Aquatics Centre (or “Water Cube”), he’s worked with some of the biggest names in architecture and design, like Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano, Phillip Cox and Thomas Heatherwick.
Here Tristram gives his thoughts on the state of the structural engineering profession, and how the future holds exciting possibilities.
“Structural engineering is still not well understood by most people: partly this is because engineers have become so good at our work that structures (thankfully!) do not regularly collapse, and people naturally take their safety for granted. 
“However, the problem is compounded by our reluctance as a profession to offer opinions on issues relating to the built environment. This will be a tricky mindset to change, as more than any other professionals we are responsible for managing risk in construction. But if we stay quiet, the public will not learn about or appreciate our work. 
“This is especially important as the next decade will be full of opportunity for structural engineers; engineering will become more relevant to ordinary people’s lives as we respond to challenges like climate change and sustainability, designing the new, resilient structures required for increasingly challenging environments - while also attempting to improve the environmental impact of the industry.
“The digital revolution will help us in this work, allowing us to design and deliver structures that were inconceivable beforehand. Through experimentation with digital models we can also greatly improve our understanding of structural behaviour and create a far more integrated approach to the design and construction process, bringing structural engineers closer to architects and designers.
“I believe these opportunities will compel structural engineers to think more creatively, with less of a focus on analysis, risk and reliability. Of course we must remain the trustworthy guardians of public safety - but I think we need to join the debate on what people want, rather than telling people what they need. Doing so will make clients and the general public respect us a good deal more.”
Your definition of structural engineering:
“Structural engineering is how you make objects in the built environment stand up in an efficient, reliable and safe fashion.”

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