To produce a safe design on a budget and approved by all stakeholders, structural engineers need to cycle through multiple alternatives for structural elements, building materials, and more. This work requires analytical ability, vision, technical knowledge, and experience.
Accurate data provides the basis for the design work needed for the production of a structure capable of resisting all applied loads without failure during its intended life. A trustworthy design requires trustworthy data, as well as clear communication between the architect and the engineer. Mutual understanding throughout the construction process is key to aligning stakeholders and delivering the project successfully.
1. Data is the first step toward a shared understanding of what is required.
An architect typically sketches the initial vision for how a building, bridge, or other structure will look – including the materials to be used. But it’s the structural engineer who is responsible for turning this vision into a realizable design that follows the relevant regulations, and is capable of resisting all applied loads without failure during its intended life.
The structural designer works with the available information, which sometimes may be incomplete. The risk is that the design is created based on information that might change dramatically later, and then the work needs to be redone.
Starting from the conceptual phases – i.e., the initial design of the building – accurate data is required for understanding the architect’s vision, satisfying structural design-code recommendations, and diminishing risks. Structural engineers' experience and technical knowledge are key in translating information and data into the insights needed for creating a reliable design. Working with 3D design intent can help structural engineers better understand the structures so they can perform their job efficiently.
2. Accurate data enhances productivity and the speed of the structural design work
Despite the importance and complexity of the project and its engineering tasks, structural engineers are often under pressure to perform quickly, efficiently, and on budget.
One of the structural engineer’s biggest tasks during the design work is to perform repetitive calculations at speed. Manual calculations can go wrong at any minute or may require manual changes or restarting from scratch when the design changes. If spreadsheets are used, the capability to keep track of the up-to-date construction codes is limited, or there may be some maintenance costs involved. Many projects are characterized by late design changes from owners and architects that need to be accommodated quickly and consistently.
It’s clear that traditional methods are tedious and time-consuming, and if the work is done by the same person, it is impossible to do the analysis and design work simultaneously. Simultaneous structural analysis and design provide engineers with valuable information that can be used to prepare a more trustworthy design.
Counting on accurate data is essential for engineers to perform their work fast and without inconvenience. When the design work is based on accurate data, the risk of expensive surprises and construction risks diminishes. There are also fewer requests for information coming from the contractors or fabricators. All this lets engineers save time and focus on the real challenges of satisfying safety needs, profitability, sustainability, and more.
3. Accurate data enables engineers to evaluate if the structure is safe and feasible to build
Architectural drawings may show that pillars should be round, or that beams should be minimized to obtain a certain aesthetic. Some or all of these things may be possible, but it’s up to the structural engineer to determine what works. After all, he or she is the one responsible for designing a structural frame that meets the design-code requirements of a given country. Most importantly, the design needs to be safe. This means the structural elements need to be able to bear both vertical and lateral loads – each of which the structural engineer carefully calculates.
Structural design is a time-consuming and meticulous job that often requires experimentation with different alternatives and backward and forward communication with the architect, project owner, and other stakeholders. Traditional processes don’t leave enough time to explore multiple alternative design options and to change the design and documentation.
But the design model and data from which documentation derives need not be separated when Building Information Modeling (BIM) is brought into the process.
Engineers want to leverage BIM to reliably use existing design intent from architects or others to reduce modeling overhead. Unlike an old analytical “stick” model, the physical model more accurately simulates reality and offers more easily understood visualizations.
BIM is also incredibly helpful in determining the interdependencies between different structural design elements, and calculating the relative impact that changes to one have on the other. This helps in rapidly tracing through different alternatives, giving the structural engineer more insight into why one design choice may work better than another. It’s also a vital tool for communicating structural design recommendations to the architect, the detailer, and any other stakeholders who need the information.
4. Accurate data drives insights for more educated decisions.
Whether the project is focusing on more sustainable construction methods, is a pioneer in using new construction material, or is about cost-efficiency – accurate data enables the structural engineer to design various alternatives and scenarios, and present those to the client for final decisions. With this information, and even with the possibility of simulating the building, the project owner can make better decisions. This includes decisions around the material to use – such as concrete, steel, timber, and the estimates of the sizes and quantities – or evaluating more sustainable alternatives by calculating the embodied structural carbon (i.e. the CO2 emitted during the production of the materials used to construct a building).
Making the most of your data with BIM
The global construction industry is in the midst of a broad digital transformation towards data-driven decision-making. This is happening in conjunction with increasing pressures to work quickly and cost-effectively – without sacrificing on quality and safety.
Engineering service organizations need to stay competitive in a globalized industry, thus need to produce work with higher accuracy, consistency, and quality. The fact is that structural engineering offices not embracing the full benefits of BIM are going to be left behind.
Engineers want to work more effectively i.e. quickly and collaboratively to achieve more, and create better quality structural design. Reducing repetitive, labor-intensive tasks drives more efficient working, and shortens the time from bid [tender] to sending the bill [no RFI’s/no rework]. It's a tall order, with much of the pressure early in the project falling on the shoulders of the structural engineer. He or she naturally wants to produce functionally outstanding structural elements – despite timing and cost pressures.
BIM is the tool that gives a structural engineer the edge in personal productivity and insight that’s recognized and appreciated by construction-industry clients across the globe. While your engineering office may survive without the full power of BIM for a while, eventually, clients will turn to offices that have fully embraced the trend.