A Blog by Nigel Evan
s – Director of Structural Engineering
My heart sank the other day when the voice on the other end of the phone announced, ‘I’ve been watching YouTube videos on how to design RSJs for my extension…’
This is not the first time a caller has proudly announced that they have cracked Structural Engineering and all its intricacies via the medium of YouTube, I have no doubt that it will not be last either, sadly.
The caller went on to describe the beams that they had ‘designed’ and wondered whether I would just confirm for his own peace of mind that his ‘calculations’ were correct. Obviously, there was no way on earth that I would do this, and the new Brunel at the other end of the phone seemed surprised when I firmly replied that I do not sign off other designs based on nothing more than a 3 minute video garnered from a Google search.
‘What about lateral stability to your property and your neighbours’ properties?’ I asked (the caller is mid-terrace and is proposing to remove the back of his house at ground floor level) … ‘what’s that?’ came the reply. ‘Have you considered the Party Wall implications to what you’re proposing?’ I asked… ‘I don’t know what that is’ came the reply.
My heart sank lower still when the immortal words ‘my mate used this beam for his extension, would that do?’
Unfortunately, there is too much of what I call the ‘Grand Designs’ effect in our industry, especially in the smaller scale residential sector. Having watched an episode of Grand Designs, with the charming presenter waxing lyrical about the ‘on site challenges’ that were overcome by a completely naïve couple who built their dream home into the side of a mountain, with scant regard for budget, does not qualify anyone as an Architect, Engineer or a competent contractor.
Not one episode I have ever seen explains to the viewer the years of study, the hundreds of hours spent refining design techniques and gaining experience about how materials and buildings behave, that the Engineer has accumulated. One minute there is a muddy field, and after the advert break, the foundations have been poured and there is a steel frame erected on site. If it happens that smoothly on TV, how hard can it be?
Returning to my caller; he was advised that the beams he had selected for his property would not be adequate. Not even close. ‘I’m happy to help you’ I said, ‘but there will be a cost associated with my time in doing so’. Herein lies the crux of the problem; people begrudge paying professional fees. Bricks and mortar are tangible, 25 years of knowledge and experience are not.
YouTube showed me how to bake a sponge cake, it must be able to show me how to design a couple of beams that will hold my house up and keep my family safe, right?
There is a reason that competent Structural Engineers spend years reading, studying, sitting exams and gaining invaluable on the job experience. It is because being a Structural Engineer is a difficult, responsible, challenging and at times stressful job, where the responsibility of designing and detailing structurally adequate and safe buildings or their component parts, cannot be mastered in 3 minutes.
We have a saying in our office, ‘you never stop learning’, which is true. After many years of working in our profession, I am still learning from my colleagues, still adapting to changing design codes, learning to work with new materials, or new ways of using old materials. I hope I will still be absorbing knowledge and experience until the day I retire.
I value my knowledge and experience, I value the knowledge and experience of my colleagues in other professions, we just need the wider public to value our experience and appreciate and acknowledge that something as serious as the design of structural elements cannot be adequately considered after watching 3 minutes of an ‘expert’ on YouTube.