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Q&A | A week in the life of a structural engineer

Robert Bird Group structural design engineer Sam Walton says the trick to his job is accepting that he will never be able to learn everything

What’s the most interesting project you’ve worked on?

My first bit of engineering experience was working on a job called “The Parabola”. It was a refurbishment project, converting the old Commonwealth Institute into the new Design Museum. The original perimeter structure along with its parabolic shaped roof had to be effectively lifted and held in place, internal floors and supporting columns removed while ensuring the integrity of the structural shell. This then allowed for the retrofit of the new floors and supporting structure to be constructed. Due to the shape of the roof, the key to the design was ensuring that the building would not fold in on itself.

Sam Walton, structural design engineer, Robert Bird Group

Sam Walton, structural design engineer, Robert Bird Group

What was your route into structural engineering?

At the age of 26 I took a job as a document controller with the Robert Bird Group in London. After a year I trained myself to use AutoCAD, and was re-employed as a draftsperson. This effectively turned my job into an apprenticeship, where I learnt structural drafting on the job while being fortunate enough to be funded by Robert Bird Group to go back to university and undertake a part-time degree in civil engineering. After five years of drafting, and having completed my degree, I was immediately switched from drafting to engineering, running my own projects within the space of a year.

What specific skills have you learned through the job?

This is my second year in the role of a structural design engineer. In this role, I feel that I am constantly learning new skills and at times it feels like I am enrolled on a never ending university course. The principle skills I feel I have developed, which can only really be done in a working environment, is being able to effectively communicate ideas and concepts through various forms, from sketches to presentations at design team meetings.

Did your role exist five years ago?

The jobs that I work on are normally building informaiton modelling (BIM)-oriented, where all design is coordinated in 3D environment using Revit. As an ex-draftsperson, I am able to interrogate and amend Revit models with an up-to-date structural design, a role not may engineers can carry out. With more and more projects now utilising BIM, I would say that the role that I play within my team did not exist five years ago.

How does your role impact on the built environment?

From my original role as a draftsperson to my current role as an engineer, the structures which I have been a part of have most definitely helped in shaping the London skyline. The majority of projects I work on are residential, ranging from towers to townhouses. One would hope that these projects have a massive impact on the built environment, especially with today’s current housing crisis, and do not end up as empty investment properties.

How do you explain what you do to your friends and family?

At the most simplistic level I like to explain it like this: architects create problems, structural engineers solve them.

How do you see role of structural engineer changing in the next five years?

I would hope that the engineer has more of a direct impact with the BIM process where modelling is done in 3D and analytical information can be directly pulled out and used to immediately validate design.

What is the logical career progression for you?

Currently, it seems that the logical career progression for me would to become a team leader where I can learn and build up skills which happen in the background such as project finance and management skills.

What advice would you give someone thinking about becoming an engineer?

Structural engineering encompasses the design of structures using a variety of different materials. Therefore, do not expect to learn everything at once. In fact, expect not to ever know everything at all!

Readers' comments (1)

  • I agree, Architects create problems, Structural Engineers solve them. But in the main Sam Walton, had done proud, by rising to the be a Structural Engineer from a document controller.
    I am a "one man band" & I had a STROKE a few years ago, well do to Sam !!
    Alex Janicki
    R J Associates BSc CEng AMIStructE MICE MASCE MBAPE

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

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