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Eurocodes: Moving with the times

The long wait for Eurocodes is over and the time for action is now, says Parsons Brinckerhoff director of bridge and structural engineering and Eurocodes guru Steve Denton.

Structural Eurocodes are a set of unified international codes of practice for designing buildings and civil engineering structures, which will eventually replace national codes like the British Standards.

From March 2010, all public sector works will need to be designed to Eurocodes and British Standards will no longer be updated. There are ten Eurocodes in total – one explaining the basis of design to Eurocodes and the principles behind them, one explaining load cases to be considered, one for each of the major materials – steel, concrete, timber, masonry, aluminium and composite construction – one for seismic design and one for geotechnical design. Each consists of a number of parts and is accompanied by national annexes, which give country specific values and guidelines. All ten Eurocodes have now been published as well as a large majority of the national annexes.

With the publication of the much-awaited national annex for Eurocode 1: actions on structures – part 1-4: general actions – wind actions at the end of October, UK local authorities can now accept Eurocode building designs as complying with Building Regulations (News last week).
Companies have begun to look at how Eurocodes will affect them, but until now, not many engineers would have had daily exposure to them. "It’s taken a long time to get to this point, but now major things are happening in a short time," says Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB) director of bridge and structural engineering Steve Denton. "You need to train staff around the time when they’re close to using it on live projects."

Denton has been involved with Eurocodes for a long time. His involvement with British Standards as a member of different committees put him in a good position to help develop Eurocodes and he now chairs the British Standards Eurocodes Horizontal Group on Bridges. "We’ve been tracking them over the last five years, through work on British Standard committees and through work with the Highway Agency. We chose to roll up our sleeves, get stuck in and influence it. We’re embarking on a period of significant change. Whether one’s views on it are positive or negative, any significant change is always challenging. It is important people understand things are always changing and it’s better to invest in it and embrace it rather than push back against it," he says.

The changeover to Eurocodes is an enormous challenge for the industry. New guidelines and amendments are brought out all the time and engineers are used to moving with developing thinking as part of their continuing professional development. However, never before has an entire set of codes of practice been replaced in such a manner. "It’s a significant change," says Denton. "It’s important people recognise the need to invest time and effort. It will place greater demand on the technical understanding of engineers. During the period of transition, it will be a challenge for everyone. In terms of progression it’s moving to a higher level of understanding which is good for the profession but it’s challenging in the short term."

Eurocodes are thought to be bringing with them a raft of benefits. Not only will they create a level playing field for engineers across Europe in terms of where they can work, but they will also allow engineers to use their skills to optimise their design. For example according to the Concrete Centre, Eurocode 2 – concrete allows benefits to be derived from using high strength concretes, which BS8110 does not. "Eurocodes are based on the latest science," says Denton. "There have been some positive advances in terms of methods used. It’s more consistent and rational. It may appear complicated to start with but once learnt you can see the benefits. There will be common vocabulary across engineering internationally. If questions are asked, they’ll be asked of a bigger pool of engineers."

This bodes well for future ventures, opening up opportunities for research pooled across Europe. However for anyone slow to adapt to Eurocodes, they can look forward to being overtaken by other European countries. "Our European partners are advising implementation rapidly and we risk being left behind if we don’t seek out opportunity," says Denton. He is fond of using a quote by US Army retired chief of staff General Eric Shinseki: "If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance even less."

Clearly the structural engineering community has a lot of work to do, but the Eurocodes changeover will affect more people than just those who will be working directly from them. Clients and anyone who is in involved with the approvals process will need to know how it will affect them. "It will affect clients, particularly with bridges and those with technical approval role," says Denton. "There will be some cost and programme implications. It’s important the client is in a position to manage."

Denton has been working with the Highways Agency on another big issue which will affect the industry – climate change. One of his roles is as the national framework manager of research and development at the Highways Agency and he has undertaken a series of projects concerned with climate change. "We need to be making the right decisions about what to change, viewed in a risk and sustainability context," says Denton. "In the UK we have a mature infrastructure. If we’re designing new infrastructure it’s relatively straightforward and the cost implications are not too high. If it’s existing assets, the challenges about how you manage are greater. For example, if it’s hotter, how do we need to change the structure with regards to the expansion joints, movement capability of the bearing and so on?" This is just one area where Denton bridges the gap between industry and academia.

In addition to his role at PB, Denton has remained active in research and teaching since he was a junior research fellow at the University of Cambridge between 1996 and 1999. In 2007 he was appointed visiting professor at the University of Bath. He is a strong believer in the benefits of the industry and academia working together. "When I was in full-time research I found it difficult to come up with strong research ideas," says Denton. "In industry, the challenges and ideas come up all the time, but we don’t have time to look into it. I would love to see more collaboration between industry and academia. If you look at other countries in Europe leading practitioners often hold academic postings."

In the UK, engineers are often shoe-horned into management positions as they rise up the promotions ladder. Denton’s role at PB spans business management and development but he has not forgotten what lies at the centre of his job. "We don’t sufficiently recognise and celebrate our technical skill which is at the heart of what engineering is about," says Denton. "We encourage our people to move away into business management. It’s crucial we recognise multiple roles in organisations – they’re all important. As a profession we have a huge contribution to make, but if we take our eye off the ball as to what we do it will be damaging for us as a profession."

- 2007 Appointed Visiting Professor, University of Bath
- 1996-1999 Junior Research Fellow, University of Cambridge (part funded by PB)
- 1992-2008 Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB), rising from Graduate Engineer to Director of Bridge and Structural Engineering
-1989-1992: Studied engineering at University of Cambridge
- 1988-1989 Tarmac Construction, year in industry programme

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