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Marking the boundaries

LettersComment

Engineers young and old take note. Be bold with your designs but take absolutely nothing for granted. As we saw graphically this week, structural engineering can go wrong.

Yet in reality it is very rare for a new structure to collapse catastrophically in the way that we saw on Sunday in Paris. So rare that it will have sent shock waves around the engineering profession.

For something to go so fatally wrong with such a landmark structure in a modern first world country and just 11 months after opening is astounding. Engineers and non-engineers will be thinking: 'this is just not supposed to happen'.

While it is not exactly routine, we more often either see things fall down during construction or we see old or poorly maintained structures collapse years after opening.

NCE has visited many structural failures over the years yet only a handful have been newly completed.

For the French this will prompt great soul searching about the way future projects are run. As a nation, France is very proud of its engineering and architectural pedigree and fastidious about the need to get things right. The French are also eager - perhaps more than most - to push at the boundaries and pioneer new techniques and materials. Getting it wrong on such a world stage is tragic for those killed and injured but also tragic for the professionals involved.

On this basis parallels can perhaps be drawn with the recent Millennium Bridge wobble problems in London.

Here we saw Arup push at the boundaries of the known and come unstuck. Or with the Glasgow Wing Tower, a radical rotating structure that still refuses to rotate. Fortunately in both these cases the embarrassment did not result in fatalities.

The fact is that in our modern world the public takes it pretty much for granted that new structures will work. No matter how complex and jaw dropping the construction may be, they can rest assured it will perform precisely as the engineers predicted. We have powerful computer simulations and are able to predict how materials will perform under virtually all conditions. There is no guesswork when it comes to safety.

So over the next few weeks and perhaps months investigators will pore over the design of Terminal 2E to find out precisely what has gone wrong.

Our report this week certainly points towards a number of potential weaknesses in the structure that will no doubt feature heavily in the forthcoming analysis - analysis that, of course, may yet form the basis of future criminal prosecutions.

Identifying the precise cause will be vital to determining the future of this landmark structure. At the moment a very large question mark hangs over the integrity and existence of a beautiful building. Before any passenger returns, the airport operator will have to be totally convinced that it is 100% safe.

Convincing passengers will be even harder.

But the conclusions could also have a bearing on future designs for public building, specifically how far engineers will be allowed to step into the unknown and push forward technology. While we must learn from this tragedy, I hope that it doesn't prompt clients to pull back in future and run shy of the radical and innovative engineering that makes our world so interesting.

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