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Plunk, plunk, fizz

Future markets - Flamboyant structures are symptomatic of economic optimism, but will the good times continue to roll? Andrew Mylius reports.

There is something of a champagne party atmosphere in the structural engineering market. Clients are demanding 'iconic' structures.

Architects and engineers are all too often answering with exuberant, even extravagant structures.

'Look at some of the designs for the London Olympics, ' says outgoing Scott Wilson director and former president of the Institution of Structural Engineers, Bob McKittrick.

'We're seeing some very elaborate proposals.' Eye-catching, rand-gesture architecture and structural engineering is borne out of a buoyant economy and to most the good times look set to continue. But McKittrick is less sure.

'There is a detectable slowdown in public expenditure on construction, which, I believe, results from the costs of the war in Iraq and peacekeeping in Afghanistan.' Using Ministry of Defence data, McKittrick calculates that the joint cost of the campaigns to date has been roughly £5.5bn.

'What does £5.5bn represent?

Crudely it would have funded about 20% of last year's public expenditure on construction.' McKittrick points to the creaking National Health Service as just one of many signs that the public exchequer is feeling the pinch. Something on the government's shopping list will have to be struck off and, he suspects, it could well be construction.

He also points to signs that the commercial sector is reining itself in. Last November banking giant HSBC published a state of the market report, Taking the Pulse - Commercial Property, which warns: 'The big questions for the property market are the scale and pattern of future economic growth.

'The HSBC view is that a period of below-trend growth is likely. If so, rental growth over the next few years will remain modest. In terms of the investment market, it is difficult to see how a continuing strong demand can be maintained for property, given a poor outlook for rental values.' McKittrick says that forecasts from the Department for Trade & Industry and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development, among others, show annual construction industry growth dipping over the next three years.

More sober times lie ahead, McKittrick suggests. And as the champagne fizz fades clients will increasingly question what they are paying for. 'The Olympic structures proposed to date aren't sustainable in terms of value for money. People argue that they are about the regeneration of a run-down part of London, but you can't regenerate at the kind of cost that's being talked about.' He points to the imbalance between cost and benefit delivered by the Scottish Parliament.

'It has fantastic roofs, but the public don't normally see a roof.

Was that a necessary expense? I think that in the near future clients will force us to pull our belts in.' McKittrick sees future challenges for structural engineers coming in the shape of achieving more for less and responding to what he sees as an inescapable agenda - climate change.

Civils director at consultant Waterman, John Waiting, says that part of his firm's focus is on producing simple, adaptable structural systems that can be used as a skeleton for a number of architectural skins.

Just such a system is being used by Waterman and contractor Laing O'Rourke for the construction of the Paradise Street retail development in Liverpool (NCE 22 February).

One simple system of precast concrete columns, beams, wall panels and omnia plank floors is providing the foundation for buildings by 20 different architects. Structural economy is not necessarily the enemy of exciting architecture, he emphasises.

McKittrick sees architectural and structural flamboyance in opposition to sustainability. 'It's debatable whether many clients have a clue what triple bottom line accounting is - weighing the economic, social and environmental costs and benefits of a project.

'But the profession will need to give careful thought to whether or not to work for clients that do not give consideration to how to mitigate the effects of global warming in their projects.' Structural gymnastics are almost always performed at cost to the environment, in the form of extra materials use and a higher embodied energy value.

'It's time for company and professional ethics, as well as personal morals, to come into play, ' concludes McKittrick.

Bob McKittrick will kick off NCE's Structures conference on 21-22 March. Full details at www. nce-structures. co. uk.

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