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Insight | What could Brexit mean for Eurocodes?

construction site

In the current political climate, it may be impossible to imagine there are relationships between the UK and its European counterparts where negotiations are constructive and outcomes are achieved.

But while UK prime minister Theresa May battles on with Brexit negotiations, Europe-wide talks about structural design are currently being undertaken as part of a review of Eurocodes – the design standards for all structural and geotechnical works in the UK and across Europe.

These discussions are to develop a new generation of Eurocodes, likely to come into effect in 2021-23. The work is being spearheaded by Steve Denton, WSP’s head of civil, bridge and ground engineering in UK, in his capacity as chair of the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN) Technical 250 (CEN/TC 250). It is worth noting that the committee is not part of the EU’s institutional framework, and is therefore independent of the government’s Brexit negotiations.

“What’s currently happening is probably the largest standardisation project, certainly by funding. It’s a huge project and it’s going to mean the complete suite of Eurocodes are revised. In my role as chairman of CEN/TC 250 I’m leading that effort. It will impact on all civil and structural engineers across the UK,” says Denton.

In a year where the collapse of the Polcevera Viaduct in Genoa, in particular, has highlighted the need for the sector to learn lessons, Denton says Eurocodes can play a key part in ensuring that latest and best practice is adopted.

“Construction is a fragmented sector. In other sectors, such as automotive, people have line of sight from concept to maintenance, whereas in construction you have many different organisations involved. Where you have a more fragmented sector it is much harder to learn lessons,” he says.

In the construction sector Eurocodes are part of an interdependent family of standards covering design, products and construction specification. It means engineers can make design decisions and calculations with the ability to make assumptions about the way something is constructed, for example tolerances, knowing that products and practices will meet certain benchmarks. 

This next generation of Eurocodes aims to make them easier to use, so that engineers have a framework within which to practice, but likewise those working at an expert level can work without the codes stifling any innovation – therefore there will be careful use of verbs around requirements and recommendations.

But what impact will a hard, soft or delayed Brexit have on Eurocodes?

For Denton, the future of Eurocodes is not a political one. “My view in terms of standardisation has always been a pragmatic one. Standards are fundamentally voluntary documents developed through consensus, nationally or internationally, and they impact on all civil and structural engineers. My engagement within standardisation has been because it’s important, not because I have a particular point of view. 

“What I have seen is the value that you get from those kind of collaborations. The power of having international teams of experts working collectively on developing the best standards you can is a very positive process, a challenging process, but a positive one.”

The latest plan for Britain leaving the European Union certainly supports the continuation of Eurocodes, which in the UK are implemented by the British Standards Institution (BSI). The  UK-EU Future Relationship White Paper, otherwise known as the Chequers plan, states: “The adoption of a common rulebook means that the British Standards Institution (BSI) would retain its ability to apply the “single standard model” – so that where a voluntary European standard is used to support EU rules, the BSI could not put forward any competing national standards. This would ensure consistency between UK and EU standards wherever this type of standard is adopted, with input from businesses, by the European Standards Organisations (ESOs).”

But what might happen in practice? Currently the public procurement directive includes requirements for how clients specify standards, with Eurocodes being preferred for structural and geotechnical design.

Network Rail has hinted at a deviation, saying in a statement in August: “We want the best of both worlds – trade that enables us to realise the benefits of low cost (standardised) supplied products together with the freedom to not apply Euro standards where they drive unnecessary cost into the UK railway.”

But Denton points out that if a designer, for example, reverts to an old British Standard, for example BS 5400 which is used for bridge design, they will be using a code which has not been updated since the 1990s because Eurocodes were coming.

“If regulations were to change in future then there is the possibility that public sector clients would have greater latitude on how they specific standards, but in the case of design standards I can’t see a credible alternative to the Eurocodes” says Denton.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • There is an interesting discussion in the IStructE Magazine on code use in the forum section over the past few months. Seems numerous organisations are sticking to the use of BS and only use EU when absolutely needed. No one likes using the EU codes and now to ask industry to completely renew their EU code library and learn all the changes is a huge bill for consultants. Hugely demotivating. So I think Denton is out of touch.
    Be far easier to keep using the old Standards and go back to updating them occasionally - they were fit for purpose and far more friendly to use. We should definitely not abandon them.
    Perhaps Denton should do some market research on this subject and get an objective picture of code use.

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