Supporter's Column: Stephen King

In the context of the climate breakdown, a holistic approach to structural engineering is necessary for the creation of more sustainable and equitable places.

How can structural engineers contribute to more sustainable and equitable places?


For generations, the role of the structural engineer fundamentally has been to ensure that a safe, robust building is constructed, guaranteeing the safety and comfort of its users. Now looking forward, we see an important change in our role; projects must deliver social value, be striving for net zero or even regenerative design, using digital tools and built for disassembly, factoring in the circular economy and modelling structures as stores of carbon and materials for future use.

One of the biggest proponents of this forward way of thinking was by the Institution of Structural Engineers in 2019, declaring to “treat sustainability and the climate emergency with equal importance to life safety”. This is a profound shift in the responsibilities of the engineer. No longer is the structural integrity of paramount importance; it must share the attention equally with the sustainability of the project. It brings into stark relief how we must consider the effects of our actions, as we can no doubt guarantee the life safety of our building users now, but we must also think about the impact our project has on the life safety of future generations!

This change is being picked up across the industry, and there are now practices, like us, who aim to provide structural engineering design that lowers the carbon intensity of structures, advocate for regenerative design practices, enable a circular economy, incorporate MMC, include life cycle costing as part of the basic scope of work, reduce both embodied and operational resource use and reduce construction waste.

There is a significant hill to climb however, the standard approach in the construction industry is to limit expensive man-hours both in design and construction; often resulting in the fastest, cheapest forms of construction being used with higher carbon intensity and a lack of quality. It was seeing this result which inspired me to start a new role focused on public housing and urbanism; creating places
that benefit communities and the climate.

For these developments the importance of placemaking is enormous. Local authorities help us to shift the perspective to the longer term value of the building’s materials and components, modelling them as material stores and completing a life-cycle assessment with the future physics in mind. If these buildings can be disassembled instead of demolished, and the materials re-claimed easily, then not only will they have a much lower environmental impact, but they will also retain economic value.

The engineer should consider this when providing the structural strategy, and consider how their project can benefit the community of people who are going to use it. Not just now, but in the future, too. How will future communities adapt this building, and re-use its elements. When we are looking to our team to provide a design which truly considers how the project fits into the urban and social realm you should ask, is the engineer doing enough?


Article is written by Stephen King of Lewis Hubbard Engineering