The downturn, increasing materials prices and regulatory changes are all having an impact on structural engineers. Building asks Paul Scott, a director at structural engineering practice, AKT II, how the sector is holding up
How big is AKT II?
We have 123 people.
What sort of projects do you do?
We work on commercial and mixed use developments that currently include a number of schemes in and around the city, as well as larger developments such as the 10 million ft2 Stone Towers project in Cairo with Zaha Hadid Architects, the Masdar Project and the recently announced Sheikh Zayed National Museum in Abu Dhabi with Foster + Partners. We often work on complex sites either as new build or in the retrofit and remodelling sector, which includes projects such as the recently completed Angel Building with Derwent London.
We also have a strong background in residential and laboratory buildings, which include the close-to-completion Sainsbury Laboratory. On a smaller scale, we are involved in research projects/pavilions that give us the vibrant mix of project work that we enjoy.
At the beginning of April the directors of AKT bought the firm out for £3.75m after five years of ownership by engineer White Young Green. How has the buyout been received and what impact will it have on the type of projects you do in the future?
The management buyout has been well received across the industry. The process has been amicable and professional from both sides and the clients of both AKT and White Young Green (WYG) are positive for the future of both parties.
Despite our own desire for independence, there is a place for larger consulting groups such as WYG, which are building on their strengths and expertise on a global scale, with the current leaders doing an excellent job in steering the group, given the difficult climate. This mix of small and large consultancies maintains an important diversity in the industry by working with a different focus.
As AKT II we hope to continue with the range of projects that excite and challenge us as designers to produce successful buildings. This will allow us to build on our reputation for engineering, design and delivery.
What sectors are busiest?
We are seeing movement in the commercial market, high-end residential, competitive residential and the refurb/retrofit market.
Overseas has always been a market for us and we will continue to find exciting and interesting projects around the globe that challenge us as a practice.
Is there a trend towards particular types of structural solution?
With the emphasis on the reuse of existing building stock, the trend will be to identify the opportunities within existing built forms and the strengthening systems that can complement these to reinvent and regenerate buildings.
For new build, the challenges are in the choice of materials and the design of more integrated solutions to meet the new environmental and sustainability challenges while achieving new goals that we and architects have to face.
What impact is the downturn having on structural specification?
Value is more important than ever so this is not necessarily about de-specifying. In that sense, we always strive to develop a high value project; sometimes this might be as simple as using theas-struck concrete finish to perform as the finished surface, avoiding additional trades, materials, time and cost.
What is the impact of increasing materials prices on structural solutions?
An increase in materials prices has an influence but this should not be to the detriment of a buildable solution or one that is fit for purpose. If anything, the downturn opens up the options rather than closing them down as we look to more innovative means of solving problems, such as the use of composite materials.
What impact are structural Eurocodes having on specification and costs?
Eurocodes have been a long time coming but finally we are moving to a common platform for design codes, which is a good thing, particularly for overseas work.
Another benefit is that Eurocodes look at the loadings on the structure in more detail, meaning the factor of safety can be reduced by up to 5%. This reduces the overall design load, which benefits the structural design. Over time the codes will adjust to take on the benefits of developments in material science, specification and workmanship that will allow us to push the efficiency further.
Are other regulatory changes having or are likely to have an impact?
Of course Part L, BREEAM, LEED and the Code for Sustainable Homes continue to set the benchmarks for future designs to meet a more sustainable agenda so we can expect this to require a more integrated design team process.
What impact is the need to cut carbon emissions having on structural specifications?
Embodied carbon is, of course, an important consideration in structural specification and will become more influential on the carbon footprint as the operating energy reduces. We are already influencing the choice of structural solutions and materials depending on sourcing, design and transportation in the work on the Masdar project and the recent Shanghai Expo pavilion to create more sustainable buildings.
What are the latest developments in structural analysis?
Structural analysis software is at an advanced level but the area of development for us is in transition between our analysis and the development of the architectural form. This is a unique area and one where we use in-house computational programmers to link existing software platforms and develop scripts, which allow us to tune the software to our needs. We also believe the use of time-related-analysis software is the future for certain projects, as we get a better understanding of structural performance during construction and in use.
What difference do these tools have on structural design?
They have allowed us to respond in real time to the design by bringing results to the front of the design process. They also allow us to work with the fabricators and constructors to achieve more buildable designs and de-risk complex projects early on in the design process. The understanding of different materials and how they can be used within the building process with minimum energy and carbon footprint is still the ultimate drive.
Name some recent innovations in structural design that have caught your eyeMaterial science is an obvious area of development but actually it is the step changes that provide the tipping point for the projects we work on today, such as high density fibre reinforced concretes to create high strength sections, fibre reinforced polymers in the strengthening of existing buildings and composite materials as structural floor systems and the use of alternative materials such as the acrylic rods on the Shanghai Expo pavilion.