Give your life some structure

From blank paper to mighty monolith, structural engineering gets creative people going. The chance to influence an urban landscape is just so exciting, says Clare Dwyer Hogg
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The Independent Online

Buildings. Something we take for granted, really. But think about it - everywhere you look, there's some kind of structure. Faced with an empty plot of land and a client with requirements for a building, what would you do? If your first instinct is to run away and hide, perhaps the career of a structural engineer is not for you. But if your brain starts ticking over with the challenge, this could be your calling.

"I enjoy going round the world and pointing things out that I've had a hand in building," says John Roberts. He's a director and head of structures for Atkins, the international structural engineering company responsible for the 72,500-seat Millennium Stadium in Cardiff - the first closing-roof arena in the UK.

"Even if you've had the smallest part in a building, it makes you very proud to see it," Roberts says. "And I love the feeling of coming up with a great design idea and knowing I'll be happy working on it for the next two years."

Roberts has been in the business of structural engineering for 19 years, and says he still gets excited about what he does. "The longer I carry on, the more things I discover that I don't know. That's what gets me up in the morning."

Part of what Roberts enjoys is that, as a structural engineer, he can do everything from scratch. "What gives me a buzz is being there with the client and a blank piece of paper," he says. "A structural engineer is the first person who produces a drawing of what's to be built. Quite often, as soon as pen hits paper, the client wants to start building, so you need an awareness of all building disciplines to anticipate what needs to happen."

This is a vital aspect in his line of business: while the structural engineer is the person responsible for making sure the building stands up, they will be working in a team that includes architects and specialists who determine the things we building-dwellers take for granted: what distance the floor needs to be from the ceiling; how the foundations are put in; what wind tunnel tests are necessary; and so on. An appreciation of what everyone else is doing is, therefore, vital. For this reason, people who project manage often come from a structural engineering background - the broad nature of their portfolio of skills allows them to move from one type of project to another with ease. Alternatively, though, some structural engineers choose to enter a more specialist field: becoming an expert in high-rise steel buildings, for instance, gives room for an individual to concentrate on becoming an expert on one particular aspect of building.

Whatever dimension a structural engineer chooses to operate in once qualified, there are some clear paths that lead up to these professional decisions. Right back at A-level, mathematics is a good idea, as well as science, which will help when studying engineering at university.

Once in the workplace, graduates will typically earn £20,500 on entry, although they are often offered a "golden hello" package, as well as discretionary bonuses along the way. After three or four years racking up experience in complex technical aspects and running their own smaller projects, they sit exams to reach Chartered Engineer status and membership of the Institution of Structural Engineers - the gateway to higher status, more pay and professional credentials. The years preceding the exams will be spent covering as many aspects of the job as possible: graduates often have to spend a year in a supervisory capacity on building sites, or get the chance to refurbish the exterior of a high-street shop - a self-contained project that only takes a couple of months.

Increasingly, too, there are other avenues that can lead to jobs in the industry: the use of computer technology to produce 3D modelling in the planning stage, for instance, means that apprentices can be hired straight from school - getting a taste for structural engineering in this capacity means there is scope for experience and even part-time retraining while on the job.

In the world of creating buildings, then, the possibilities are pretty endless. And the chance to influence an urban landscape can be incredibly inspiring. "I call it conception to completion," says Roberts.

"I always carry a blank notebook with me to jot down ideas. There's just nothing like looking back and seeing the first doodle of a building on the corner of a page and then there it is, in real life."