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Preparing to work with Eurocodes

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Professor David Nethercot

Structural steelwork designers can take heart from being better supported than most as they look forward to grappling with the changeover to Eurocodes, says Professor David Nethercot of Imperial College.

The 2004 Report prepared by the Institution of Structural Engineers that identified the tasks facing the UK in migrating from a Structural Design environment based on National Standards to one based on the forthcoming Eurocodes included the quote: “Eurocodes represent the biggest change ever faced by the Structural Engineering profession in the UK”. It went on to emphasise this by stating that the change was more pervasive than Metrication and more extensive than the switch to Limit States. Two years on it is appropriate to reconsider the position, to assess what remains to be done, to note that some progress has been made and, most importantly, to appreciate the likely effects on individuals and companies.

Designers nowadays work with a wide range of supporting material e.g. Manufacturers’ literature, handbooks and design guides, computer software, explanatory texts, sets of worked examples etc. Thus it is not just the introduction of the new codes themselves that is so significant; of far greater importance is the need to update and modify much of this supporting infrastructure so that it too relates to the new rules, procedures and practices of the Eurocode documents. Such a task takes time, requires attention from the relatively small group of people currently sufficiently well informed about Eurocodes to be in a position to prepare the items and, of course, needs money to underwrite it. Despite continuous support for Britain’s role in assisting in the preparation of the Eurocodes over many years, Government nowadays is much less inclined to provide financial support for the implementation phase, with the result that the great majority will need to come from within the Industry. Fortunately for structural steelwork, there is a long history of cooperation between BCSA, Corus and the SCI – acting in conjunction with individuals from companies and universities – to undertake work of this type. We will need to rely heavily on this community again over the next few years.

It is not uncommon to see letters in technical magazines suggesting that the UK should simply retain its existing system and not implement the Eurocodes. Much as we might be attracted to such a position, it is simply not possible. When the UK signed up to the Treaty of Rome, it effectively agreed to phase out all work on National Standards for Construction and to adopt a common European system. Whilst it has taken rather longer than was originally anticipated, we are now at the stage when that expectation is becoming the reality. Of course, it will continue to be possible to use British Standards in certain instances for several years into the future. However, the supporting infrastructure will cease to be maintained and all new developments will be firmly based on the Eurocodes. It will therefore become increasingly difficult to operate in the old way and, one suspects, increasingly difficult to gain acceptance for that practice.

What, therefore, should organisations be doing to prepare themselves? More imaginatively, how can at least some be sufficiently astute to see benefits in the transition? The following is suggested:

  1. Recognise that a transition will be required.  Schedule it into future business plans and treat it in the same way as any other major project is regarded e.g. the installation of a new computer system, moving to new premises etc.
  2. Analyse the position carefully, especially the likely changes over the next few years e.g. a small organisation with no history of working outside the UK and with the majority of its work in modest projects of a generally local nature will need to adopt a completely different approach to a large multinational consulting practice with ambitions to significantly expand their operation into many parts of mainland Europe.
  3. Don’t be panicked into precipitate action through reading comment and opinion in technical magazines – especially when the author might have vested interests e.g. the purveyors of educational courses.
  4. Recognise that the transition will take years – not months and not decades – and plan accordingly.
  5. Following the well publicised exercise conducted by one small firm of consulting engineers, recognise that the principal costs will be in staff training and lack of familiarity with new processes and seek out the most cost-effective ways of addressing this.

Although there are many – probably the majority – among the structural community who would certainly not have voted for the adoption of the Eurocodes had that choice been available, the reality is that the community must now make the best of the situation and seek out whatever opportunities it can to turn the transition into benefits. Within the structural steelwork community we are fortunate to be much better supported than is the case in most other areas and, moreover, for that support to have been actively involved with the Eurocode process and thus to be in a position to provide objective, relevant and timely assistance. The community will certainly be looking to BSCA/Corus/SCI to give a lead and to provide some of the new material and facilities; it must also recognise that the major responsibility rests with itself and that each of us will need to find our own way of accommodating the changes.

David Nethercot

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