Editorial note: This is a guest blog written by John Hurle, an award-winning structural engineer who has designed everything from airports to tower blocks from China to Peru, but mostly works in London, UK. Make sure you check out his fantastic blog for more insightful engineering posts, here. For more engineering advice, news and career opportunities subscribe to NewEngineer.com here.
When I was five years old I wanted to be an inventor… and that is sort of what I do now, I invent skeletons for buildings. I’m lucky enough to have studied civil engineering, which was rated amongst the best careers for work life balance. And now that I’ve achieved my chartership with the Institution of Civil Engineers, I’m trying to help others find out about engineering particularly by blogging but also mentoring others and giving guest lectures. I thought if I shared a bit about my career it may help you imagine it.
I work in central London for a large engineering consultancy. Civil engineering gives you skills that are valuable all over the world (and it can also be a gateway to other things), so there’s lots of choice, everyone can find a niche that fits them well.
In the first few years I worked predominantly on one building at a time. For example my first project was designing Pulkovo Airport in St Petersburg for nearly a year. I was given particular aspects to look at in great detail – what forces the wind put on the building, how strong the reinforced concrete roof columns needed to be and the structural steel framing for the large rooflights. My day was mostly spent developing complex spreadsheets although I also did a mixture of researching information, writing reports, computer analysis, hand sketching and drawing using software such as Sketchup. A lot of it was self-directed work – trying different options until I find a way to achieve the architect’s vision – but there would be some internal meetings to check my progress and I was often asking friendly faces round the office for help. I didn’t need to travel and I only very rarely met people from outside my company.
Since becoming chartered, I’ve been promoted to be a Senior Structural Engineer. I’m now responsible for the financial side of some projects and I also still do some design work but mostly delegate it to others. So a lot of my time is spent in external meetings with clients, architects and contractors or liaising with my colleagues. I also visit building sites more often, maybe once a week on average. I’m writing bids (similar in some ways to writing a CV but more pages) or working on several projects at the same time, although only about three or four in any given week. My firm works on a variety of projects, so at the moment I’m designing a new tower block from timber similar to this one, renovating a nightclub and designing a sustainable energy building. I’m also working with a senior director to increase the flow of work to our Indian office, organising some checking work for changes to a train station in London and developing a piece of software to quickly analyse building stability.
A lot of structural engineers seem to focus on the maths and science aspects of the job, but there is also a lot more to it than that! My favourite bit is the creative side and I think it’s fascinating how people come up with ideas. To be a good engineer it’s also important to be able to collaborate with a wide range of people from architect’s to welders. That requires good communication skills (writing, sketching & presenting) as well as an understanding of their professions. Every building is different so there are always new things to learn and even for the same project it can be quite multi-faceted from estimating fees to researching new materials or even writing blogs about the process!
If you think you might want to become a structural engineer, the first thing I would recommend is to read some good blogs about it or even some good books to learn more. If it sounds appealing then the most straight-forward route is to study maths and sciences at school and then do an engineering degree. Although if you’re a good negotiator you can probably also convert from other courses.
During your studies, there are more good books to read to broaden you out and I would recommend taking as many placements as possible in the holidays. I did a few weeks or months with each of an architect, drainage engineer, labouring, doing structural surveys and then a while as a client’s assistant. It really helped me understand the wider construction industry. I also got to study in another country and learn a foreign language, which hasn’t been that useful so far but was so fun I would recommend it to anyone. If you particularly enjoy any of your placements, make sure to ask if they will sponsor you through university (lots of companies are keen to do this). I got sponsored by one company I liked, then after university they offered me a job and I’m still here now!
If that’s sparked your interest or if you have questions about structural engineering, please feel to get in contact with me here.