For many people, structural engineering conjures images of towering city office blocks, bridges spanning across rivers or sports stadiums with their awe-inspiring domed roofs. But these aspects of structural engineering are merely the tip of the iceberg. What really goes on is far more intricate than meets the eye.
We chatted to Lithon’s head of Structural Engineering, Valontino James, and discovered 5 interesting facts about the day-to-day complexities and nuances of structural engineering.
While design is a core part of the job, structural engineering is a multi-layered set of responsibilities that goes far beyond the draughting table. From fee proposals, planning, and feasibility, to detailed designs, drawings, supervision, project completion, and client communication, a big part of project success is actually effective project management.
“At any given time, our team is juggling 15-30 projects,” explains Valontino. These are all at varying stages from the idea-phase to final completion. “Our daily lives are spent in meetings, on phone calls, and designing, draughting, and detailing.” To keep things running smoothly, the Structure’s team has a meticulous system for assessing and prioritising tasks and clear communication with both the team and clients.
If an architect is the visionary and director of the play, a structural engineer is the backstage support. A good structural engineer’s work often goes unnoticed, which is a testament to its effectiveness. Their designs don’t just need to look good, they have to work well. They must complement the architectural vision while staying within budget. Structural engineers often walk a tightrope between aesthetics and functionality, but the best among them also act as visionaries, helping architects make their designs a reality.
From big to small, structural engineers work on many types of projects. These include houses, mixed-use developments, high-rise office buildings, hospitals, airport facilities, fuel stations, and shopping centres.
They can also be involved at different stages of a project, from conducting initial condition assessments to giving recommendations for repairs and improvements. However, when structural engineers are involved from the start, their expertise helps to secure the project’s success. Their unmatched knowledge in materials (and how they behave) is vital for a structure’s strength and identifying faults.
Lithon is committed to excellent service, which means adhering to project deadlines. “Sometimes deadlines come in waves,” says Valontino. During these times, tensions run high as the team balances overlapping deadlines with their everyday lives.
It’s especially frustrating when deadlines can’t be met, despite genuine efforts. Here, good relationships with clients and clear communication prove invaluable in offering teams a bit more leeway during these stressful peaks.
For Valontino and his team, a particularly interesting part of the job is when they get to use their creativity and lateral thinking to tackle challenges. “Often, this is a collaborative effort, and we’re very lucky to have an extensive network to tap into for expert guidance when dealing with complex issues,” he says.
In a recent example, Valontino and fellow engineer, Fabianus Gomachab, discovered hydrogen sulphide-induced acid damage which was causing material failure in the walls of a sewage balancing tank.
In search of a solution, they consulted with concrete durability expert, Professor Hans Beushausen, at the University of Cape Town. As a result, instead of advising the client to demolish and rebuild the entire structure, they recommended targeted repairs. This solution was much more cost-effective than the alternative, leading to a very happy client!
Pun intended! Lithon’s structural engineering team offers the expertise you need for your structural projects, whether they’re monumental skyscrapers or small-scale developments. We’re more than just number-crunchers and drafters – we’re problem-solvers and innovators.
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