Small is beautiful

Landmark engineering projects like the Millennium Bridge and the Shard in London get plenty of attention, but what about smaller engineering success stories that often have a huge impact on the local community? These projects are a crucial part of the whole mix and the number of small projects being undertaken, often commissioned by enlightened local councils vastly outnumber the large high profile undertakings. Smaller engineering firms, which may work at a local level, employ many of the graduate engineers entering the workforce. The majority are SMEs, ranging in size from a handful of employees to up to 250 and many work exclusively on smaller projects.

One award-winning local engineering project which has already plaudits for its innovative natural timber roof and modular design is the Alfriston School Swimming pool in Beaconsfield. The pre-finished superstructure was erected in just 12 days and is already being used by pupils at the school and members of the local community.

One award-winning local engineering project which has already plaudits for its innovative natural timber roof and modular design is the Alfriston School Swimming pool in Beaconsfield. The pre-finished superstructure was erected in just 12 days and is already being used by pupils at the school and members of the local community.

Andy Downey, a partner at the engineering firm Elliott Wood Partnership [CORR] which employs 125 people, says that the feel of the building had to be one of ‘calmness and quietness’ since many of the children using the pool have moderate learning difficulties, so acoustic engineering played a major part in the design. “It is a cathedral-like space but noises are muffled.” Located on the edge of the Green Belt, it also had to sit in a green landscape without disturbing a nearby coppice of trees.

Getting the pre-fabricated modules to the building site was a major challenge, involving testing every corner and junction on the route to make sure that a low-loader could safely transport its cargo. The construction method meant that there was no room for error, according to Downey. “The sections had to fit together perfectly but we used computer modelling and manufacturing techniques so we were very confident that it would all slot together.”

Downey, who studied structural engineering at the University of Bradford says that clients are increasingly understanding the value of excellent engineering on a small scale. “It’s about creating solutions and adding real value to projects which may be limited by time, space and budgets.”

The company, which has its own academy for graduates, is also recruiting school leavers. ‘We like to immerse young people in our holistic approach right from the start. Over the last few years, we have been employing exceptional people who can also develop their own identity and style within the business.” As a smaller company, Elliott Wood expects new employees to work on projects right from the start which combine engineering skills with architectural flair. “There’s never been a better time to start a career in engineering,” says Downey.

Although many clients of smaller engineering projects are in the public sector or institutions, a growing number of private clients are prepared to pay a premium for high quality engineering in their own homes. Webb Yates Engineers, a structural engineering firm based in London, Birmingham and Dubai, recently completed a stone stair in an apartment on the third floor of a Grade II* listed building in central London. Weighing in at nine tonnes, the sweeping stair, cut from 13 blocks of Italian Travertine limestone, had to be solid and safe, without crashing through the floor to the apartment below. This challenge, according to Alex Lynes, was at the heart of the project. “We had the concept from the architects on how it should look and it was our task to make sure that it was actually going to work in real life.”

Using 3D modelling software and information fed back from the team of stone masons, Alex came up with a ‘three dimensional game of chess’ which cleverly puts no load on the floor beneath. “This is done using a precambered shallow steel grillage which transfers the loads onto a concrete wall on one side and a beam on the other,” explains Lynes, a graduate from the University of Cambridge who won Young Structural Engineering Professional of the Year 2015 partly because of his work on this project.

Lynes, who did a stint of work experience with Webb Yates Engineers when he was still a student and joined the company when he graduated, believes that working for a smaller firm has given him opportunities very early on to showcase his own abilities.

Lynes, who did a stint of work experience with Webb Yates Engineers when he was still a student and joined the company when he graduated, believes that working for a smaller firm has given him opportunities very early on to showcase his own abilities.

Small engineering firms have a crucial role to play when it comes to inspiring and mentoring the next generation of engineers. Tomorrow’s Engineers focuses on local initiatives under a nationwide umbrella to help local employers improve the reach and impact of their work with schools.

Tomorrow’s Engineers has put together guidance to help employers bring young people from all backgrounds in for work experience, including those under the age of 16.

Thea Jourdan

Thea Jourdan has been writing about engineering and architecture for over 10 years. She edited and commissioned Special Reports in engineering, defence, energy automobile and aerospace for the Daily Telegraph from 2005 to 2015.
Thea Jourdan

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