Matt Brown started with SWJ Consulting this September (2023) having completed his degree in Civil Engineering. Matt has previously spent a year in industry with SWJ Consulting to gain experience of engineering in the real world. This article is Matt’s opinion of how studying engineering at university is different to the real-life challenges he now faces at work.
“University seems to teach engineering in an abstract way without directly relating problems or solutions to the real world – including the different construction methods you encounter which has a huge bearing on the solution you may design – for example dealing with pinned or fixed supports.
Teaching examples for structural engineering presents a perfect-known-scenario where you don’t need to challenge the plans you’re given or make best guest assumptions to work from. In reality, when working with an existing building you can’t assume that everything is built perfectly and that you’ll have accurate drawings, as you are given when you’re studying. Sometimes drawings I am working with as a graduate engineer don’t make sense, so I (we) must make assumptions on what is actually happening and how the structure is working. The team at SWJ Consulting are very experienced with these kinds of challenges and I am quickly learning what might be there in reality. For example, in old buildings that show thick 600mm walls, I now know that the chances are the walls are filled with rubble instead of being solid, so the actual bearing width is only 150mm, not 600mm. Architects won’t know this either and that is why working with a consultancy that doesn’t rely on assumptions and is passionate about effective and thorough investigation is teaching me what is likely to be the case and how we effectively investigate the reality. The SWJ team are not afraid to dig a trial pit or bore an exploratory hole to investigate what is there to help inform our designs.
It would be advantageous to those studying engineering, civil and structural, to have this and similar likelihoods explained to them – it comes back to looking at different construction methods and how that affects the solutions we need to design.
Another big difference with working as opposed to studying is that at university to you look at elements in isolation, one element at a time, one wall or beam. But, as soon as you get to work you are having to look at how these elements affect each other and how they are connected. Part of SWJ’s ethos is having the space to make mistakes, as making mistakes is part of the job and certainly one of the best ways that I’ve learnt. At university you are afraid of making mistakes because you need to get the right answer. You don’t get the same quality feedback at uni that you do when you have your work checked by a senior engineer who will explain where you went wrong.
I am currently working on an extension, a massive change to a residential bungalow that will add an additional floor. The client has the architect’s plans, but the architect had not given much thought to the extension structurally and whether the existing structure would be able to support their ideas for a new floor. They had designed a solid brick block wall on the first floor – but there was nothing to support this wall on the existing ground floor. One solution I designed was to add a steel beam to support this brick wall, requested by the client for sound-proofing reasons. The problem with adding a beam is it is a more expensive solution and would create a down stand that would be visible. The other solution I designed was an attic truss solution which is lighter as it involves using stud walls so it’s a lighter and less expensive for the client. It means they won’t have the sound protection offered by brick walls but they/the architect could investigate further sound proofing measures.
In another example we are working on a developer-led housing project designing 10 homes. While we wait for the results of the site investigations the client is not sure whether the homes need to be timber framed or traditional cavity walls. We have initially designed for both options as it will have a big effect on the size of the foundations needed. Bigger (more expensive) foundations are needed for the cavity wall option, but the ground may not prove suitable and so the lighter timber frame option may prove more viable. By initially submitting these two options the client can make a more informed choice when they receive the site investigation results.
Coming up with different designs or options for a project is not something we were asked to do at university. When given a task where the solution is assumed, and you just have to be capable of designing for it rather than being more ‘creative’ and thinking of different options to suit a client’s budget or overcome the challenge of an architect’s design that has little structural considerations. Clients, unlike lecturers, want to know how different solutions will affect timings, budgets and the end result – as well as being concerned with how evasive your solution might be.
There was always going to be a big jump from university to working as a graduate engineer, but I am glad I had the year in industry to prepare me and that I have the team at SWJ to support me and advise me on the types of issues I might be faced with in the real world of engineering.
If you are interested in a year in industry, an engineering apprenticeship, or have recently graduated and are looking for a position please do get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org.