Ep 116 - Evolving Role of the Structural Engineer

29 min 20 sec

In this episode of Timber Talks as we sit down with Ed Bond, Principal Structural Engineer at Robert Bird Group. Ed provides insights into the trends in embodied carbon-specific requests from clients and discusses how structural engineers can address these demands.

We talk about the changing role of structural engineers and explore the concept of "Virtual Design and Construction." Ed explains the problems that can be solved with digital software and gives us a glimpse into the full digital design suite he is working on. We discuss the benefits and opportunities enabled by this suite.

Finally, we wrap up the conversation by exploring Ed's perspective on the future of construction.


Timber Talks Series 6

Series six of WoodSolutions Timber Talks, provides the latest informative and entertaining information about the best design practices, latest innovations and interesting case studies and interviews with world leading experts in timber design, specification and construction.

Episode transcript

Adam Jones (00:00):

I always don't worry if I don't hit record, but as I said, post edited, I'll put an, I'll whack a intro in for the topic and yourself. But yeah, I might just get into it. So thanks so much. Thanks so much for coming on the podcast. Ed, can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and then following that we're talking about imported carbon trends and how roles with the engineer is sort of evolving. So maybe just what's happening embodied carbon that you are seeing as an engineer and what are the clients really requesting today?

Ed Bond (00:33):

Thanks for having me on Adam. Yeah, my name's Ed Bond. I work for Robert Bird Group. I'm coming up to 20 years in the industry, which is making me feel a bit old, but it's been good because I've, I've been quite lucky kind of in my career today because I've, I've been able to move around in different regions and experience as well, different economic shocks which have really helped around my experience. I've been in the UK originally where I was born and I kind of worked in London. I was in the Middle East for a couple years and then I came to Melbourne four and a half years ago. So that's helped me, just helped me understand a bit of a different perspective on where the industry sat in those different regions and bringing kind of new ideas as well with me to the Australian market. I'm quite a big advocate of more sustainable design I guess. What does that mean any more? It's a bit overused kind of slogan because it's quite broad from a structural engineer I guess to add by trade. So I think recently the focus has been very much on embodied carbon in terms of what a stretched engineer can present and help change the industry moving forward and kind of reduce the impact on global warming.


There's more to it than that in terms of planetary breakdown. There's kind of warming seas, there's water pollution, air pollution, there's all kinds of other aspects which are causing breakdown I guess of biodiversity. But we generally like to oversimplify things. So I think at the moment it's difficult to comprehend all that the real industry is embodied carbon. I think to put things in perspective, I just kind of woke up to the news this morning and I could see New York's got some of the worst pollution in the world at the moment because of forest fires out the northeast of North America and it, it's really hammering home at the moment how important it is for everyone to make some pretty drastic changes with the way they go about it. Melbourne every three or four years ago had some of the worst air quality in the world because of forest fires as well. So this is something that's changed very much over the past few years, but it's only changed really because everyone's been kind of shaken out of their denial because it's very real now. We're seeing the effects. There's been a lot of flooding over the past year and these are things that are really starting to take effect, the changes and the impact from a warming planet.


And so I think the industry is responding to that and there has been, since I've been in Australia four and a half years, there's been some rapid developments in this kind of raising in terms of profile and there's greater awareness. Legislation hasn't fully changed, but there's accreditation coming through and we're starting to think about calculating and embodied carbon and there's a lot more talk about it. It's not business as usual where my business Robert Bird Group, we have offices and just to set a bit of context, primarily within Australia where we're founded offices in New Zealand, at Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North America and Europe seem to be a bit ahead, not miles ahead, but we kind of use that to look at trends as well of what's happening there. And we are starting to see a demand from our clients as well. And I think the industry to some extent is leading the way forward on that.


There's accreditations out there. The main ones which people who dial into this probably be aware of is Green Star, which is predominantly the leader when it comes to buildings in terms of a green star rating with the top rating being six stars and the infrastructure, we have a presence as well in that sector and that's the infrastructure council, that's isca. They're probably the two main leading bodies, but there's other kind of spinoffs. There's nabers, which is kind of energy related. There's climate active, which is related to the business offsets because it's an emerging topic, there's going to be more accreditations and it's a changing landscape and it does actually make things quite confusing. As an example, there's up to six stars with nadas, sorry, with Ns, there's six stars with Nats or Nadas, depending how you pronounce. It goes up to 10 stars. Green Star's got an upper cap at six stars.


So it's really difficult to kind of understand what your rating is because generally five stars top rating. So you think you're getting that and it might end up being quite a low score depending on which system you're looking at. So it doesn't help and I think there's still a lot of learning and understanding going on. I've been tracking it relatively closely. I'm trying to lead it within Victorian and nationally within our business and there's just an education across how we go about it and cause it naturally. I think this to some extent is why there has been so much kind of inactivity and maybe initial denial. It's just, I think there's frustration, but it's a complicated topic. The warm and planet, it's not necessarily tangible. And then how you start calculating it within the building sense, it's highly complex and it really goes beyond what we were initially educated to do at university in terms of our training.


And because it is so complicated, I was going back to the simplification of Embodied Carbon being the only target when there's other things that we need to really be aware of in terms of looking after the planet, but we've kind of done the same just to really get things started, which is understandable with how we are calculating body carbon. It's very much focused at the front end, which is more the production stage. And so there's kind of stages to a one to a three, and that's really the materials before it gets to site. So it's almost kind of the wished in place structure. A four to a five is the construction stage, so it's kind of transportation to site and the build emissions. Then you have the user stage, which is the operational carbon, just kind of heating, cooling the building. Then there's the end of life stage, which could be demolition, which is C, and then there's kind of the reuse or recycling, which is the end stage D.


All of these have different connotations really on the selection of a one, two, A three. So it's a start, but it's not quite right as a system. You really need to be looking at the whole life cycle, which I kind of just described, but at the moment we are calculating a one, two, three, so we're kind of really understanding as a business as well because well bird group, we look at construction methodology. That's initially how we started. So we look to embed that in our design and a four to a five taught. So that's actually looking at those stages, which can make quite a big difference. Long span structures, more complex load path structures that embodied carbon. In terms of say primary structural frame could be up at say 40%, so it could be a significant number. If you look at sports stadia and just more unusual structures, typically it's about 10 to 15%. So there's just some approximations out there that you can apply to get a one to a five, which in Europe is now kind of a bit of a default approach to capture all the construction stages to the final built building.


Yeah, so I think that's one part of it, but we're at the moment just primarily focusing a one to a three and just calculating how that works. There is legislation change coming, which I think will help rather than having different accreditations where people can take different routes and it's difficult to compare apples with apples. The NCC, which is the National Construction Code, there's an update coming in 2025, so that's in a couple of years away. And that will set embodied carbon targets. So that's going to be a bit of a game changer and that means all buildings will really have to sign up to that legislation and it really stops it from being just kind of this one-off exceptional case. Something probably just to emphasize here, if you do want to go for a green star rating or an escalating, you have to pay for that privilege.


It's a significant amount of money, so if there's no incentive there to do it, certain developers aren't going to pay for that money, that there's prestige that comes with it. And that's the other kind of emerging trend that some developers are looking further ahead an asset they own. And it partially comes down to are you going to own and manage the asset or are you going to try and flip that and sell it immediately? If it's the latter, then there's less incentive to try and get these accreditations. If you're thinking long term as an asset, then there's an incentive to get the accreditation. However, with legislation change, it would mean that all buildings have to follow an approach which really kind of calculates embodied carbon and tries to reduce it. So I can only see that as a real positive going forward.



Adam Jones (12:44):

That 2025 Ed, so that's like, is that when it's coming in or are the conversations starting then? Or is it literally in the NCC 2025, there's going to be some reporting side or do you have any more on that?

Ed Bond (12:58):

There will be data given, yeah, there'll be targets given on ranges, which is potentially going to be quite controversial cause Oh yeah, talking about in the immediate, but if you start putting this into context of reducing emissions by 2030 by 50%, then that obviously has to happen.

Adam Jones (13:19):

Has to happen, yeah.

Ed Bond (13:21):

Yeah. So it's happening, which is really positive.

Adam Jones (13:26):

It is. And you need that leadership from the public's side to drive it. And then hopefully there's the innovation within all supply chains. I'm sure Tim is just one part of the solution, but maybe that's my next question to you, ed. In what ways are the structural engineers are able to actually cater on these demands coming from the ncc and how is the role of the structural engineer sort of going to evolve in light of these targets?

Ed Bond (13:52):

Yeah, I think we're going to have a leading role. I mean, some of the messaging I've been trying to get at to industry is that we're not always there in the first kind of decision-making process of projects. We could be a little bit of an afterthought that there as an architectural lead on maybe what a building looks like in terms of grids, layouts, materiality. And when you look at the overall embodied carbon picture, you've got maybe 50 to 60% of that embodied carbon sat within the primary frame. As buildings evolve. Historically, most of the embodied carbon sat in operational carbon, so it's kind of know the heating cooler maintenance. Well, with the efficiency improvements and better air tightness, heat recovery, decarbonization of the grid, it's going to shift and almost flip where a lot of the embodied carbon is sat in the primary frame, which means that if we are to hit these targets, the structural engineer needs to have a seat at the table and needs to really start understanding from initial concept how to reduce embodied carbon on a project and what levers can you pour. And I guess this is a timber taught kind of themed podcast and I do genuinely believe that timber, which is regenerative material and can sequester carbon during the growth phase if it's, I guess one of the most important things on all this though, it has to be done sustainably. And I think a big thing that needs to move through the industry quicker is kind of specifications, quality assurance in terms of governance on where materials are coming from. And that's really key to make sure things are done appropriately.


And so I think on that front, the timber, it's a lightweight material, it's relatively strong and it can be a very effective tool at reducing body carbon. It has some low numbers. There's a bit of debate if we're honest about the carbon data. And it goes back to what I was just talking about before of lifecycle versus a one to a three. But if you do look at it on a one to a three basis and which it's very low cause you allow for the sectret station. So it's a negative number. So it's almost, it's the best material in terms of availability of what's on the table. I think as you'll probably be aware of timber buildings, you dealt with the timber buildings that kind of we're looking at the moment or delivering, there's generally a bit of a hybrid. It's not purely timber. You'd have a reinforced concrete base, taller buildings, you know, might have a hybrid with steel. I personally think that's the future where we just blend materials, get the most out of them. Concrete's great in the ground, it's very durable, steels, strong, lightweight stability. Cause typically a concrete cause you need to house your lifts and stairs. One of the buildings we are looking at the moment is a steel excess skeleton in the London market, which has proven cause we're engaging the outer face and we have larger lever arms to be very efficient in terms of embodied carbon.


But I think there's a nice hybrid there and it's just getting the most out of materials. And as we speak, I'm involved in a carbon calculator which really just tries to look at the changing landscape on materials and it is pretty fascinating. And I think in terms of the structure engineer, what can they do? What we are trying to do is understand what's coming next with decarbonization of the grid changes to plant. One example of that would be a timber mill using kind of electricity from renewable source and that could apply to any of the plants and it decarbonization, which is going to come in the future and is coming pretty quickly, which means that number could shift. What I'm getting told some suppliers that if they're able to source their energy a hundred percent from renewables, it could reduce the number by 67% terms of embodied carbon, whatever it's now.


So things can change quickly in terms of the data. Australia probably isn't that well placed compared with say Europe, which is probably the global leader. However, things are changing very quickly. I think Australia has an opportunity to be a global leader and from what I understand what's happening in the market is there's been a really high takeup of renewables and decarbonization is happening really quickly to the point where by 2030 say that 50% Australia could be in a world leading position just because the amount of land access to regular sunlight means that there's an opportunity for things to really change. So I think you need to keep abreast of data, carbon data as it's changing almost as engineers, we're kind of looking ahead, looking at the present, the building going to be constructed. Is it three years, five years from now? What's available now? Talk to the suppliers, get a handle on emerging trends.


There's changes in strength material and bringing that all together. It's a bit one of your questions that maybe, yeah, yeah, you asked me before we started this conversation was what's the structural engineer going to do in the future? And you're nice, I'm talking now. Yeah, you can see the roles rapidly expanding. So that's quite a big ask. But at the same time, I guess the big motivation for myself, and I imagine for a lot of the structured engineers out there with this changing landscape in terms of you a warming planet, we actually have this really fortunate, I'd say opportunity to improve things and make a genuine difference beyond say your own footprint significantly high. You know, could be talking on a project, hundreds of thousands of embodied carbon. You could change buying optimization of say subbing in a different material, reducing the grid, taking out some transfers. So I really use that as motivation and what I'm hoping to do within my own business and hopefully further afield is using that to get people to really try and find those extra savings, that improved alignment, shortening the load path to be able to have a positive impact on the industry and the planet ultimately.

Adam Jones (22:00):

Yeah, well it's crazy for a structural engineer if you can take your bags to coals to save on plastic and we can do all these things as in individuals, but as you said, when you actually map that onto the change you can make as a structural engineer, it's just like, it's crazy. You can literally offset your own lifetime of carbon emissions pretty much if you just make a positive change on a few projects, like you mentioned, transfers sometimes unnecessary. Do we really need it? Or swapping materials out for more sustainable ones as well. Hey,

Ed Bond (22:35):

A hundred percent. And that's going back to where we've been a backseat passenger in the decision making and we've followed architectural kind of intent and what developer might want in terms of those grand open poer spaces, an entrance to a tall building which results a deep transfer and a lot of embodied carbon. Well now is the time really for us to start challenging that thought process if we do want to reduce embodied carbon. And there are some developers now starting to think of their assets and knowing if they don't do that, there's an embodied card associated with it and it's going to make a difference. I mean, just going back as well a little bit, there are some other positive signs. Almost private industry is pushing forward change. So some of the really large infrastructure projects which are happening everywhere in Australia, the financiers are asking for legislation changes or changes to how we go about it, reducing body carbon beyond the legislation that exists significantly beyond it.


So almost leading that to green financing. And so there's various kind of levers and mechanisms that can pull to try and accelerate the whole process. Yeah, so it's a big part of what that meant multi multifaceted kind of complexity of. But yeah, I think hopefully in the collaboration, which is healthy for everyone where we can be there at the start and helping map out the embodied carbon and reduction cause it happens at the start, so it's like as Timber's a great example, it needs to be understood at the front end. So the conceptualization of that building the selection and material, what does it mean in terms of procurement and getting that set up from the get-go rather than afterthought. And that's just embodied carbon in nutshell it's thought through from the start and it leads all the way through to really understand the savings because the biggest savings they're there for the taking at the front end

Adam Jones (25:03):

A hundred percent man. So there's a lot going on the decarbonization and obviously structural engineers, it's like you got to maybe learn this stuff on the job, but there's another component which I guess is making the engineers role evolve and this is what's happening in the digital world. So I'd like for you to just take us through this space and I know you've done 4D virtual design and you really in innovate yourself in this space, so I'd love for you to just tell us about what are some of the things happening there and how an engineer can add new value essentially that wasn't being able to be offered before.

Ed Bond (25:39):

Sure. On the digital side, we're pushing pretty hard. We've got an in-house team that's looking at new kind of approaches in terms of scripting, optimization and visualization. You touched on going back to what I said before about construction methodology and it being at the heart of our design, we look to visualize that in animations, so it's just kind of 3d, almost lifelike renders. We're kind of getting down to now with individuals who've come from the gaming industry and we're connecting structural analysis software just strand seven directly to the program and then directly to the visualization software. So everything's interconnected. I think there's big benefits potentially with something that's modular such as mass timber. We can highlight individual panel types, map out exact sequencing for how those panels are going to be installed and it can really assist in greater understanding safety on site, how things are built.


And one of the interesting things that we've been playing around with is just comparing materiality build types and then we can actually have multiple options side by side. We integrate a program in it to create the 4D sequencing and we can almost pit different sequences against each other and see which one comes out on top in terms of program being a key driver for the industry as well as complexity. So we see it as being really powerful and we've had some pretty positive feedback in terms of complex engineering construction, just seeing it in real time just is something that conveys a message whichever one can get.

Adam Jones (28:00):

Well, it's huge Ed, because I think listeners might know if you just look at the material price alone of concrete versus timber or the traditional materials versus timber, you probably might unpriced alone, it might not look so attractive. But when you actually do that, installation speeds like you are modeling up front to get that speedy construction so you can actually work out what's our preliminary cost saving. And you can start with that data up front. You can start getting a real cost, a real holistic pricing model, and then it's just going to be better for the mass timber option essentially because of that speed. And anything with that dollar per week cost, reduce it by X weeks and there's your saving eh

Ed Bond (28:44):

Hundred percent. Yeah, I think we've had that discussion in the past of some of the cost consultancy and quantities, surveying doesn't fully factor in program and obviously it changes the viability of a project. If you can build something a lot quicker and you start getting return and that quicker delivery, then it makes a big difference to the viability of the whole project. So I think as soon as you can link that and you can see it pretty clearly within a fairly short animation, then it can help get the message across. So yeah, I think it's an enabler for the timber industry, that's for sure.

Adam Jones (29:29):

Yeah, hundred percent Ed. Well it's been phenomenal chatting and see if people want to find out more about you, the work you're doing, if they want to get in touch with you or projects you, you've got a unique I guess, brand in embodied carbon slash virtual design. So yeah, it's a really cool position that you and your team are in at the moment. So where should people go to learn more about what we're speaking about so that today,

Ed Bond (29:53):

Yeah, you can follow Robert Bird Group on LinkedIn, can go to our website as well, which is robertbird.com. And more than happy for people to get in touch with me via LinkedIn, come under Edward Bond and happy to engage with any questions regarding what we've spoken about today. And thanks for having me on Adam.

Adam Jones (30:23):

Thank you, ed, that was awesome. Love that con mate. Cheers.

Ed Bond (30:27):

Thanks a lot.

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