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Last edited 04 Nov 2019
Why setting international engineering design standards is so daunting
|Professor Steve Denton receives the International Medal at the ICE Awards 2019 for his outstanding contribution to engineering. He explains why international design standards are so crucial for the industry. ICE President Andrew Wylie is on the left.|
Success in any complex endeavour is always achieved by teams and not by individuals, which made it a very special moment when Steve discovered that his colleagues in the UK and across Europe had worked together to nominate him for the ICE International Medal.
For 20 years up till 2019, he was involved in developing national and international design standards. It was not his principal professional focus – he has tried to maintain a balance between design projects, consultancy, business leadership, research and teaching – but it is a field he has specialised in because he thinks it is important.
Standardisation is not glamorous. It can be frustrating. But it can also be fun and fulfilling. It has taught Steve invaluable lessons, given him the opportunity to work with many brilliant engineers around the world, and forge enduring friendships.
 The importance of design standards in construction
Firstly, the scale of civils projects means that engineers do not typically have an opportunity to test their designs in labs or factories. They need a way to verify their adequacy before they are built – and that is the primary role of design standards, making sure that essential requirements for safety, serviceability, robustness and durability are met.
Secondly, construction is a fragmented sector where delivery teams, often from multiple companies, are formed for specific tasks, and where responsibilities transition between different organisations throughout an asset’s lifecycle.
This fragmentation means learning lessons collectively is far more difficult than it is in those sectors where there is a clear line of sight from initial concept to maintenance and operations. The heightened levels of standardisation activity that often follow significant failures demonstrate the key role that standards play in helping address this challenge and embrace lessons learned.
 Updating the Structural Eurocodes
Finally, design standards are important because of their impact. The Structural Eurocodes – the suite of 59 documents that cover all aspects of structural and geotechnical design – are used by over 500,000 engineers in Europe alone, and many more around the world.
Working to build consensus across 34 countries on over 5,000 pages of highly technical content makes this effort the largest-ever European standardisation project of its kind, with many thousands of experts actively engaged.
CEN/TC 250 secured the largest standardisation grant ever made by the European Commission, and the first new documents enter their formal voting stages as 2019 draws to a close. It will be an important milestone, but there is a long way still to go.
CEN/TC 250’s ambitions to ‘enhance ease of use’ and ‘achieve exemplary levels of international consensus’ have unified national delegations behind a common purpose, as it navigates the many complex decisions that need to be taken.
 A commitment to collaboration
Together, it is realised that building consensus relies on open mindedness, mutual respect and creating common understanding. It does not mean that everyone’s preferences are always achieved – but that a conclusion is arrived at that everyone can stand behind.
At a time when so many of the global challenges being faced require international collaboration – although the will is not always there – it can be remarkably fulfilling to be at the heart of an international effort where the commitment to collaboration is so strong and, so far, so successful.
And it is this shared commitment that makes the very early trains to Brussels, or the late nights trying to foster agreements, feel so worthwhile and rewarding.
 About this article
This article was written by professor Steve Denton FREng FICE FIStructE. He is WSP’s head of civil, bridge and ground engineering, a visiting professor at the University of Bath and chairman of CEN/TC 250 – Structural Eurocodes. The article previously appeared on the website of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) in November 2019 and can be accessed HERE.
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