Cheap Structural Calculations On Line – Everyone’s A Winner Right?

Good work Aint Cheap

Today I’m talking to John Staves, Chartered Structural Engineer who is deeply concerned about the increasing number of web based structural engineering companies who are offering “innovative web-based services” that are claiming to “improve the value and service” offered to customers.

John Staves

John, do you want to start by explaining what prompted this blog post and why you felt you had to speak out.

Potentially Dangerous

Being from up north, I’m going to be blunt.

I feel this way of working is potentially dangerous and is bringing the profession of Structural Engineering into disrepute.

Over the past few weeks we have had a number of Clients coming to us after their Architect had used an on line structural engineering service to produce “structural designs” – primarily so that they could obtain a cheaper price.

I use the term “structural designs” loosely.

At best you’ll obtain a cheap price, Building Regulations approval and an experienced contractor who will undertake the works.

At worst, your Client will have a poorly thought out design, from an engineer who has never visited the site and knows nothing about the existing structure.

It has been overdesigned to reduce the engineer’s liability and the Client has incurred excessive costs in construction.

Case Study – Extension and Loft Conversion

This is a small job but it highlights the problem when instructing an engineer who is not visiting the site, so can’t assess the existing structure.

A Client came to us recently – she was in the middle of an extension on her property.

There was a crack in her wall just above where the builder had installed a beam.

She was very anxious and wanted reassurance that the contractor had installed the beam correctly – she thought her house was about to fall down.

cracked wall

When our engineer went to the site it was clear that the contractor had “dropped” the wall when he was installing the beam. Part of the problem was that contractor had turned up to site not prepared for what he had found.

The joists were running parallel to the wall rather than running into the wall as you would normally expect. The structural engineer had made an assumption, provided inaccurate information and the contractor was unprepared for what he found as a result. A simple site visit would have made this obvious.

The Contractor couldn’t easily prop the inner leaf of the wall, so this caused difficulties when he installed the beam and he dropped it.

Taking No Responsibility

As the engineer hadn’t visited the site, the calculations were filled with so many caveats “we can’t possibly be responsible for this, we can’t possibly be responsible for that, if in doubt ask”.

The steelwork was marked up on the drawings in red pen with a note of the beam size. However, there were no sections, or construction details.

The structural calculations were worthless, as they did not take any liability for the design.

Cheap Engineering Quote, Big Build Cost

Initially to the Client the structural engineering design looked like a cheap quote.

What the Client didn’t realise was that as the engineer hadn’t visited the site to assess the existing structure, they couldn’t work out accurate load paths.

The engineers had to make assumptions about the existing construction (which were incorrect).

In this example, the engineer had overdesigned the steel so the Client was paying for far more steel than was needed.

There were no details in the information from the structural engineer about how the proposed beam B3 was connected to the existing beam.

On line structural engineer

Structural Engineers At Their Worst

This Client got a cheap design that the Architect found on line and ultimately it has ended up costing the Client more;

  • She has had to pay for a competent engineer to come to site and assess the existing structure and make recommendations
  • Extra cost for steelwork – it was overdesigned in the first place
  • Emotional stress – she thought her house was falling down
  • Extra costs because the contractor is arguing about who is responsible for making good the cracked wall because the details were inaccurate. 

Giving Structural Engineers A Bad Name

When a structural engineer provides such a poor service it’s giving the whole of structural engineering a bad name.

It brings the profession into disrepute.

Makes people think that structural engineers don’t add value, where as in fact we add a lot of value – if it’s done properly.

Clients Want Good Value, Not Cheap Prices

But there are structural engineers out there taking short cuts to offer a cheap price because that’s what they think Clients want.

The Client doesn’t want that, the Client wants a good job. The client wants value, not a cheap job.

The sooner the structural engineering profession learns that the better we will all be.

Good Practice

Questions To Ask Yourself

  • Will your structural engineer be visiting site so that s(he) can fully understand the existing structure?
  • Do they offer support during build if something out of the ordinary is found?
  • How long will it take for them to get to site and respond?
  • Will your builder be charging for his wasted time whilst he waits for an answer?
  • Is it worth taking that chance? In the long run it may end up costing you more.

Are you an Architect? Have you used on line structural engineering services? What worked well / didn’t work well?

Please get in touch, I’d like to hear your experiences.


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