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Codes vs Best Pratice: The Grad Match

Codes vs Best Pratice: The Grad Match

It’s a sentiment I’ve heard a lot: “Engineers should lose the codes and rely on best practice”. It’s an opinion I’ve only heard advanced by older, potentially wiser, and definitely more experienced engineers. As a graduate I can see the romance in it; harking back to the days of Brunel, where engineers came together, discussed best practice and constructed new towers of research and innovation from humble first principles.

It would seem that it’s time to rip up the codes and move to the ‘Best Practice’ standard. Arguably, however, the Eurocodes are a little bit of both.

Intrigued, I’ve made a note, throughout this week, of design situations I’ve ended up in, and whether a profession of Codes or Best Practice would have served me better.

The ‘New Experience’

When it comes to designing something for the first time, Codes are an indefatigable comfort. Their prescriptive nature essentially, for a given level of ignorance, allows anyone to design something with a degree of accuracy and precision that won’t obviously betray their lack of expertise. And although not strictly true, there is a feeling of security that, after successfully navigating your way through the code, you’ve considered everything you need to consider. This approach especially complements computer based design.

‘Best Practice’ on the other-hand is not a clearly defined quantity. Without access to experience in the field, it would be difficult to know even where to find Best Practice; and the likely fragmentation of documentation would not inspire confidence in the beginner that they have, truly, done the right thing.

For A New Experience: Codes

The ‘Vigorous Design’

Codes tend to offer two options: The quick method (normally born of experience), where you check what you know will be critical; or the vigorous method where every clause is desperately inspected for leeway and opportunities therein. The focus, however, is always on the ‘What’ and not the ‘Why’; which encourages ‘following’ over ‘thinking’.

Best Practice needs understanding. In my experience documents focused on exchanging practice and knowledge, rather than codification, present research, justification and evaluation. This in turn requires a larger investment in time, but normally yields a better return for the design. For example, the reason I’ve managed to write two (and soon three,) articles on TSI is not because I’ve dug away at the code, but because I’ve needed to read and understand the research behind it and the papers published within the field.

For Vigorous Design: Best Practice

The ‘Innovative Solution’

Committees write codes, and, as the saying goes: “If you want nothing done, give it to a committee.” This means that design codes are often slow to adapt. You just need to read what is being said about the Eurocode for Geotechnics, to see how easily codes can fall out of sync with the industry, and how hard it is to get them (back) on track.

Best Practice, however, has always been used to plug the gap; be it new technologies, design approaches or construction techniques. Best Practice is also the mechanism that research institutions are able to inject their findings directly into the industry. A shift away from codes entirely, I expect, may well promote research, but how much of that would be shared, and how much would be kept to provide a competitive edge- it’s hard to say, after all; a desperation to share best practice between engineers was what started the ICE.

For an Innovative Solution: Best Practice

The ‘Design Check’

The unified acceptance, and agreement, of the codes means that anything (theoretically) designed perfectly to a code cannot be significantly disputed by another designer. This is because both parties will be using the same fundamental approach, factors, and criterion. The bodies who author codes also carry significant authority, and the onus is to justify a departure, rather than the use of the code itself.

Best Practice, however, needs both parties to agree that something is Best Practice. This means, that unless both the designer and the checker are fully aware of industry Best Practice within the field, there will likely be some contention, and unlike codes, the authority of the source could even be disputed.

For a Design Check: Codes

The ‘Value Engineering Exercise’

Codes have to provide general solutions, which by default render them susceptible to conservatism. Typically value engineering is provided in-spite of the code, rather than because of it. Arguably this is because everyone is using the codes, and so more in-depth knowledge or advanced interpretation is needed to design (on a fundamental, rather than scheme, level) anything that provides better value than another engineer.

Best Practice has the potential to provide more specific information, based on focused research and industry experience. As well as providing more current in-sights, it would allow engineers to pick-and-mix information and levels of detail to meet the value/risk relationship that the client is willing to provide; leading to more efficient designs, but requiring more client eduction.

For Value Engineering: Best Practice

Just scratching the surface, it would seem that it’s time to rip up the codes and move to the ‘Best Practice’ standard. Arguably, however, the Eurocodes are a little bit of both; with a mixture of ‘should’ and ‘must’ and a number of mechanisms for altering the fundamental behaviour of the design.

It is this duality may well explain why neither the inexperienced graduates; who crave prescription, or the seasoned engineers; who want freedom, are all that happy to embrace them. As a graduate, already struggling to get to grips with the extensive body of work that is the Eurocodes, therefore, I’m not quite ready to give up the (somewhat) clear and concise instructions that codification brings just yet.

Perhaps you think differently?

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  1. Photo source: John Kittelsrud’s Flickr Feed ( http://www.flickr.com/photos/teamdroid/6778685163/ )

  2. Good Article! I am currently facing the Eurocodes in my new job (local gov’t) having come from a consultancy where British Standards were typically used.

    I find that the Eurocodes are less prescriptive than the BS – but then, because they do have some prescription, you still can’t have full freedom.

    Also, the blasted things are fragmented and scattered across numerous documents, and you constantly need to overwrite rules in one place with rules from another.

    The sum effect is that when I go to design something, I find bits of the process missing – and I don’t know if this is because:
    A) the code is giving me “freedom” to design it using whatever engineering theory I like, or:
    B) the information is just hidden elsewhere.

    This is a massive headache and timesink when trying to produce a design to a deadline!

    As I see it, there is an opportunity to share “Best practice” whilst also helping the less experienced. I would like to see a suite of material-specific, country-specific documents which guide the designer through a Eurocode compliant design by setting out a sensible path of design checks to arrive at a safe design- but then also giving opportunities to branch out from that path to use other, more innovative or complex methods along the way, signposting the potential benefits of the deviation (e.g. X% increased efficiency of design for Y amount of extra effort). In this way you have a prescriptive, confidence building “route” for fresh graduates, (or for a quick and easy design), but which allows experienced engineers to go “off-piste” in places to achieve better efficiencies. And everyone saves time on figuring out the bloody Eurocodes!

    I could see these being published by relevant trade bodies e.g. Concrete Centre, Steel Construction Institute. You could potentially stitch something like this together using online systems like BSI’s Eurocode Plus tool – being online would help to add in the “branches” of new methods as and when they are derived, to keep it relevant. You could even crowd source stats, so engineers could report how long a certain “design branch” has taken them, and how much efficiency savings they got out of it.

    Anyway, just my thoughts!

    • I agree- it’s not the lack of prescription in the Eurocodes that puts the fear into those using them, but the lack of the definitive. Yes, that specific document might not say anything about a check, but that doesn’t mean that one of the 30 legally binding best-practice papers loosely linked through an obscure framework of NCCI/PD references doesn’t set something out.
      Personally I find it like playing a game where someone tells you the rules after you’ve broken them…
      There are a few things out there, have a look at the “Concise Eurocodes”; the problem is, they have a habit of being too concise, so that you leave a set of checks with the nagging feeling that you’ve missed something. As an example, your average overview Eurocode steel guide has a habit of failing to mention the intricacies of picking between the 500 or so steel grades, something that you’ll have to do at one point of the other if you hope to get your structure built…

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