Why setting international engineering design standards is so daunting

Professor Steve Denton received the International Medal at the ICE Awards this year, for his outstanding contribution to engineering. He explains why having international design standards are so uniquely important to the industry.

Professor Steve Denton (R) receiving his award from ICE President Andrew Wyllie (L).
Professor Steve Denton (R) receiving his award from ICE President Andrew Wyllie (L).

Success in any complex endeavour is always achieved by teams and not by individuals, which made discovering my colleagues in UK and across Europe had worked together to nominate me for the ICE International Medal a very special moment.

For the past 20 years I have been involved in developing national and international design standards.

It hasn't been my principal professional focus - I've tried to maintain a balance between design projects, consultancy, business leadership, research and teaching – but it’s a field I've specialised in because I think it’s important.

Standardisation is not glamorous. It can be frustrating. But it can also be fun and fulfilling. It's taught me invaluable lessons, given me the opportunity to work with many brilliant engineers around the world, and forge enduring friendships.

The importance of design standards in construction

So, what are the characteristics of the construction sector that make design standards perhaps uniquely important?

Firstly, the scale of our projects means that we don’t typically have an opportunity to test our designs in labs or factories. We need a way to verify their adequacy before they're built – and that’s the primary role of design standards, making sure that essential requirements for safety, serviceability, robustness and durability are met.

Secondly, we work in a fragmented sector where delivery teams, often from multiple companies, are formed for specific tasks, and we see 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’s 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.

As chairman of CEN/TC 250, I have the privilege of leading the development of the second generation of these Eurocodes. It's a daunting undertaking.

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.

Our objective is to create the most up-to-date and user-friendly suite of design standards in the world.

We secured the largest standardisation grant ever made by the European Commission, and we are set to see the first new documents enter their formal voting stages in the coming months. This will be an important milestone, but there’s a long way still to go.

Our ambitions to ‘enhance ease of use’ and ‘achieve exemplary levels of international consensus’ have unified national delegations behind a common purpose, as we navigate the many complex decisions that need to be taken.

A commitment to collaboration

Together, we've learned that building consensus relies on open mindedness, mutual respect and creating common understanding. It doesn’t mean that everyone’s preferences are always achieved – but that we arrive at a conclusion everyone can stand behind.

At a time when so many of the global challenges we face require international collaboration, yet the will is not always there, it's 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's this shared commitment that makes the very early trains to Brussels, or the late nights trying to foster agreements, feel so worthwhile and rewarding.

Get involved

If you know of a deserving person or project, please consider putting them forward for one of the awards this year.

The deadline for submissions is Friday 3 April 2020. The winners are decided by the ICE Awards Committee, with announcements made at the ICE Awards Ceremony on Monday, 4 October 2020.

You can find more information on our ICE Awards page or by contacting the central communications team.


Professor Steve Denton FREng FICE FIStructE is WSP’s Head of Civil, Bridge and Ground Engineering, a Visiting Professor at the University of Bath and the Chairman of CEN/TC 250 – Structural Eurocodes.

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