Throughout the global engineering profession, there is an ongoing academic discussion about the need to contextualise risk for society in an increasingly complex and interconnected world. Structural engineers, as experts in risk associated with the built environment, are more often relied upon to explain the contemporary concept of risk to clients, partners, and associates.

Grant Roe, BE(Hons) MEngSc MBA MIEAust CPEng NER, Managing Director, Costin Roe Consulting, is a leader in the profession of structural engineering in Australia. Costin Roe Consulting, a multiple award-winning civil and structural engineering firm with offices in NSW, VIC, and QLD, is renowned for its involvement in high-bay warehousing and infrastructure projects.

In the 2016 article, ‘Structural reliability and risk-informed decision-making by property owners‘, Grant Roe referred to ISO 2394 in explaining the management of risk as a balance between event probability and commercial feasibility. Construction costs rise in proportion to the degree of risk mitigation. It is therefore not practical to extend mitigation measures to meet the consequences of every conceivable possibility.

Risk and probability

Chaos theory: when the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.

Engineers rely on deep knowledge and numerous tools, calculations, and codes to make structural determinations and recommendations. In Australia, as in many nations, buildings tend to be ‘over-engineered’ in that the basic loadbearing and resistance qualities of buildings must be many times greater than necessary to withstand whatever could be reasonably predicted to occur across the building’s entire lifespan. Accordingly, people in Australia can be given high confidence in the structural reliability of buildings whether residential, commercial, civic, or industrial.

Still, anywhere in the world, events of remote probability will occasionally occur. The freak hail-and-ice storm which swept through the Eastern Creek area of Sydney on Anzac Day in 2015, causing several warehouses to collapse, has been cited as an example of a relatively improbable event which occurred. This is where insurance plays a continuing role in structure-related risk management, the insurer making their own expert calculations on exposure to risk, and setting premiums accordingly.

The ‘Internet Of Things’ (interconnectivity) and risk

Chaos theory: Double-compound-pendulum

The double-rod pendulum animation is one of the simplest dynamical representations of chaos.

The 4th Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0) – beyond computers and automation towards cyber-physical systems/AI (artificial intelligence) – impacts all levels of society and industry. Buildings are made ‘intelligent’ from the design engineering in BIM through to completion, occupancy, and ongoing utility. Building documentation can be managed in a live digital environment, with sensors and other indicators effectively feeding real-time building performance intelligence back into the building. “The greatest challenge in engineering today remains the management of human knowledge,” said Grant Roe of the need to capture more expert professional knowledge, from engineers themselves, into the clusters of data which comprise the growing wealth of structural intelligence.

With the huge amount of information on building performance being continually updated and analysed, along with information about associated impacts and environmental happenings (‘big data’), there is further reassurance of structural reliability for the greater community. The connectivity and immediate accessibility of information in Industry 4.0 mean that building codes, regulations, and practices will be updated more rapidly in the future if required in response to evident change. These responsive adjustments could swing both ways, over time, in that while engineering requirements may be increased to mitigate emerging risk, there may also be instances where engineering requirements could be reduced, such as if the probability of a specific type of risk is diminished by the emerging volume and detail of information about the risk factor.

In the meantime, while some element of risk is always a fact of Life, it’s reassuring to keep in proper perspective the risks generally associated with structural engineering and building construction. According to a recent article in ‘The Structural Engineer’, an authoritative international magazine for professional engineers, the risk of death from structural failure is about the same as the risk of being struck and killed by lightning. “It does happen,” said Grant Roe, “but rarely and unpredictably.”

References: – article by Professor Richard Clegg and Simon Pitchers – structural engineering commentary citing Grant Roe BE(Hons) MEngSc MBA MIEAust CPEng NER – chaos theory explanation