CROSS Safety Report
Potentially unsafe software design for steel beams
A steel beam design package makes simplified assumptions that may carry risks if not used by competent engineers.
Key Learning Outcomes
For architects and designers:
- Steel beams used in conjunction with masonry (and elsewhere) must be designed by competent civil and structural design engineers
- Software packages offering automatic design for non-engineers must be treated with caution
For civil and structural design engineers:
- Software should be used as only a part of the complete design process which requires knowledge and experience
- It is good practice to carry out sense checks and validate all design outputs from proprietary design and analysis software
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The Full Report below has been submitted to CROSS and describes the reporter’s experience. The text has been edited for clarity and to ensure anonymity and confidentiality by removing any identifiable details. If you would like to know more about our secure reporting process or submit a report yourself, please visit the reporting to CROSS-UK page.
A website, that has come to the attention of a reporter, offers steel beam design for a very small fee with a quick turnaround. However, it appears that the system relies on the user to assess whether a simple beam will be suitable for the task, and to then provide all the information required for a basic design.
The onus is on the user and the website says calculations and warranty are void if incorrect information is provided. The reporter is concerned that a domestic client, or even some builders, are expected to make the correct assumptions. These include the dimensions of brickwork that must remaining after an opening is made to retain overall stability. Beam lengths can be up to 4m.
While the beam calculations may be satisfactory as a stand-alone entity, it is plainly terrifying, says the reporter, that the website and associated designers state they are not considering overall stability. The whole concept aims to overly simplify what can be very complex domestic structures and put the onus on the builder or client.
While the beam calculations may be satisfactory as a stand-alone entity, it is plainly terrifying, says the reporter, that the website and associated designers state they are not considering overall stability
There is a reason, as engineers, we sit chartership assessments (says the reporter), and it takes many years to achieve this. It is simply not safe to have an un-trained person putting numbers into a website and trusting the output. Again, this is an example of why the industry should be pushing for the legal requirement to have chartered (appropriately qualified and experienced) engineers involved when making structural alterations to dwellings.
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Expert Panel Comments
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These trends are indeed worrying particularly because the website may be used by people who have no knowledge or experience about the risks that may be involved. Many inexperienced designers grasp the concept of bending well enough, but a skill is determining what loads go on to a beam and whether these are UDLs, triangular or point loads, and other issues such as eccentricity. It is important to have sufficient brickwork at the ends of an opening to comply with Part A of the Building Regulations and provide overall stability.
Furthermore, a length of 4m immediately suggests a standard I beam that will need lateral restraint. Interfaces breed danger and if a designer is competent enough to evaluate loads, loading conditions and lateral restraints (and deflection limits), they should need no assistance in working out a beam size. If they do need that assistance, then more fundamental help is required than offered by this website.
Interfaces breed danger and if a designer is competent enough to evaluate loads, loading conditions and lateral restraints (and deflection limits), they should need no assistance in working out a beam size
This report is typical of many over the years that point out deficiencies in supposedly automatic design packages aimed at those who have no, or limited, engineering knowledge. There are no regulations to prevent these systems being sold and the people who are likely to use them will not read CROSS reports. It is therefore up to those who may be a position of influence, such as architects, surveyors, project managers, and local authority checkers to be alert.
The reporter is quite correct to say that it is not safe for engineering design judgement to be made by non-engineers.