I am writing this article as a response to the many enquiries received by 48.3 from people asking “how do I become a scaffold designer?”. Over the course of the past 12 months alone, 48.3 have received well over 100 enquires of this nature, from many different people in many different positions, generally all wanting the same thing; a career in scaffold design.
I will cover all the main aspects to consider when weighing up whether this profession is for you. There are many misconceptions, but I believe, as I said to one gentleman recently “I would prefer that you go onto this knowing all the facts at the start, than starting, only to find out the hard truths later on!”
The only caveat I will place on this at the start is that these are only my views on the subject; there are people out there that will disagree or have done something different. In the 14 years I have been designing scaffolding, I have personally trained 21 people and provide mentoring to around a dozen more. That’s not hundreds, but it’s a few, and more than most. They range from graduate engineers to ex-scaffolders. I have also written a complete training programme for Draughtsman and Engineers that 48.3 deliver to our own staff and external training clients. It is the results of this programme that gives me the confidence to speak with authority on this subject, as the results have been spectacular.
The aim of the article would be to encourage new people into the profession and raise awareness of what great scaffold design involves. (Like all industries) Scaffold Design has its share of ‘chancers’ and incompetent people, if this article exposes those people then great, if it encourages them to improve, even better. If anyone reading this would like my help then please ask – that is my duty to this industry and how I am committed to making a difference.
So what is Scaffold Design?
The first thing to get straight is that scaffold design engineers are (or should be) professional engineers. They are civil or structural engineers that specialise in the design of temporary works, and within the field of temporary works, they specialise in the design of scaffolding – a niche within a niche! This is important as it governs your mindset and your actions when carrying out your role and the importance of completing CPD (Continued Professional Development).
The design of scaffolding is similar to most other engineering professions – we solve problems. In this case, the problems involve providing access, support, propping, encapsulation and a whole host of other things, in a safe and cost effective way. In creating those ‘solutions’ an engineer could visit site, survey, create design briefs, risk assess, plan methods, draw, calculate, assess, check and plan. They have to communicate excellently, liaise with many other people and trades, all with their own priorities, be diligent and professional, and most importantly, create a solution that is fit for purpose, build-able and commercially viable. These last three are critical.
Do you need to be an ex-scaffolder to design scaffolding?
No. However understanding the practicalities of scaffolding is key skill for any scaffold designer… in fact, its more important than that, it’s critical. If you don’t understand how the scaffold will be built, and be able to built it in your own mind as you design it, you will invariably create a design that cannot be built, or be unnecessarily difficult, complex or time consuming, usually making the scaffold commercially challenging.
One of the most valuable experiences of my career to date came when working as the design manager at Tone Scaffolding. Up to that point, I had never worked for a scaffolding contractor. One of my designs was being critiqued by the owner, Andy Needham (link), he asked me if, during the production of the design, I had considered every possible option for a particular beam fixing, and in doing so, was I absolutely sure that it could not be done with less fittings? I thought I had (or at least, done my best in the time I had available), but the truth is, I hadn’t considered everything. After a 30 minute discussion, it transpired that, for a large section of the scaffold the beam anchorage could be done with one less fitting, and on a smaller part within that, two less! “Whoooa!” I hear you say. Well, the truth is, it mattered. Adding up all the fittings over the whole job meant a big saving on labour time and cost. At that point, the ‘commercial’ penny dropped.
The reason I shared that story is because it’s obvious for scaffolders – that’s the basics. But I can assure you it’s not obvious to a design engineer that does not understand the practicalities of scaffolding. The following day I went into the yard and built that beam fixing. I checked it, I saw the tight space to turn the spanner against the wall, I saw what a saving going from six to five fittings was. I learnt a valuable lesson that day; my designs, and my team’s designs, have not been the same since.
Lets consider this in a different way. To design structural steelwork do you need to have spent time fixing it and bolting it together? To design concrete do you need to have spent time mixing it or fixing rebar? To design timber do you need to spent time as a lumberjack or in a mill? No, No, No. So why is there this misconception that you must have to have ‘done your time on the tools’ to design scaffolding (or any job in scaffolding for that matter)?
I’m not underestimating the importance of practical scaffolding knowledge, every scaffolder has a story of getting a design that couldn’t be built, and that, I find very embarrassing for the scaffold design profession – that fact that this mistake is so common. You must understand it, you must appreciate it, but you don’t have to spend years doing it. It comes back to the definition of what scaffold design engineers are – professional engineers, not scaffolders who can draw. Therefore, anyone who wants to make a move from practical scaffolding to scaffolding design must get this mindset right at the start.
“So what did you do at the start to get the practical experience?” I hear you ask. Well, when I started as a graduate engineer with Alwyn Richards in 2004 the first thing I did was read BS 5973 cover to cover – twice. Then again after I had asked a huge number of questions to Alwyn (he was very patient!). Next I went and carried gear around in a local clients yard for a week or so to learn what the materials and components were and also go for a ‘long stand’, a ‘glass hammer’ and alike. Then I went and did my Part 1. That’s when I realised how hard it is to top out a 21’ at chest height (very valuable lesson for staggering joints and specifying tube lengths!). That’s when I developed a healthy respect for the challenges of erecting scaffolding competently, compliantly and quickly. Alwyn has many years of scaffolding experience, and I was very fortunate to learn from him, he was a great teacher and I was very lucky (Thank you Alwyn).
In conclusion, no you don’t have to be an ex-scaffolder to design scaffolding, but you must be able to build the scaffold you design in your mind. You must understand the challenges scaffolders face erecting scaffolding generally, and in compliance with SG4, and then at a sufficient speed that makes it commercially viable. Apply that understanding to your design solutions and you’ll be better than most – that’s what I think.
I am a scaffolder and want to get into design
STEP 1: Start with the end in mind.
Know what you want to do: have a goal to work towards, do you want to be a Technical Design Draughtsman (TTD), Design Engineer (DE) or a Senior Design Engineer or Principal Engineer?
To provide an understanding of what is involved with each role, here are some common tasks associated within each one in a scaffolding design office:
Technical Design Draughtsman (TDD): site survey, hazard identification and risk assessment, brief creation, solution creation, development and appraisal, production of design drawings and modeling, checking of all previous.
Design Engineers (DE): site survey, hazard identification and risk assessment, brief creation, solution creation, development and appraisal, production of design calculations including 2D and 3D frame analysis, foundation design, design checking.
Principal Engineers (PE): site survey, hazard identification and risk assessment, brief creation, solution creation, development and appraisal, production of design calculations including 2D and 3D frame analysis, design checking, overall design responsibility.
All these roles have commonalities, a great mindset, positive attitude, motivation, patience and the right academic qualification are must have’s.
You are likely to find that a draughtman will spend the majority of their time drawing, similarly a senior engineer may spend a lot of time doing calculations, checking designs and mentoring.
Once you have established what you want long-term then there is nothing better than to talk to people, read codes of practice and industry guidance, find out exactly what is involved with each role, and then decide which one you want to go for. There is nothing to stop you becoming and TDD and then progressing into a role of a DE during your career.
If you don’t have any academic qualifications then you will need to look at local colleges and universities and see what courses they offer, in what format (part time, full time, day or evening etc.) and how much they cost. The first step is likely to be an HNC or HND. I would recommend studying Civil Engineering or Structural Engineering. Avoid other watered down subjects. Check that the course you are looking at is accredited by the JBM (Joint Board of Moderators) to meet the academic requirements for membership of the ICE (Institution of Civil Engineers) or IStructE (Institution of Structural Engineers) through the Engineering Council.
Its is my recommendation that Technical Draughtsmen target Engineering Technician (EngTech) membership of the ICE or IStructE, and Design Engineers target Incorporated (IEng) membership. There is also nothing to stop you working towards Chartership in the future if that is where you want to go.
The minimum academic qualification for EngTech membership is an HND. The minimum academic qualification for IEng is a Bachelors Degree (BEng). If you want to pursue Chartership then you will have to complete a masters degree (MEng). There are other routes to membership that you can pursue if you have significant industry experience, and if this is of interest, I would suggest contacting the ICE or IStructE and discussing it with your local membership officer.
STEP 2: “Walk a mile in another man’s shoes” (or women’s shoes!)
Ideally before you enroll at college or quit your job or do anything drastic, try and find somewhere to get some work experience or do some shadowing. If you can arrange a work trial, placement, internship or secondment and you can fit it in with existing commitments, then this would be ideal.
The reason I think this is important is so that you see what it’s actually like working day-in, day-out in this role. There are plenty of misconceptions out there about scaffold design and many people will be in for a reality check.
Here are some of the considerations to make:
- You are moving from a professional scaffolder to a professional engineer – they are entirely different.
- You will be going from a manual, outdoors job to an office based, indoor job. If you like doing things with your hands, or being active all day, the change could be difficult.
- Your mindset and motivation will have to change – not necessarily increase, just change. You will have new motivating factors that drive your work ethic and new challenges that will test your mindset and attitude.
- You will probably have to take a pay-cut initially if you were a Part 2 or Advanced Scaffolder, charge-hand or foreman. You will be competing for jobs with graduate engineers in a different job market and the pay is different.
- Your working hours may change and that could affect your routines at home or with family.
Once you have seen what it’s really like, then you can make an informed decision. You may see that design isn’t for you, and better learning that now than after spending thousands of pounds on education and years of study time. If that happens to you, see it as a positive, not a negative – you’ve just avoided a big waste of your time.
STEP 3: Enroll at College or University
The next thing to do would be to enroll at college or university and start your studies. Scaffolders that I know who have made the transition generally did one of two things:
Option 1: Studied part-time at a local college or university, usually evening classes, whilst they continued to work during the day. Open University or institutions with distance learning courses could be a good fit also. Often people have to tighten their belts now and save money to pay for their studies and in preparation for a potential pay cut when they have finished.
Option 2: Find a scaffolding contractor with a in-house design team, or an independent design consultancy (like 48.3) who are recruiting for trainee positions. This would have the benefit of getting straight into the role and getting valuable experience, whilst studying part-time. It is likely that the company will pay for your course, however this would be a trainee / assistant role, and attract a relatively low salary.
Usually, scaffolders with few dependencies (young families to support or mortgages to pay) can afford to choose option 2. The costs of part-time courses vary by institution, location, and course type and delivery method. Student loans are available to anyone going into further or higher education.
How 48.3’s team operates
48.3 operates a distinct design process from an initial enquiry through to delivering a fantastic solution. Our technical staff are in three main groups: technical draughtsperson, design engineers and principal engineers. Resources and delivery is managed by a design manager or team leader. Our project teams are made up of combinations of people from these three groups, and they depend on the size, complexity, and deadline of a project. Resources are combined across the business and people are working daily with other team members in other locations by leveraging modern technology for communication, file sharing and project management.
All roles have responsibility for design compliance and improvement in terms of quality and process. Quality of the end product takes preference over everything else – that is one of the cornerstones of our operating principles. At 48.3 there is no difference in importance between roles. Every role has different key result areas and areas of responsibility, and if one is not completed perfectly, the project isn’t delivered perfectly. This means the work done by a draughtsperson is no less important than the work done by a principal engineer and vice versa – we are a team, and every player is critical.
Some companies believe that all staff should be design engineers (or fulfil this role) and then do everything in the delivery of a project. 48.3 very occasionally work like this, but not often. We focus on strengths and deliver projects based on the strengths of people within roles. If you are a sole trader or working alone, then you have no choice – do everything and anything that needs doing.
I hope this article has given you an insight into what a career in scaffold design would be like and what the journey would be like to get there. If you want something enough, you can achieve it.
As Mark Twain said “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do, than the ones you did.”
Founder & Managing Director of 48.3
Director of the Temporary Works Forum
This article was first published in the Winter 2017 issue of the ScaffMag magazine. View Issue