Eurocodes are increasingly becoming the prime design tool for structural engineers, but what changes lie ahead for engineers in Ireland in terms of Eurocodes evolution and how will Brexit affect them? Paul Devine investigates

This article considers the impact of the Eurocodes in Ireland and why they are increasingly becoming the prime design tool for structural engineers. The background to the code development is explained along with a description of their future evolution. And of course, no discussion of the relevance of the Eurocodes in Ireland could be complete without recognition of the influence of Brexit.

How did we get here?

Eurocodes have been part of our engineering lives for the best part of a decade. But not everyone has accepted them smoothly, which is hardly surprising given how opposed to change we engineers can be. The Eurocodes required a significant change to the way we do things.

“But do we have to change?” was the cry of many practitioners on their introduction. After all, the requirements of Ireland’s Building Control Regulations are performance based and not reliant on particular standards being used.

They do not prohibit the use of alternative standards to those referred to in the Technical Guidance Documents, provided that the relevant requirements of the regulations are complied with. Perhaps we could just continue with the comfort blanket of familiarity that the British Standards provided us? To examine this, it is probably best to look at the origins of the Eurocodes and the connected legislation that interact with them with a whistle-stop tour.

The Eurocodes actually have their origin back as far as 1975. The European Commission decided on an action programme in the field of construction. The objective of the programme was to eliminate technical obstacles to trade and the harmonisation of technical specifications. The Commission, with the help of a steering committee with representatives of the member states, conducted the development of the Eurocodes programme, which led to the first generation of European codes in the late 1980s.

However these standards were considered to lack the quality of professional standards and so, in 1989, the Commission decided to transfer the preparation and the publication of the Eurocodes to the European Committee for Standardization (CEN). By 2006, CEN transposed these experimental standards into full standards.

On 31 March 2010, all national codes, which conflicted with the Eurocodes, were withdrawn in each EU member state including Ireland. Interestingly and somewhat confusingly, our Technical Guidance Document (TGDA) was not updated until 2012 to include the Eurocodes as practical guidance on meeting the requirements of Part A (Structure).

However, this support for the use of Eurocodes was swiftly followed by the Construction Products Regulations in July 2013, which made CE marking of construction products mandatory. This was followed in 2016 by the EU Public Procurement Directive, which makes it mandatory for all member states to accept design in Eurocodes.

If an engineer chooses not to use Eurocodes, but instead stick with the previous British Standard design tools, they will be using out-of-date codes that are no longer supported by the National Standards authorities nor directly referenced as a suitable method of fulfilling the requirements of the Irish building regulations. It seems reasonable to say that adoption of the Eurocodes as the default design tool is a sensible decision.

What happens next?

But, as one famous comedian used to say – there’s more! The good people at CEN have not simply rested on their laurels: the Eurocodes are evolving. No sooner have we got used to them than they are likely to change again, and all this in an industry that is resolutely against change.

During 2014, a six-year programme of work, supported by the European Commission, was launched to develop the next generation of European standards for structural and geotechnical design. This set of new Standards is expected to be published in 2020 and will embrace new technologies and market needs, to extend their scope, improve their ease of use and to reduce the number of national parameters.

The technical work under this programme is to be carried out in four overlapping phases, of roughly three-and-a-half year’s duration each. The phases are different for each of the codes, but generally follow a system of addressing major issues in the general code in phase one, moving toward the more specific item code parts in later phases.

Phase one is progressing well and is likely to produce the final drafts for delivery this month. The call for phase-two experts has been completed and the project teams have been identified. A quote has been submitted to the Commission for phases three and four, slightly ahead of schedule. The call for experts for phase three will be in about one year’s time and then phase four about one year later.

The current version of the EN Eurocodes results from a long and dedicated effort from the Commission, the Member States and particularly the European Union civil/mechanical engineering scientific and technical community who drafted the normative documents, developed and achieved various research projects aiming at clarifying several scientific and technical aspects to be finally approved by the Member States.

A sustained development of the Eurocodes programme is necessary to preserve the users’ confidence in the codes and continue to strive towards meeting the overall objectives regarding equality in the internal market. Long-term confidence in the codes is based on the ability of the structural Eurocodes to evolve in an appropriate manner in order to address the variety of new methods, new materials, new regulatory requirements and new societal needs developing.

Naturally during this development we can be certain that there will be differences/disagreements between members but when that happens, experts need to work together and understand the other nationalities perspective.

One of the key considerations is on document usability, a key concern for many when first taking up the Eurocodes. The codes will be re-drafted with a single consistent set of drafting rules to give a consistency across the suite, which hopefully will make familiarity more achievable.

But won’t Brexit change everything?

Quite clearly, it is impossible to present a serious discussion of the future of the Eurocodes in Ireland without due consideration of the impact of Brexit. The UK is our largest trading partner by far and in terms of the construction industry is in effect our only trading partner. It is fairly well known that the reluctance of Irish engineers to accept the transition to Eurocodes reflects as almost screaming enthusiasm when compared to the British practitioners.

Indeed, the UK engineers have shown the greatest resistance of all member states to adopt the codes, often re-writing whole tracts of the code via careful manipulation of the National Annexes. Surely, then, a UK exit will inevitably cause a rejection of the Eurocodes there and a return to their British Standards? And, due to our close relationship, will we be in a strange position of carrying out Eurocodes designs in Ireland and British Standard design for UK projects?

Well, in a word, no. The UK will almost certainly not retreat from the Eurocodes. There are several reasons for this:

  1. There has been no work to update British Standards for at least a decade, with the available resource being focused on the Eurocodes effort. The codes are now out of date and would require considerable investment to bring u to current standards. Further difficulties would occur because many of the original code writers who would have understood the reason behind some of the content are no longer available.
  2. The UK industry, despite a slow start, has developed its design aids, software and explanatory material to compliment the Eurocodes at some considerable investment.
  3. The Eurocodes represent the most comprehensive and current suite of design guidance available anywhere worldwide. They are developing with the latest research and contain the best information available to the industry.
  4. Each of the learned bodies that supply support information to the industry (TRDAD, SCI, the Concrete Centre, etc) have stated clearly that there is no expectation of anything other than to continue with the Eurocodes.
  5. Most importantly, EU membership is not a requirement for using the Eurocodes. It is not just European countries that have moved to Eurocodes implementation, but markets as far afield as Hong Kong and Malaysia. Even more importantly, CEN is not part of the European Union, but a separate organisation that is linked to it. Being in the European Union is not a requirement to be a member of CEN and contribute to the Eurocodes development. The UK can therefore withdraw membership of the Union but remain in CEN and indeed be key leaders in the development of the Eurocodes.

Ultimately, there is not an appetite in the UK to return to British Standards from the bodies that make those decisions and considering the inconvenience and expense that it would entail the prospect is not a realistic one. The Eurocodes are already rebranded as British Standards in the UK and this situation continuing is the most likely outcome.

The publication of the first generation of Structural Eurocodes was a huge achievement representing the culmination of over 30 years of collaborative effort. With the obvious connection to the Construction Products Regulations and Public Procurement Directive, it would be fair to say that the Eurocodes are here and they are not going away.

Learn more about the Eurocodes at the following three courses run by Engineers Ireland in 22 Clyde Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4:

Paul Devine CEng MSc BEng PgDip MICE MIEI, associate at O’Connor Sutton Cronin O'RiordanCivilEuropean Union,regulations,structures and construction
This article considers the impact of the Eurocodes in Ireland and why they are increasingly becoming the prime design tool for structural engineers. The background to the code development is explained along with a description of their future evolution. And of course, no discussion of the relevance of the...