More engineers urgently needed

Bottom storey frame for use in Centralised Rocking Concentrically Braced Frames (CRCBFs), developed by Gary Djojo (L) and Charles Clifton (R).

Bottom storey frame for use in Centralised Rocking Concentrically Braced Frames (CRCBFs), developed by Gary Djojo (L) and Charles Clifton (R).

By Jo Bailey

Engineering is an ‘incredible’ profession for young graduates, particularly in the current climate, says Dr Charles Clifton, a Professor who educates the next generation of structural engineers at the University of Auckland’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“The demand for engineers is probably the highest I can remember. It is an exciting time for students and graduates who can effectively walk into a well paying job at the end of their studies.”

He says a UN report, looking out to 2050, predicts that worldwide demand for civil engineers will continue to increase as the technological challenges facing mankind grow.

“The profession is so busy and I can’t see that changing.”

Dr Clifton says between them the University of Auckland and University of Canterbury don’t come close to meeting New Zealand’s need for new engineers.

“Although there is a high level of interest from students, together we graduate around two thirds of the number of graduates required each year.”

The engineering schools on both campuses are being upgraded which adds extra complexity, as the Universities aim to meet the Government requirement to increase graduate student numbers by 10 percent a year for the next few years.

With the market swallowing up nearly all available engineers at the time they graduate, it is also difficult for the Universities to attract domestic students to post-graduate research, much of which is carried out by international students, he says.

“Many engineers from overseas have to complete Masters and Post Graduate studies to give them New Zealand specific experience.”

When it comes to steel, University of Auckland has a broad and varied research program, including seismic, post earthquake capacity of reinforced concrete, fire, durability, and the development of new materials.

“We do have a unique perspective on the industry,” he says.

Professor Clifton and his PhD student Shahab Ramhormozian presenting the Sliding Hinge Joint (SHJ) model at the 2015 UoA celebration of research excellence.

Professor Clifton and his PhD student Shahab Ramhormozian presenting the Sliding Hinge Joint (SHJ) model at the 2015 UoA celebration of research excellence.

In the general Year 2 to 4 programs, Dr Clifton’s focus is predominantly teaching steel-related topics.

His students get to learn from one of the best as Dr Clifton could almost be described as the ‘godfather’ of the current steel industry in New Zealand.

He was HERA’s structural engineer for nearly 24 years from the early 1980s, and in that time made significant contributions to the New Zealand structural steel industry, being responsible for new and revised standards, the development of widely used guidelines, research program development, and coordinating professional development.

His long and productive collaboration with the University of Auckland goes back to his HERA days and has seen several innovations researched and adopted by the profession.

These include the sliding hinge joint moment resisting frame, which is now widely used in new buildings in New Zealand and is being further developed here, in the USA and Italy..

Steel now accounts for over 60% percent market share in New Zealand, which is a far cry from June 1983, when Dr Clifton joined HERA and the market share of multi storey steel construction in multi-storey non industrial buildings had been effectively zero for around a decade.

There were multiple causes for this, culminating in the drawn out  construction of the high rise BNZ building in Wellington in the 1970s which ran into huge problems and wasn’t completed until the early 1980s due to poor quality steel, poor construction management and militant unions at loggerheads with the government.

“Prime Minister Muldoon decided to make an example of the Boilermakers Union by de-registering them and saying no structural steel was to be used for any more government projects. This effectively killed the use of steel in multi storey buildings.”

By the time Dr Clifton took on the sole charge role as HERA’s structural engineer in 1983 the only people using steel were specialist designers of industrial plants, buildings and equipment.

The steel standards were woefully out of date, with no supporting technical design guidance.

The New Zealand team comprising Harold Aquino, Mehdi Sarrafzadeh and Shahab Ramhormozian with a finished Sliding Hinge Joint (SHJ) model at the 2016 IDEERS competition.

The New Zealand team comprising Harold Aquino, Mehdi Sarrafzadeh and Shahab Ramhormozian with a finished Sliding Hinge Joint (SHJ) model at the 2016 IDEERS competition.

“Unless someone was already an experienced steel designer there was no way they were going to get the opportunity to learn in a New Zealand consulting firm.”

Rather than seeing an insurmountable challenge, Dr Clifton saw it as a “brilliant opportunity” to start from scratch and build a technical foundation on which the steel sector could once again flourish.

“The great thing was there was no expectation I’d be able to produce anything useful as nobody was using steel anyway at the time.”

It took around a year for Dr Clifton to compile enough information to run his first technical seminar on standard structural connections, which took place in the winter of 1984.

“A lot of the detail came from the Australians, where steel had a market share of around nine of 10 percent, a figure that interestingly remains pretty similar today.”

The energy Dr Clifton put into the development of new standards and guidelines and professional developed helped the steel sector to get back on its feet.

In 1986, the first multi-storey steel building constructed in New Zealand for some time was built in Symonds Street, Auckland.

The steel sector looked like it was about to take off, until the sharemarket crash in 1987 saw it dip once again. It wasn’t until 1991 that steel construction of multi storey buildings started to rise in this country and has steadily increased ever since.      

Dr Clifton says the Christchurch earthquakes were a big test for steel structures, which performed extremely well overall.

“One of the interesting outcomes was the performance of composite floors ahead of pre-cast concrete floors during the disaster. This was the first earthquake anywhere in the world to severely test composite floor systems and they came through extra well with virtually no changes needed to their design. Composite floors used to be around 10 percent more expensive than precast floors prior to the earthquakes but the significant changes required to make the design of precast flooring systems more resilient has made them the more expensive option now.”

The appetite for steel and the need for more professionals to work in the steel sector are unlikely to abate.

Over the last three decades New Zealand has had proportionally the biggest increase in the use of steel of any country in the world, going from zero in 1983, to hero in 2016, with an estimated 60 to 65 percent of market share in the current climate.

If we consider this incredible growth and the trajectory of the steel sector over the last 30 years, the work of Dr Charles Clifton during this time is a hugely important single person contribution.

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