Lyons O'Neill

The big picture: the role of civil and structural design services within the construction industry

It’s no secret that our industry is rapidly changing. Though the principles may remain the same – creating structures which answer all a client’s needs and work with the local surroundings – the road to delivering these principles looks different as technology and our sector develops. In this period of progress it can be hard to identify a specific job’s responsibilities and the ways in which the role has changed, particularly when the whole process is necessarily so interconnected. But a lack of clarity may mean missing the opportunities and possibilities which are available and confusion is never conducive to efficient and precise working.

So, how do civil and structural design services fit into the 21st century design and construction journey? Director Damian O’Neill explains below.



Engineering design isn’t an add-on after the architect and client have decided on a building’s shape and feel, as these are directly impacted by how a building is constructed and the elements it needs to withstand. Collaboration between the architectural and engineering teams from the very outset of a project is vital in order to create a structure that has both perfect form and function. At Lyons O’Neill we’ve found a way to really strengthen this collaborative relationship, as well as encourage crucial client engagement, is to get our engineers to sketch their solutions at an early stage of the project. Their sketches express the planned hierarchy of load path within a structural system and the options that are available – these illustrations are a valuable tool with which to simplify and convey complex technical information and make sure everyone in the design process is on the same page.

It’s important to get the civil and structural design right as any issues at this planning stage, if ignored or left unattended, may cause costly delays further down the line. However, that doesn’t mean that errors in the design can’t be rectified later. For example, Lyons O’Neill were brought on to the award-winning Heathfield Academy project at a late stage in the design process and discovered that the initially agreed structural design was actually unable to accommodate the services required. Returning to the planning stage wasn’t an option as the project was in the education sector and had strict term deadlines. To find a solution, we completed a full review of the existing structural steel scheme and developed a range of alternative schemes which would meet the client’s brief – once chosen, we were able to modify the structure to incorporate the services design but leave the façade untouched which removed the need to go back to the planning stage.

Other examples of creative fixes to design issues? We worked on Gatwick Diamond with Willmott Dixon who, due to subcontractor availability and programme, asked us to progress the project as a steel alternative despite its initial conception by the client as an RC structure. Again, our decade of experience meant we quickly developed an alternative, based on a Westok ultra shallow floor beam system, and helped create another award-winning structure with Gatwick Diamond named as a regional winner at the LABC Building Excellence Awards 2017.



As is true in practically every area of life, on paper many designs may work but it’s putting them into practice that is the real test. That’s why design testing and site examinations are crucial elements of the engineering process – not all sites are created equal and each involves a unique combination of factors. Our site research for the redevelopment of the Baylis Old School development, for example, revealed that the existing structure potentially used high alumina cement construction. This meant we had to devise a rigorous series of load testing and sampling so we could justify the structure for its new use as accommodation.

Sites may also pose a challenge in terms of access and this also is something you can’t afford to take lightly. One of the key obstacles to be overcome during our Red Bridge House project was that the woodland retreat was situated midway down a single track lane! With the impossibility of getting a significant crane to site, our structural solution revolved around creating smaller elements which would fit together to make the larger whole of the house.

A thorough examination of the site in question can be important in other ways, too, such as in meeting environment and sustainability targets. When working on the Phoenix Housing Community Association Headquarters we found that the existing basement areas were perfect for reuse for the attenuation tanks and this played a large part in the project achieving a BREEAM Excellent rating.



An engineer’s role doesn’t end once plans have been finalised and agreed. Although a carefully planned and tested design should result in a smooth project, construction doesn’t happen in a vacuum and there may be new issues to address along the way. The engineering team should always be on hand throughout a project’s construction to assist with any questions and ensure the programme is completed on budget and on schedule. It’s not until the opening ribbon is cut that we file away our work and add a project to our portfolio!